It’s not an exaggeration to call the 2021 season for the Flames one of the biggest failures in a long, long time. New coach Darryl Sutter might have been correct on locker clean-out day when he said expectations were miscalculated for this team. Even still, Calgary fell painfully short of the bar.
The Flames entered this year as a cap team riding two straight post-season appearances and an expensive off-season. They turned out to be a group officially eliminated from the playoffs with four games remaining, and effectively eliminated long before that. So how did this season go so infuriatingly wrong?
Over the last half decade, Calgary’s mainstay offensive leaders have been Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Matthew Tkachuk, and Mark Giordano. During that time, new drivers like Elias Lindholm and Andrew Mangiapane have emerged, but the “Core Four” has been the constant.
You don’t need numbers to know those four players struggled mightily in 2021, but I’ll give you some anyway. Below are five-on-five scoring rates this season contrasted with the prior three years averaged out, courtesy Natural Stat Trick.
Led by Monahan, who fell off a cliff aided in part by injury, we saw drops almost across the board. With 12 points in his final eight, Tkachuk actually improved in a few areas, but let’s be honest: those games didn’t mean anything. Without six goals in five meaningless games to end the season, Tkachuk’s per-60 rates for goals (0.51) and points (1.69) would have been career lows.
In fact, I shudder to think how bad some of these numbers would have been had Sutter not put the line of Gaudreau, Tkachuk, and Lindholm together in early April. That trio found a spark and gave the team a true top line for the final six weeks. It’s no coincidence the Flames improved almost a full goal per game in their final 16 games compared to their first 40, from 2.55 to 3.31.
Unfortunately, those first three months were more than enough to sink the season. Without the game-breaking talent other teams have, Calgary’s calling card for success needed to be their depth. The problem is, if the top of the chart doesn’t produce, the trickle down is noticeable. As such, what was perceived to be a deep team can become, well, the opposite.
Forward depth issues
With the important trickle down caveat noted, there was still a glaring lack of help from this team’s bottom six. Even with solid numbers from Mangiapane, Milan Lucic, and Dillon Dube, nearly half of the forward group was an offensive black hole on a nightly basis.
The Flames signed Dominik Simon, Josh Leivo, and Joakim Nordstrom in the off-season to help backfill with Lindholm’s permanent move to centre. The team was hoping at least two, if not all three, could move into regular top nine winger roles. In hindsight, that was a ridiculous ask, seeing as how 14 was the highest single season total for goals of the group. And, led by Leivo’s six, the trio combined for seven goals all season.
Calgary couldn’t count on a lick of offence from five or six forwards every single night, which isn’t a winning formula. Other third and fourth line options Brett Ritchie, Derek Ryan, and Buddy Robinson racked up a grand total of six goals. Better performances further up the depth chart definitely would have helped, but you can’t fully excuse such a glaring void.
Jacob Markstrom looked every bit like the franchise goalie the Flames signed him to be through the first month of the season. He also looked elite down the stretch as Calgary clung to slim playoff hopes for the final six weeks. Unfortunately, an awful 15-game run in the middle of the season was a significant contributing factor to this season going off the rails.
Jan. 14 – Feb. 15
Feb. 17 – Apr. 5
Apr. 10 – May 19
It all started when Markstrom was injured in a Feb. 17 collision with Vancouver’s Tanner Pearson. Upon returning in early March after missing six games, he was noticeably off despite being 100% physically. It took a previously unscheduled break a month later for Markstrom to get back on track, thanks in part to a significant amount of practice time.
Markstrom is not chiefly to blame for this season’s failure, as that honour goes to Calgary’s offensive futility. That said, he can’t be full absolved, because Markstrom’s mid-season dip was so drastic. I don’t believe better goaltending in March would have been enough to get the Flames into the playoffs on its own. It would have had them far more in the mix down the stretch, though.
Calgary signed Markstrom to a six-year, $36 million contract in October, which are franchise goalie numbers. In his first season with the Flames, Markstrom won one more game than he lost (22-19-2) and finished with a 0.904 save percentage. While I still fully believe we’re talking about an elite goaltender, those results weren’t in line with a $6 million cap hit.