Underachieving Flames have a lot to think about in off-season

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Calgary Flames goalie Mike Smith looks up at the scoreboard. (Mike Drew/CP)

The theory subscribed to by Brad Treliving is that his Calgary Flames lacked the “emotional investment” necessary to become a playoff team.

Few disagree.

However, after weeks of fans and the media questioning the character of a hockey team that collapsed so dramatically, out trotted Sean Monahan Monday.

Saving his first public appearance in several weeks for garbage bag day, the 23-year-old centre was sporting a sling on his left arm and came armed with news that debunked theories he may have shortchanged the team in any way.

Five nights after recent reconstructive surgery on his left wrist in New York City, Monahan flew to St. Louis for three more surgeries: one for a groin ailment and two more for hernias.

If more players had the intestinal fortitude of the fourth-year forward the Flames surely would have lived up to the pre-season expectations that pegged them as playoff-bound.

“I don’t now if I’ve ever heard of a player having four surgeries,” said Treliving whose top forward played more than half his 74 games in excruciating pain, posting 31 goals despite having his hand injected before playing.

“What that young man was dealing with, he hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in five months and it finally got to the point he couldn’t do it.”

Treliving’s sleep deprivation might eventually rival Monahan’s as he tries to piece together why his team stumbled down the stretch, winning five of its last 19 games to tumble out of a playoff spot.

Prefacing his season-ending press conference with, “a lot of the things we’re dealing with here today seem pretty petty in comparison to what they’re dealing with in Saskatchewan and Humboldt,” the Flames GM proceeded to point out the obvious issues he’ll be digging deeply into.

The 28th-ranked power play, the horrific home record, the late-season goaltending woes, the inability to rise to the occasion, the emotional disengagement and the lack of scoring depth.

“We relied on too few to do too much,” said Treliving, nodding to the milestone achievements of Monahan and Gaudreau in particular.

“I think there’s a little bit of skill deficiency and a little bit of a mental deficiency. We rely on a lot of young players still and we have to find a way to support them better and ultimately get results.”

There’s plenty they have to do, but he wasn’t willing to be baited into talk of potentially having to make significant moves of any sort, including with his coaching staff.

“We’ve got a good coach,” said Treliving of Glen Gulutzan, whose team was swept in the first round last year before taking a giant step backwards this year. I’m certainly not a believer you can just spit people out time and time again.

“When you don’t have success the initial reaction is to get rid of people and players – you have to evaluate everything and then correct it. We have to get to the why. That’s what we’ll be spending the next several weeks doing.”

Part of it had to do with injuries as Monahan struggled and the Flames lost Matthew Tkachuk to a concussion at a crucial time, late in the season. The month-long absence and subsequent struggles of goalie Mike Smith were also key, prompting Smith to admit Monday he wasn’t mentally sharp enough upon returning to the lineup.

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The other part, as Gulutzan pointed out, is that in the most crucial 13-game stretch of the year the team was exposed for being weak defensively, inept offensively, challenged between the pipes and fragile as a whole. They won three of those games starting Feb. 27.

“Last year we did a good job putting a team together,” said Gulutzan, when asked to assess his role in it all. “This year I thought we had better players but we just never had as consistent a team effort. We didn’t bring guys together enough as we could have.

“I look back at that and wonder, ‘what could we have done to build a stronger group to withstand when times got tough?’ When it got tough we weren’t there over those 13 games.”

If everyone agrees the team was good enough on paper to be playing past April 8, was it an emotional or a mental shortcoming that was their undoing?

“I think it was a bit of both,” said Monahan. “I can’t really put a finger on it, but we’ve got to learn to win and know what it takes to win and be fully invested. I think we really do have a good team and good people here, and we’ve got to show that next year and go on a run.”

Well, those who are still part of the team moving forward.

The debate Trelving will have is whether radical changes are necessary.

“A year ago we probably exceeded expectations but this year I think we were under expectations – you have to ask which team are you?” said Gulutzan. “Which players are you? This year or last year’s player? Which coaching staff are you? This year’s or last year’s? Those answers are probably somewhere in the middle.”

Answers Treliving will be emotionally invested in trying to figure out every waking minute.

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