Examining the reasons for Flames’ offensive struggles to start season

Calgary Flames General Manager, Brad Treliving is shouldering the blame for the teams recent losing streak and says top players and coaches 'are not going anywhere'.

Tens of thousands of words have been spilled on what has happened to the Toronto Maple Leafs this season, as they struggled out of the gate and ultimately let go of head coach Mike Babcock in favour of Sheldon Keefe.

Toronto’s struggles have captured the national conversation due to the massive fanbase and the focus that comes with that, but as bad the Leafs have been compared to their past selves, the same and more can be said about the Calgary Flames.

Last season, it was a shocker for me that the Flames were so roundly trounced in the first round of against the Colorado Avalanche, but having a lot of respect for the combination of Jared Bednar’s excellent preparation and the absolute dominance of the Nathan MacKinnon line can upend even the best teams, so that was surprising but understandable.

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Heading into last year’s playoffs, the Flames were one of the league’s most dominant even strength teams — not just on the season, but of the last several seasons. There was almost no area you could think of that the Flames didn’t outplay their opponents. Just look back at the pre-series breakdown I did for the Flames and Avalanche (where I was hilariously wrong about the outcome) and examine how excellent the Flames were with and without the puck.

This season the Flames have gone from the best team in the Western Conference to a 10-12-3 record and barely hanging on to wild card consideration despite playing more games than any team they’re in competition with.

So what is going on here, are the Flames essentially the same team and playing the same way but everything is going wrong in a relatively small sample? The Flames do have a .966 PDO at 5-vs-5 (second-lowest in the NHL) and .976 PDO in all situations (fifth-lowest in the NHL), so there could be something to that, but let’s look into the data first before we let them off the hook.

As it turns out… no, it’s not all bad luck. The Leafs’ offence has fallen off relative to last season, but this change for Calgary isn’t a drop-off, it is a cataclysmic collapse.

Curiously, just like when the Maple Leafs were spiralling downwards, the Flames have increased their control of forechecking chances, but everything else has dropped considerably, with some of their biggest strengths like rush passing, cycle chances, inner slot and high slot shots on goal, and slot passes going from near league highs to completely in their opponents’ favour.

Last season the Flames were incredible at attacking off the rush but gave up a fair amount that way as well, which led to a strong but not spectacular differential, and the Avalanche felt they could expose them there and used the superior speed and size of the MacKinnon line to blow the Flames’ top line out of the water, neutralizing their biggest offensive weapons and taking advantage of their spotty neutral zone defending.

Everything the Avalanche exposed in them seems to have been exacerbated and taken advantage of by all of their opponents. That’s a troubling trend that through 25 games a coach needs to find a way to correct.

A lot of the blame for the Flames’ poor start seems to have fallen on the tiny shoulders of Johnny Gaudreau, which likely has a lot to do with Gaudreau only putting up 18 points in 25 games, after setting the expectations for himself as a point per game player at the least over the last couple seasons. Gaudreau and Monahan are still the top two scoring chance generators on the Flames this season, but their line has been torn asunder by this changeup in style of play.

Defenders of Gaudreau will point to his 51.2 per cent Corsi so far this season as a reason to think he’s playing just fine, but the Flames are controlling perimeter shots very effectively, it’s the dangerous shots where they’re getting killed. And what’s Gaudreau’s on-ice differential from the inner slot? 39.5 per cent, fourth-worst on the team.

It’s tempting for many to look at Gaudreau’s struggles and go to the old trump card of what struggling teams need; get bigger and get tougher, and it’s true that the Flames are not the biggest team out there, but let’s be honest about the Flames for a minute here, and look at some of the mistakes they’ve made under their current management structure.

Now, it’s entirely possible that the league ‘figured out’ the Flames of last year and turned them from dominant to doormats, but how likely is that? Changes made in overreaction to their trouncing at the hands of the Avalanche, not necessarily in personnel but in style of play, are far more likely to be the root problem.

When you look at every time the Flames have tried to get more physical or made a decision to get bigger, it’s come back to bite them hard. Waiving Paul Byron? He’s averaged 19 goals every 82 games over parts of 5 seasons since then. Trading Brett Kulak for AHL depth? For most of the time since then, he’s played second pairing minutes and excelled at them in tough minutes. Trading James Neal for Milan Lucic? An unmitigated disaster, despite the prime minutes he keeps getting for unknown reasons.

Chasing toughness has not worked for the Flames, and it’s time they stop attempting that route. There’s more than one way to win, and they don’t need to be the St. Louis Blues, they need to be the Calgary Flames.

Play to the strengths of your roster, and if they can’t find a way to do that very soon, another coaching change in Canada seems all but inevitable.


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