Photo credit:Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
The Calgary Flames enter the All-Star break with a fittingly pedestrian .500 record
By Mike Gould25 days ago
Call it symmetry, call it mediocrity, call it a mere coincidence, but the Calgary Flames are exactly .500 with the All-Star break now upon us.
Saturday’s 1-0 win over the Chicago Blackhawks ensured that the Flames would head into their extended respite with a 22-22-5 record. They won’t get a chance to move above or below .500 again until Feb. 6, when they visit the Boston Bruins.
If the 2023-24 NHL regular season were to end today, the Flames would have the ninth-best odds of winning the draft lottery. If the draft unfolded according to Bob McKenzie’s list, Calgary would select defenceman Zayne Parekh; they’d be a long, long way away from the likes of Macklin Celebrini and Anton Silayev at the top of the table. Celebrini is the consensus No. 1 pick, something the Flames have never once had.
But the Flames also aren’t all that close to a playoff spot. Even with the L.A. Kings having lost 13 of their last 15 games, the Flames remain four points back of their SoCal rivals for a wild card position. The Edmonton Oilers, winners of 16 in a row? Forget it.
Yes, the Flames beat the Blackhawks on Saturday night. But they certainly didn’t do so in convincing fashion. If not for starting goaltender Jacob Markstrom, the Flames might’ve been shellacked by a team so devoid of talent that Jason Dickinson, Colin Blackwell, Joey Anderson, and Taylor Raddysh are all playing top-six minutes.
Somehow, the 5-on-5 expected goal battle between the Flames and Blackhawks was nearly equal on Saturday night, with Calgary generating 2.41 to Chicago’s 2.22. The Flames hung Markstrom out to dry for much of the first two periods, giving the Blackhawks chance after chance to go in all alone on the 2022 Vezina runner-up. Markstrom was the best player on either team, stopping all 32 shots he faced for his second shutout of the season.
What does that say about where these Flames are at? That after losing back-to-back-to-back-to-back games to Toronto, Edmonton, St. Louis, and Columbus (!!!), they were able to muster up just one goal against a Chicago team that was built with the purpose of losing?
At least this year’s Blackhawks team exists with a pretty clear purpose. At first a showcase for super rookie Connor Bedard, the Blackhawks have since embarked upon a crucial mission to get the 18-year-old phenom some more help in the coming draft. Losing is a feature, not a bug, especially as Bedard continues to recover from jaw surgery.
The Flames are an extremely successful business enterprise. The Saddledome is still pretty full most nights. This ain’t 1998. Off the ice, the Flames don’t need saving. On the ice, they very much do. Right this minute, they lack any coherent goal as a franchise.
Ask yourself: three years from now, what will the core of this Flames team look like? Who will be their three most significant cornerstone players? Will they be Connor Zary, Matt Coronato, and Dustin Wolf? All three of those players have lots of things going for them. But take a look at the real measuring sticks: Colorado (Makar/MacKinnon/Rantanen), Edmonton (McDavid/Draisaitl/Bouchard), Vegas (Eichel/Stone/Theodore), and Vancouver (Pettersson/Hughes/Demko).
It’s unfair to Zary and Co. to even attempt a comparison there. It’s also tough to include guys like Yegor Sharangovich and Andrew Mangiapane, both of whom can become unrestricted free agents after next season and will be at or near 30 in three years’ time. Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar will be 33; Nazem Kadri will be 36.
For multiple reasons, the Flames cannot afford to remain a .500 team. One one hand, .500 teams just don’t make the playoffs in this league anymore. On the other, very few .500 teams are ever afforded the opportunity to draft centres of Elias Pettersson’s calibre. And a team located in Calgary — particularly one that isn’t even in the playoff picture — will seldom ever have the pull to buy superstar players like Jack Eichel and Mark Stone, like Vegas did.
The draft is pretty much impossible to predict. The best strategy is to pick high and often. Well, the Flames haven’t made a top-10 selection in eight years (Matthew Tkachuk was the last one) and they’ve made fewer than their initial allotment of seven picks in seven of the last 10 drafts. The Flames added just nine players in the last two drafts combined. The cupboards are far from being stocked.
Even so, as any of us here at FlamesNation will readily say, the Flames’ scouting staff has made some recent picks that are tracking well. Sam Honzek, Etienne Morin, Aydar Suniev, and Parker Bell are all intriguing prospects. Zary, Wolf, Coronato, Jakob Pelletier, and Jeremie Poirier have all excelled in the pro ranks, with Zary having done the most damage of that group in the NHL thus far. To its very real credit, this team has some pretty capable amateur scouts.
Yes, there are a few solid pieces in place. But the Flames have neither the volume nor the top-end guys currently in their prospect pipeline to be successful going forward without a significant overhaul. If these Flames are actually serious about winning the Stanley Cup at any point in the foreseeable future, the last thing they need is to stay at .500 going forward.
This team’s best course of action is to move on from Chris Tanev, Elias Lindholm, Noah Hanifin, and potentially Jacob Markstrom as soon as possible. If that means Buffalo, Montreal, and Minnesota pass Calgary in the standings, so be it. The Flames are being unnecessarily buoyed by their trio of pending UFAs. To sign any of them would be a folly. This season isn’t going well — they had might as well embrace it.
Let’s go back in time by about a decade. Bob Hartley had his supporters and (many) detractors. The Flames never played with a particularly robust system while Hartley was head coach and their underlying numbers were consistently poor during his tenure. But one thing they did do well under his watch was adopt a lunchpail-type style that made them easy to cheer for amidst the losses. Although the 2013-14 Flames finished 27th in the league, they were pretty entertaining to watch from Game 1 to 82.
These current Flames simply aren’t good enough to justify not having some of the top lottery odds in the coming seasons. They certainly aren’t Stanley Cup contenders or anywhere close. Their top-paid players are only getting older — with few reinforcements at the ready — and the team isn’t even winning now. If the goal is to win the Stanley Cup (and it had better be!), a coherent plan to achieve that goal needs to be put in place. It just isn’t happening with the roster in its current state.
If anything, the Flames should be looking to enter this year’s draft (and probably next year’s, too) with multiple picks in the first and second rounds. Given how few picks they’ve made of late, the Flames have more than enough room in their developmental system to accommodate some extra prospects.
Let’s return to the question posed earlier: Three years from now, what will the core of this Flames team look like? Once again: Zary, Coronato, and Wolf could play significant roles on a strong NHL team at some point down the line. Zary is already playing at an extremely high level. But those three players don’t necessarily project be at the forefront of a core group, and, in any event, they’ll need lots of help. If the Flames plan a few years into the future instead of trying to “retool” for next season, they could start to pick up some serious steam well before someone like Zary (who will be 23 in September) begins to approach UFA status.
Pretty much every serious Stanley Cup contender has a No. 1 centre and a No. 1 defenceman. With all due respect to Zary and Poirier, the Flames don’t have the guys who figure to match up against the likes of Connor McDavid and Quinn Hughes in those categories … yet.
But with some shrewd management — and, yes, a bit of a dip below their current .500 record — they could, eventually, arrive at the promised land. It’s about time they try a different approach.
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