Even though the Calgary Flames are 1-3-1 in their past five contests, there’s no need to panic. Their goaltending has slipped up a bit and their PDO over this stretch is a lousy 95.0. Considering their possession numbers (52.4 CF%) remain in line with their performance throughout the entire season, their puck luck is bound to return soon enough — and the wins will follow.
Granted, the club might not produce another 10-1-1 run like the one that preceded this brief slide, but that’s the nature of a full NHL campaign: peaks and valleys. The truth lies somewhere in between.
In 2018-19, that middle ground has painted a pretty picture in Calgary.
Johnny Gaudreau (77 points in 56 games) has produced a Hart Trophy-caliber season alongside Sean Monahan (65 points in 56 games) and newcomer Elias Lindholm (64 points in 56 games). Matthew Tkachuk (57 points in 56 games) has enjoyed a breakout year by striking a wonderful balance between playmaker and pest. If he ever loses sight of the big picture, veteran two-way center Mikael Backlund (30 points in 52 games) is there to provide a calming influence.
On the back end, captain Mark Giordano (55 points in 54 games) is also deserving of hardware for his superb two-way showings. Against stiff competition, his pairing with TJ Brodie owns 61.4% of the goals scored at 5-on-5. Noah Hanifin and Travis Hamonic form a solid second unit that features size and mobility.
This is a good team. It can score (3rd in GPG), it can defend (14th in GAPG) and it’s receiving serviceable play between the pipes (14th in OISH%). That’s all you really need to compete in this high-octane league.
But in order to assert themselves as true Stanley Cup contenders, the Flames should shop for a couple of minor upgrades.
While the club’s top forward lines and pairings are terrific, they’ll have their off nights like anyone else. They certainly did against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday. It’s in these instances that your depth must contribute, but Calgary’s less heralded players aren’t getting the job done. In the playoffs, these blemishes are exposed. General manager Brad Treliving would be wise to strengthen the team’s weakest links ahead of the trade deadline.
James Neal (15 points in 54 games) definitely stands out in this regard. He’s been a total flop since signing a five-year, $28.7 million deal in the offseason. With that said, he has ample postseason experience and could provide a key goal or two as the games grow tighter. That alone justifies his presence.
Mark Jankowski (22 points in 53 games), on the other hand, doesn’t boast a proven track record. Moreover, the Flames’ 2012 first-round pick undermines much of the team’s efforts, as his 48.9 CF% and 43.2 GF% are some of the worst marks among Flames forwards with 500-plus minutes played. He’s been afforded decent zone starts as well, so it’s not as though his numbers have been affected by heavy defensive usage.
He just doesn’t dictate enough of the play or make his teammates better. Neal and Sam Bennett (21 points in 54 games), Jankowski’s two most frequent partners this season, are significantly more effective in terms of shot, scoring chance and goal shares away from him.
This isn’t to say he can’t turn it around. He boasts good size (6’4”, 212 lbs) and a reasonable skill set. He just hasn’t found a way to leverage those traits yet. Given his inability to govern the middle of the ice, perhaps Calgary should bring in a more seasoned center and move the second-year pro to the wing, where he could focus on simply winning his battles and using his frame to protect pucks. A decrease in positional responsibility could bring out the best in him.
Among the blueliners, 22-year-old Rasmus Andersson (7 points in 53 games) has struggled to stay afloat on the third pairing. He takes the sort of gambles that game-breaking offensive defensemen do, but without any production to show for it. As such, he’s sunk the Flames with a 46.7 CF%, 45.8 SCF% and 48.9 GF%. Relative to his teammates, those are awful figures.
Worse yet, he’s acted as a serious drain on his most common pair-mate, Oliver Kylington. The 2015 second-round pick has flashed some real all-around promise this season, but his on-ice results have been markedly worse next to Andersson (46.9 CF%, 45.5 SCF%, 45.4 GF% vs. 55.2 CF%, 53.7 SCF%, 75.0 GF%). In order to ease his job and unlock his potential, the team should make a move for a steady veteran who can act as a mentor and safety net. We could see a coming-out party for him as soon as this spring.
Until then, Michael Stone and Dalton Prout are the only other right-handed options for the bottom pairing…and they aren’t any better. Unless Calgary brings in reinforcements, it’s stuck with a RHD hole for now.
To be fair, Andersson does bring positives to the table. He skates well and is quite good at keeping pucks alive at the offensive blue line. However, that ties into his prevailing issue: His decision-making remains a work in progress. He hasn’t developed the judgment required to avoid ill-timed pinches and certainly doesn’t offer the offense to compensate for those risks. He could develop into a more composed rearguard over time, but the Flames could be contenders this year with the right additions.
The team has a great core that has fed off each other and collectively reached another level in 2018-19. The top six features a wonderful mix of smarts, skill and three-zone commitment. Meanwhile, the blue line is quick, experienced and dynamic.
Clearly, the front line is ready to go. It’s now a matter of fortifying the depth to create more sustained waves of attack. When one group’s pressure lets up, another must be ready to step in and pull its weight.
In the end, Calgary’s recent setbacks shouldn’t alarm anyone. It isn’t on the verge of collapse. Slumps happen. Besides, a few of those losses came at the hands of very strong opponents (Tampa Bay, San Jose, Washington). The Flames will be just fine. With a couple of tweaks, however, they could be so much more.