It wasn’t a good season in Alberta.
The Oilers’ and Flames’ seasons have both been disasters, despite the fact that everyone basically had them penciled in for strong years at or near the top of the Pacific.
There are a lot of s’posedas to go around here: The Kings were s’poseda be moving into a rebuild. Vegas was s’poseda be just another expansion team. San Jose was s’poseda take a step back. Calgary and Edmonton were s’poseda finish 1-2 in the division. Only Anaheim (perfectly alright but not that good) and Vancouver (pitiful) lived up to the broad consensus expectation.
And where Edmonton is concerned, you could have perhaps seen this coming as skill was stripped out of the roster pretty systematically going back a few years and if the plan was going to be McDavid and Draisaitl on separate lines centering four middle-six-at-best wingers, that was likely to be a problem. Their difficulties certainly ended up being greater than that — how many Oiler forwards had goalless droughts that stretched past 15 games this season? — but there was at least something of a proof of concept, in retrospect.
With Calgary, one supposes they had a few glaring holes in the roster, particularly at the backup goaltender position, on the fourth line, and third defensive pairing. But there are plenty of above-average teams that don’t have good backups and with depth a little lacking. Plus, hey, if the depth didn’t work out, the Flames had a few pretty good prospects down in Stockton so if worse came to worse they’d solve the problem internally.
And for a little while, it seemed like that might actually work. They started the year 12-8-0, a pace for almost 99 points. That felt like an appropriate number given everything we thought we knew about the division, and that was despite hot starts for both LA and Vegas. But then something turned sour; a month later they were still technically four games above .500 but now on pace for just 91 points, and things have obviously only gotten worse from there.
The glaring holes at the bottom of the lineup opened up much wider; Jaromir Jagr went from hurt to quite effective in a fourth-line role to hurt to basically retired in just a few months. That, in conjunction with a long-term injury for Kris Versteeg seemed to more or less torpedo the team whenever the Gaudreau/Monahan or 3M Lines were on the bench.
Moreover, it seems the big gamble, in terms of both dollars and assets, on Travis Hamonic was a total disaster. He and TJ Brodie never put anything together as a cohesive unit that was supposed to anchor things whenever Dougie Hamilton and Mark Giordano needed a breather, and were instead outwardly terrible for pretty much all of the season.
Other issues presented themselves as well. Sam Bennett never developed. The Brouwer contract, signed in summer 2016, was and has been an ever-worsening disaster. Some of the kids, like Mark Jankowski and Andrew Mangiapane, don’t seem to be ready for primetime.
When Smith got hurt, that was pretty much it for the Flames’ season. He was a stunning .921 in his first 47 appearances this year — few likely saw that kind of performance coming — but because he’s 36 and has a lot of miles on him and was never particularly not-injury-prone, he missed a full month starting in mid-February. In his absence, the Flames won just 5 of 13, due largely to the team’s .895 save percentage in that time.
And since Smith came back? The Flames are 1-6-0 with their only win (of course) being 1-0 over Edmonton. And despite the shutout, they’ve still conceded 30 goals in seven games, which takes a special kind of being awful. Smith’s season save percentage dropped five points.
It doesn’t help that the hollowed-out offense the team had for the bulk of the year also had one of the lowest shooting percentages in the league this season — despite Gaudreau threatening 90 points — and that its shooting efficiency has only gotten worse as the season dragged on.
Now with the Flames guaranteed to miss the playoffs in a year pretty much everyone thought they could make it happen in a weak division, there are a lot of questions that need answering. On the one hand, this is one of the best teams in the league by just about any underlying metric you care to examine. At 5-on-5, they’re third in corsi, scoring chances, and high-danger chances, as well as fifth in shots. They are, however, just 19th in goals.
Couple that with some injuries and you can argue that the low percentages are simply a result of bad luck and little else.
But their penalty kill was mediocre, their power play terrible. And when you add those problems with bad luck and a needs-improvement roster, well, you get a team missing the playoffs by 10 points or so.
Does Glen Gulutzan face the axe this summer? He probably shouldn’t have been their hire two years ago, but they got into the playoffs (albeit with the 18th-best record in the league, and they got smoked by Anaheim) and maybe earned some slack from management, especially if we’re considering injuries as a factor. But at the same time, a team this talented shouldn’t have a power play this bad. That’s something a coach is supposed to be able to fix, and Gulutzan basically didn’t have an answer all season. It didn’t even occur to him to try Dougie Hamilton on the top unit until about January, when things had already gone too wrong to realistically pull out of the skid.
At the same time, Gulutzan only had so much to work with, and the fault there lies with Brad Treliving. He seems to have made more than a few not-great bets the past two offseasons even as he also banked some goodwill with a series of solid decisions on the higher end of the roster. Monahan and Gaudreau enter this summer hoping for someone to finally become their permanent third member, the 3M line will be together for the foreseeable future thanks to a solid contract for Mikael Backlund, and the team will have some money to spend.
But the Brouwer deal is a nightmare, Hamonic will be around for three more years and so will Michael Stone. Who knows what Mike Smith brings to the table next year? Plus, the Flames have just two picks in the first three rounds of the next two drafts (a third this year and a first in 2019), which seems like a problem for a team that just missed the playoffs.
The good news, I think, is Calgary’s situation is work-withable. While Gaudreau and Monahan and Hamilton and certainly 34-year-old Giordano aren’t getting any younger, depth is an easy enough thing to fix because depth is cheap and depth is readily available if you have assets to give away (which I guess the Flames kinda don’t).
One can very easily see an immediate future wherein someone has to pay the price for the second missed playoff of Treliving’s tenure. After all, these Flames were supposed to be done missing the playoffs; they’ve made it just twice since 2009.
One can also see an immediate future in which the Flames’ brass make a few more “40-foot putt” statements, except opposite, and kind of try to explain away why they ended this season in a smoking crater of their own creation.
This wasn’t engine failure, it was pilot and manufacturer error. I don’t know how much appetite there is, or should be, to let the same crew try to rebuild everything and fly it again.