State of the Stanley Cup drought: How close are the new-look Flames to winning?

With the departures of Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary is in the midst of a new era as it looks to end its championship drought.

This is Part 4 of a 10-part series examining the longest Stanley Cup droughts in the NHL, and how close teams are to breaking through for their first championship in decades — or ever.

Previous articles: Senators, Sharks, Oilers

After relocating from Atlanta, the Calgary Flames hit the ground running in their new home with nine consecutive seasons making the playoffs, 12 series wins, and a Stanley Cup victory in 1988-89.

That level of success has been more difficult to attain in recent decades, and the Flames currently find themselves in a state of upheaval.

Following the 2021-22 season, a Flames team that put up 111 points in the regular season lost Johnny Gaudreau to free agency, and honoured Matthew Tkachuk's request for a trade out of town.

The new-look group led by the main piece in the Tkachuk trade — Jonathan Huberdeau — and free-agent signing Nazem Kadri produced just 93 points and missed the postseason. The team's hopes that changing its core on the fly would allow it to maintain its momentum were dashed, and a Flames franchise that looked like it could threaten for a Cup just over a year ago entered a state of flux.

It's been more than three decades since Calgary earned its last championship, and it's tough to see the path to its next one.

Here's a look at the state of Calgary's Stanley Cup drought:

Jonathan Huberdeau is hoping to bounce back after a subpar 2022-23 (Derek Cain/Getty Images)
Jonathan Huberdeau is hoping to bounce back after a subpar 2022-23 (Derek Cain/Getty Images)

How long has it been?

The Flames have not won the Stanley Cup in 33 seasons.

How close have the Flames come?

Within one goal.

Calgary took on the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2003-04 Stanley Cup Final and lost Game 7 by a score of 2-1. It also lost Game 6 in double overtime after taking a 3-2 series lead.

That Game 6 included a play with less than 7 minutes remaining in the game that may have gone in off the skate of Martin Gelinas, but was ruled no goal — a play that remains controversial to this day. In other words, the Flames couldn't have gotten closer to a Cup win without earning a title.

Not only was that an unfortunate outcome for the Calgary, the 2003-04 squad was a bit of a singular group. The Flames hadn't made the playoffs for seven years prior to that season and the 2004-05 NHL lockout prevented them from running it back right away.

Calgary lost in the first round for four consecutive seasons following the lockout and failed to successfully build around Jarome Iginla during the tail end of his prime.

The Flames only got close to winning the Stanley Cup once during the Jarome Iginla era. (Brad Watson/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Flames only got close to winning the Stanley Cup once during the Jarome Iginla era. (Brad Watson/NHLI via Getty Images)

For most of the 33 years Calgary has failed to earn a title, the team has been competent, but not spectacular. The Flames rank 12th in the NHL in points (2,792) since their last title in 1988-89, but have just six playoff series wins during that time — one of which was a best-of-five victory during a 2019-20 season derailed by COVID-19.

Losing in the first round has been the norm for the franchise, as they've done so 12 times since earning their last championship. It's not as if the Flames have iced regular-season juggernauts that have found ways to disappoint in the playoffs, either.

Calgary have produced just three squads that have topped 100 points in a season since 1989. Their best regular-season team was the 2021-22 group (111 points) that got disassembled the following offseason.

That state of continually bowing out early in the playoffs and often being expected to do so means that the Flames have fewer what-if moments than a number of clubs facing similar Cup droughts.

The one they do have is tough to stomach, though.

How does Calgary's championship prognosis look now?

Not great.

If you're looking to feel optimistic about the Flames, you could say that the team posted excellent underlying numbers in 2022-23 despite missing the playoffs. Only one team had a larger share of shots on net at 5-on-5 than Calgary last season, and just two had a higher percentage of expected goals.

Firing Darryl Sutter seems like a step in the right direction if the number of players who reportedly rescinded trade requests as a result is any indication.

If Jacob Markström can rebound from a difficult season between the pipes and Calgary gets more shooting luck, they're not far from being a successful team.

All of that said, the Flames also traded leading scorer Tyler Toffoli for a winger in Yegor Sharangovich who is coming off an uninspiring campaign and seems unlikely to replicate Toffoli's production.

The team also has a massive group of players who could become unrestricted free agents after 2023-24 that includes Elias Lindholm, Mikael Backlund, Noah Hanifin, Chris Tanev, and Nikita Zadorov. It would surprise no one if a number of those players were moved in the lead up to the season.

Even if they all stay, and many depart after 2023-24, Calgary could be looking at a reset. There is a theoretical version of the Flames that could be good this year, but it's tough to see that coming about — and even if everything breaks right, they'd project to be more solid than spectacular.

That means this drought doesn't look like it'll come to an end in the immediate future, and the longer-term prognosis for this franchise is tough to pin down.

Its prospect pool isn't particularly well-regarded, but if the team does end up holding a mini veteran fire sale, it has a chance to build a bigger stash of young players and picks than it has today.

Calgary seems to be an extremely successful rebuild away from threatening to win a Stanley Cup, but that rebuild hasn't really started yet — and may be tough to execute around Huberdeau and Kadri.

If the Flames opt for more of a retool, it will be very difficult to find their out from the middle of the pack, a spot they've become all-too-familiar with over the years.