How the Flames became the NHL's most disappointing team

Jacob Markstrom turned into one of the NHL's worst goaltenders, while Jonathan Huberdeau underwhelmed in his first season in Calgary.

Based on preseason expectations, the Calgary Flames were easily the most disappointing team of the 2022-23 NHL season.

Calgary looked poised to potentially unseat the Colorado Avalanche as the class of the Western Conference after undergoing an extreme makeover that ostensibly provided the team with more balance.

Matthew Tkachuk was traded for Jonathan Huberdeau, MacKenzie Weegar, Cole Schwindt and a lottery-protected 2025 first-round pick. Johnny Gaudreau elected to join the Columbus Blue Jackets in free agency, while Nazem Kadri signed a seven-year, $49-million pact to join the Flames, replacing Gaudreau and providing a level of championship pedigree the team needed.

At least that was the thinking. You know what they say about the best-laid plans, so here's how the Flames spiralled into disaster, ultimately missing the playoffs.

The first season for the new-look Flames didn't go as planned. (Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The first season for the new-look Flames didn't go as planned. (Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Jacob Markstrom regresses into one of NHL’s worst goaltenders

Where did it all go wrong for Jacob Markstrom? That’s the question Flames fans — and perhaps Markstrom himself — are asking after a dreadful season from the 33-year-old. Last year, Markstrom was named to the NHL Second All-Star Team and finished as a Vezina finalist after posting nine shutouts during the regular season. It seems apparent Markstrom never recovered from a brutal playoff series against the Edmonton Oilers where he posted a hideous 5.12 goals-against average and .852 save percentage

Markstrom registered a 23-21-12 record with a 2.92 GAA, .892 save percentage and one shutout in 59 games with -3.1 goals saved above expected this year. That’s replacement-level goalie territory and not what you’d expect from one of the pillars of the team. MoneyPuck has rated Markstrom one half-game under replacement level and the Flames rarely wavered from their nominal No. 1 option despite struggling all year.

It’s not entirely on Markstrom, though. Dan Vladar had a chance to capitalize on his teammate’s misfortune and was brutal. In 27 games played, Vladar recorded -8.4 goals saved above expected and was -1.4 wins above replacement. When you’re getting AHL-calibre goaltending from both netminders over the course of the season, it has a compounding effect.

Goaltending is the single-most valuable component of team success and it’s also the most difficult category to judge on a year-by-year basis. It was reasonable to expect regression, but you don’t expect both of your goaltenders to completely fall off a cliff.

Jonathan Huberdeau fails to regain his all-world form

Huberdeau led the NHL with 85 assists and finished third in NHL scoring with 115 points last year. More simply, Huberdeau was considered a strong enough asset to be the central part of a trade involving Matthew Tkachuk, who has played at a superstar level for the Panthers this year.

You could call it an acclimation period if you’d like but over the course of 82 games, Huberdeau has failed in his role. It’s hard in a vacuum to knock a guy with 15 goals and 55 points but this is a far cry from what’s been expected of him and therefore, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that Huberdeau has been the league’s most disappointing player, too.

Huberdeau is tied for 72nd in 5-on-5 points along with Kadri, with a 1.5:1 giveaway-to-turnover ratio. It’s somewhat puzzling — and we’ll get to this later — as Huberdeau has strong underlying metrics, with the Flames controlling just over 55 percent of the expected goals when he’s on the ice. He hasn’t been a pylon defensively and his shooting luck is exactly league-average.

This is where the eye tests helps and Huberdeau’s lack of dynamism and confidence with the puck is a central reason why he’s been nowhere close to an elite player this year.

We received some insight into Huberdeau’s poor play in February when his agent, Allan Walsh, tweeted that negativity sucks the joy out of players.

It’s worth mentioning that Weegar has quietly posted numbers that would count him among the league’s best defensive defenseman. He’s lived up to his end of the bargain, in what’s been a trying year for the team, posting four goals and 30 points in 80 games.

Darryl Sutter lost the locker room

I’m not a fan of using intangibles but it’s clear Sutter has been tuned out by his players. Sutter’s stern approach to the game is appreciated when you’re bowling over opponents or winning two Stanley Cups as he did with the Kings, but it’s a lot easier to tune out an angry, older man who provides no positive motivation for his players.

Sutter, at his best, is a defensive-minded tactician, which runs in diametric opposition to his roster that is built to shoot the lights out and rely on elite goaltending to mitigate the opponent’s attack. The goaltending failed miserably, but Sutter didn’t do enough to put his team in positions to win. He clearly alienated Huberdeau and who knows how many other unnamed players as well?

Flames fans were irate at Sutter’s decision to play Nick Ritchie as his second shooter during the shootout of a must-win game against the Nashville Predators. Ritchie has notched 13 goals and 26 points in 74 games this season and for context, three Flames defensemen have recorded more points this year. It was an inexcusable decision by a brash personality whose players, by and large, seem to have muted him.

Despite superior possession numbers, Flames regress to below-average goal scoring

Calgary still boasts some of the analytical profile of a contender. As a team, the Flames are second in Corsi at 5-on-5, third in expected goals and lead the league in shots. Calgary ranks 18th in actual goals and the disconnect between its shot profile and goal scoring is confounding.

You could chalk some of this up to poor shooting luck as the Flames have a .980 PDO, the second-worst total in the NHL. It’s pretty easy to deduce that the Flames’ offense went limp in front of the net, despite generating chances from prime scoring locations. This was a rough year overall for the Flames as Tyler Toffoli is probably the only forward who had a season that they’ll be proud of and it’s perhaps worth noting that Toffoli is a staunch Sutter supporter, having won Cups in their shared tenure with the Kings.

It’s been a terrible, no good, very bad year for the Flames. Here’s to better goaltending, a new head coach and some better luck in 2023-24.