CALGARY – Perhaps the most telling moment of the Calgary Flames’ exit interviews came from a player who is unlikely to be here next season.
Asked if he thought the highly talented Flames core was capable of winning a Stanley Cup, Michael Frolik’s lengthy pause was noticeable.
“That’s a good question,” said the 31-year-old of the query that’s been bandied about ever since the Flames face-planted in five to Colorado. “I think all the potential is there. You see Johnny (Gaudreau) and Monny (Sean Monahan) and our first line had a good regular season, but the playoffs is a little different.
“I think the core is there, but you need to add a few little pieces – you need some more bigger bodies and the meanness and hardness to be in the playoffs.”
As it did two years ago when the Flames were swept by the Anaheim Ducks, the “core conversation” in Calgary is once again revolving around “Johnny and Monny.” In both series, the duo disappeared, prompting many to ask if they have what it takes to elevate when things get faster, grittier and more important.
“I’m not going to hang this on two players,” said Flames GM Brad Treliving, who prefaced his premature season-ending availability by insisting time was needed to take the emotion out of assessing what went wrong. “I think it’s really easy, at times like where we’re at today, to throw rocks. Our team underachieved from top to bottom at the most critical time of year and we have to figure out why.
“I don’t think lining the core group on the plank and shooting them is the right answer. Does our team need to change? I’ll answer that in the next little while.”
Ask any player leaving the Dome with garbage bags full of gear Monday and they’ll tell you how much they believe in a core group that includes Gaudreau, Monahan, Mark Giordano, Matthew Tkachuk and Mikael Backlund.
After finishing best in the west for the first time in 29 years, none of those five did much to stop the eighth seed from rolling over their club.
Despite three breakaways in Game 5, Gaudreau ended up with one assist in the series. Monahan had two points.
“I’d love to tell you we’ve got a bunch of injuries but that was as healthy a team as we could be,” said Treliving, revealing Monahan had a crack in his thumb and David Rittich played through a knee injury suffered New Year’s Eve. “I thought we got beat. Outside of a Herculean goaltending effort Game 1, I thought this could have been a four-game series. We got beat in every way. We didn’t look like the team that we looked like in 82 games.”
The question is why.
No answers were forthcoming, other than a few interesting offers from Giordano, who said the team played too “safe,” didn’t attack enough, played too much defence and couldn’t stymie Colorado’s growing momentum.
Several simply tipped their hat to a surging Avs team that should prove to be a tough out this spring.
Treliving said he needed time to dissect his club’s undoing, insisting decisions made on emotion lead to mistakes. So he, too, will spend the next while mulling over the same question: Are his team’s big boys big enough?
Not just physically, although that’s also a question.
“We’d like everybody to be six-foot-five and chew your arms off, but you’ve got to be able to play the game too,” said Treliving, who added he’ll look at certain traits of the team that need shoring up. “I remember a time when Detroit was never going to win with these two guys, (Pavel) Datsyuk and (Henrik) Zetterberg, and I think they won a couple times.
“I tell guys all the time, the regular season is when you make your money, the playoffs are where you make your legacy. But because you don’t climb Everest on your first time, do you quit hiking? Because we didn’t get there today, are we going to start with 21 new guys next year? No.”
A couple of guys he sure hopes are on board next year include Tkachuk and James Neal.
Tkachuck needs a new contract and is destined to be the team’s highest-paid player, assuming they can hammer out a deal without him missing any time, a la William Nylander. Treliving said that shouldn’t be a problem as they had plenty of time and a great relationship with Tkachuk’s representatives.
Neal, well, they’re hoping he shows up in some semblance of the form that netted him a five-year, $28.75-million deal last summer. With seven goals this season and no sign of engagement, the fear is this deal will be one of the league’s biggest albatrosses moving forward.
“James and I had discussions during the year and today and I would say he’s very accountable,” said Treliving, whose coach made Neal a healthy scratch for Game 5. “Listen, we signed James last year and I don’t think you have to be a rocket scientist to realize this isn’t how we wanted things to go. I think he’s going to pull up his boots and be better. But how do we help him too?”
He had high praise for the way Mike Smith bounced back from a tough start to be the team’s only playoff star, but said he’ll have plenty of time to figure out if he’ll bring the 37-year-old back to ride shotgun with Rittich.
It says here the odds are certainly high that he will try trading one or both of T.J. Brodie and Frolik, who have one year left on their deals and could help Treliving address other shortcomings.
Lots to chew on for a wordsmith who had a unique way of describing how a 107-point season could end in nine days.
“It’s like doing a 100-yard dash in an 80-yard gym – it just ends and then you don’t know what to do with yourself,” said Treliving, a frontrunner as the league’s GM of the year. “The disappointment is heightened because the expectation has risen and that’s a part of becoming a good team. There’s still shock and emotion and we’re all pissed off.
“It’s important that you don’t overreact but it’s also important that you don’t under react.
“But we’ll figure this out.”