Taken on its face, the high end of the Calgary Flames roster is probably among the best in the Western Conference.
You have Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton, TJ Brodie, the entire 3M line, Sean Monahan. The good news is that basically all those guys, with the exception of Giordano (very old) and Matthew Tkachuk (very young), are in their mid- to late-20s.
This is what you’d call a team’s “window to win” — the point at which most of a team’s big-ticket players are around the primes of their careers — but the Flames have a very serious problem. You can have a good group at the top of your lineup, but if you don’t support them at the lower end, your ability to actually win while your window is open is limited.
Over the past few years, the Flames have done little to support that core group, making bad bets on outside or simply having good bets not pay off, not really developing prospects at any kind of reasonable rate, not spending to the ceiling, and (perhaps most importantly) getting it very, very wrong in net.
We’re now past the point where this could be called a rebuilding team. You’re no longer rebuilding when you fire the old coach, trade picks away for more immediate help, make the playoffs, and so on.
Last year the Flames should have gotten good goaltending. Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson are two guys with very solid track records. They combined to go .910 over the course of the season, in a league in which the average netminder stopped shots at .915. They made the playoffs anyway, though just barely, and got swept out of the first round.
So the team recognized goaltending as a major flaw; it probably cost them 10 or 11 goals over the course of the season, which is the equivalent of about three points in the standings. They gain three points and maybe they avoid the Ducks in the first round, depending upon where they lost them and so on. So in response to this major flaw, their big offseason plan was to go out and get… Mike Smith and Eddie Lack?
Smith has been roughly league-average the past two seasons, but the one before that he was horrific (.904). He also didn’t carry a particularly heavy workload over that time, averaging fewer than 50 appearances per season. Moreover, he’s 35. So the Flames are gambling that a 35-year-old goalie whose career numbers are hardly inspiring will do better than Elliott, which doesn’t seem likely based on the track records of the two goalies in question.
In addition, backup Eddie Lack has a whopping .902 save percentage over the past two seasons, so the idea that he will somehow return to the .917 he posted as a “1b” goalie over two seasons in Vancouver is likewise farfetched.
Lack’s on a one-year deal. Calgary has some interesting goaltending prospects it could turn to after that — most likely Jon Gillies, though he wasn’t great in the AHL last season (.910). But Smith is signed for each of the next two seasons, at which point that makes three of the prime years for the Flames core — or the waning days of Giordano’s usefulness — potentially wasted on subaverage goaltending.
The likelihood that a Smith-led platoon of any kind over the next 164 regular-season games continues to not-deliver seems fairly high, but again, he and whatever backups they use don’t have to be all that good to match what Calgary’s guys managed to not-deliver last year.
The other problem the Flames have is the goaltending wasn’t exactly supported by the soundest 5-on-5 process in the league. Calgary finished 15th in adjusted Corsi last season, though to be fair part of that was because the team was a mess in its first few weeks under Glen Gulutzan — on whom no one should really be completely sold at this point — before righting the ship to some extent. After Dec. 1, the Flames’ CF% was 10th in the league, which is certainly where you want to be headed.
To that extent, you have to be accepting and say that the first few months were so bad, not only for the skaters but between the pipes as well, that you can probably spot the Flames more than the seven regulation wins they earned in the first two months of the season this time around. Perfectly reasonable, even if you have a very dour outlook about Smith and Lack.
But that’s what gets into the concerns about the Flames’ depth and lack of developed young players. After the five forwards listed above, and maybe you lump in Kris Versteeg and even Micheal Ferland if you want to be charitable, the Flames have a lot of problems up front this season. They might try to make Troy Brouwer “a thing” on the top line again, but that was a disaster last time out. Matt Stajan is their No. 3 center. Sam Bennett hasn’t come along much at all. They’ll be counting on a rookie or two to chip in offensively.
Only six forwards finished with CF% of more than 50 percent last season, and one of them (Alex Chiasson) doesn’t seem like he’s coming back. Even free of context, this is a concern, but the five they have coming back are the five “core” guys listed above. That’s got to be seen as a big issue.
After all, what can you expect out of Stajan, offensively? How many goals do Freddie Hamilton and Curtis Lazar give you if they’re everyday players? Can Sam Bennett find some way to clear 30 points again, let alone 40? And they certainly didn’t add any offense this summer, instead making their big move to trade for Travis Hamonic, who could excel in a middle-pairing role. But that’s not really what they needed here.
That’s where the lack of prospect development comes in. Bennett — who, again, has been a major disappointment as a fourth-overall pick — and Monahan are the only Flames first-rounders pre-Tkachuk to become NHL regulars in the past several years. And that’s despite the fact that they had five first-round picks from 2012 to 2014. The other three have a combined 10 NHL games played between them, and just one assist (I looked it up: it was a secondary).
The good news is the Flames don’t need defense. Their top-four is among the best in the league, and the bottom pair after that is perfectly alright. But they need goals, having finished tied for 15th last season, and they need someone to stop the puck.
Whether they have either, despite more than $7.1 million in cap space, remains to be seen. Bennett is still without a contract, and the Flames have that kind of money laying around despite paying buyout penalties for not one, not two, but three different players right now.
It’s tough to see where this team legitimately stacks up against the rest of that division, let alone the conference, despite all the high-end talent. (And that’s with the acknowledgement that even after all the goals he scores, we still don’t have a ton of evidence Monahan moves the needle in possession).
The fact that this is even a question given the circumstances surrounding the team’s core should give everyone pause.
What, exactly, do they hope to accomplish with this group?
Point is, two or three years from now, they might all look around and realize, “Oh, we could have cobbled something together here.” Instead, there seems to be a strange lack of ambition here, which is weird given the team’s previous ‘Going For It’ culture.
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