Many had high hopes for the Calgary Flames at the start of the 2020-21 season.
The reality of things has been much uglier than predicted and has exposed a number of issues in Southern Alberta, which culminated with the dismissal of head coach Geoff Ward — and a reunion with Darryl Sutter — Thursday night.
Calgary currently sits in fifth place, two points behind Montreal for the final playoff spot in the division. Although they rebounded with a 7-3 win on Thursday, the Flames dropped a pair of ugly losses — 5-1 on Monday and 6-1 last Thursday — in their four-game set against the lowly Ottawa Senators.
With offensive weapons like Matthew Tkachuk, Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm, you’d be hard pressed to find many who thought the Flames would sit dead last in the division in goals for nearly halfway through the season.
Consistent production among all four lines has been a major issue, and according to Milan Lucic so has the effort. The veteran didn’t mince words when asked about his team’s struggles following Monday’s loss to the Senators.
“It’s unacceptable. You can’t have everyone show up on Saturday and then expect it to be easy tonight. I think that’s our problem right now … sometimes we want it to be too easy,” Lucic said. “You hear a lot of outside noise talking about coaching and all this … style of play and all this bullshit. But that has nothing to do with the coaches. That has everything to do with the guys that are playing.
“It seems like … we just want it easy on a night to night basis. We don’t want to work hard like we did when this coaching staff took over last year. There’s more than enough people in this organization that need to look in the mirror.”
There are players who have just been straight up snake-bitten. Derek Ryan, who has proven to be a consistent 10-15 goal player in the league, had just one assist in 11 games before picking up a goal and assist Thursday in his return from a fractured finger, which kept him out for 13 games. Josh Leivo, who signed a one-year deal in the offseason that was praised at the time, also snapped out of his slump against the Sens, scoring his first goal of the year and registering his first point in nearly a month, bringing his totals to a goal and three points in 19 games. Sean Monahan, who recently snapped a 12-game scoring slump, scored only his fifth goal of the season on Thursday.
There have been a few bright spots this year. Andrew Mangiapane sits second on the team with eight goals and has been a solid contributor no matter where he plays. Gaudreau, Lindholm and Tkachuk are also hovering just below a point a game and deserve some praise, but they’ll need all four lines coming together.
The lack of production overall is concerning, as Calgary ranks 23rd in the league in goals per game at 2.71. But the underlying numbers paint a slightly more optimistic picture, as Calgary is seventh in expected goals for and eighth in high-danger chances, according to NaturalStatTrick, signalling some potential upside if it can begin to convert its opportunities.
The Flames have been a slightly above average team defensively and with Jacob Markstrom back in the fold, Calgary has the potential to make up ground there.
The year is far from over, but they’re going to need to come together quickly under Sutter, who has a track record of producing immediate results. A coaching change doesn’t always get things moving in the right direction, however, as we’ve seen with the Canadiens under Dominique Ducharme.
Calgary’s chances at making the playoffs for a third straight year haven’t been extinguished, but at the current pace the lottery is closer than playing games beyond May.
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