Don’t call it a comeback: the FlamesNation 2023-24 Calgary Flames season preview
Photo credit:© Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
By Ryan Pike1 month ago
It’s been challenging to get a handle on what the Calgary Flames are over the past decade. Over their past 10 seasons, dating back to 2013-14, they’ve made the playoffs five times and missed them five times. They won the Pacific Division twice but failed to capitalize on the momentum those breakthrough seasons generated.
Coming off a tremendously disappointing 2022-23 season and featuring a lot of new faces – and dare we suggest, some new hope – it’s up to the Flames to set a foundation in 2023-24 for the years ahead and give fans some hope. After all, the key pieces of the current team will be around for awhile.
The Flames entered the 2021-22 season with a lot of optimism. Well-earned optimism. Sure, the Flames lost Johnny Gaudreau to free agency after he opted to play closer to home – but not too close. Sure, Matthew Tkachuk opted to take his talents elsewhere, but he and Brad Treliving orchestrated a trade with Florida that netted the Flames promising blueliner MacKenzie Weegar, puck-moving forward Jonathan Huberdeau, prospect Cole Schwindt and a first-round pick. The first-round pick was packaged with oft-injured forward Sean Monahan to Montreal, which opened up the cap space to sign power forward Nazem Kadri.
But a lot went wrong for the Flames that dashed the promise of 2022-23.
The long and the short of it was that the vibes weren’t great. The three big new pieces didn’t really click. Kadri got off to a good start, but he seemed to gradually get less effective over the course of the season as his short summer after a Stanley Cup – and the physical toll of that win – caught up with him. Huberdeau seemed a bit shell-shocked about the abrupt transition from Florida to Calgary, and required a deft touch to ease him into a new role. Instead, he got Darryl Sutter, who seemed completely unsure of how to handle his new prize forward and used him on his off-wing for nearly three months. Weegar gradually figured out the Flames’ system and his new city, and was excellent after the All-Star Break… but it took him until the All-Star Break.
And after winning the Jack Adams Award the previous season as the league’s top coach, as voted by the broadcasters, Sutter was extra Suttery. He rolled four lines fairly evenly, nearly to a fault. Heck, he would use his fourth line late in close games. (The logic of keeping your key players fresh for the full season makes some sense, but at some point you also need to lean on your aces.) He would shake up his forward lines in-between games, sometimes even while the team was on a streak of good play. (And let’s not even get into the team’s woeful power play and overtime results.)
Young players were rarely integrated, even when on the roster, which became a reported point of contention between Sutter and general manager Brad Treliving. Both Matthew Phillips – whose call-up was announced via an odd “general manager Brad Treliving announces…” phrasing – and Jakob Pelletier spent two weeks on the roster before getting into the lineup. And then Sutter pretended to not remember Pelletier’s number after his NHL debut, leading to reported hand-wringing about Sutter’s conduct and the presence of Flames CEO John Bean at his next press conference.
Over the past decade, the Flames have struggled with managing expectations, both internal and external. And while coaching wasn’t the entire reason that 2022-23 went sideways, decisions made by the head coach certainly didn’t help. And despite all of these challenges, they still missed the playoffs by just three points.
After a year defined by bad vibes, the Flames organization has made a bunch of changes over the off-season seemingly designed to help improve the vibes. Longtime assistant general manager (and former captain) Craig Conroy succeeded Treliving as GM. Longtime assistant coach Ryan Huska succeeded Sutter as head coach. And after two seasons without a captain, longtime alternate captain Mikael Backlund was given the C. Heck, Jarome Iginla re-joined the club as an advisor to Conroy and Marc Savard returned to the club after 22 years away to run the power play as assistant coach.
But while the vibes will be different, the team will look pretty similar to 2022-23’s edition. The Flames’ opening roster contains 15 returnees from the same time a year ago, and most of the turnover came on the fringes. The most significant departure is goal-scoring forward Tyler Toffoli, and the most significant additions are forwards Matt Coronato and Yegor Sharangovich. The swap-out of some older players for younger models could make the team a bit faster overall, but the shape of the team is very similar to a season ago – though the departure of Toffoli will make it a bit tougher for the team to score goals.
And therein lies the challenge in predicting what version of the Flames we’ll see over the next 82 games. Their 2021-22 dominance was legitimate, but it was also boosted by some great puck luck. Their 2022-23 struggles definitely were amplified by some bad puck luck, but they also made catastrophic mistakes at terrible times. In a sense, their amazing results in 2021-22 and their horrible results in 2022-23 were mirages; they’re not quite as good or bad as we’ve seen over the past two seasons. Their true level is somewhere in-between.
Are the Flames good enough to return to the playoffs? On paper, yes. But after a season where so many players had challenges, a bit of skepticism is both understandable and probably warranted until we see how they look under Huska’s guidance. Given how competitive the Pacific Division looks to be, the Flames are probably right on the playoff bubble; they’re a good week away from making the playoffs comfortably, or a bad week away from missing by a painfully small margin. Again.
The Flames are a team that’s been stuck on the proverbial see-saw for the past decade, if not longer, alternating between good and bad results. Don’t call it a comeback, they’ve been here for years. And while the Flames want to break the cycle of ups and downs and finally string a few good seasons together, they need to have a good 2023-24 first.
Get your tickets for the FlamesNation Season Home Opener party, and come hang out with us at Greta Bar while we watch the Flames take on the Winnipeg Jets in their season opener!
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