Ahead of the second half of this weekend's Battle of Alberta Saturday night, the heat is turning up on the Calgary Flames.
On Friday, Calgary dropped a 2-1 decision to their rivals for their third loss in four games. While it came with some small moral victories, such as a nice showing from backup David Rittich (who they'll need to start more games) and showing a bit of pushback in closing a 2-0 gap to one in the second period, the fact is they still weren't good enough to get key points in the standings.
Before Friday's loss, GM Brad Treliving joined Sportsnet 960 The FAN's Pat Steinberg to discuss the state of the team and he did not mince words.
"I would evaluate [the Flames] right now as we’ve been a very inconsistent team that is not getting top performance throughout our group," Treliving said. "We’ve had inconsistent play from the majority of our players, which sums up a team that’s not good enough right now. Record aside, the focus to me is always on what leads to the result and at the end of the day we're in a results-oriented business. It's the focus on doing things right every day, working with maximum effort, executing to optimal levels and focusing on all those details and if those are in place, what I’ve found in life is you’re going to be more happy than not with the result.
"Right now our focus needs to be in being hungry in a lot of areas. In our preparation, in our process, and then we'll get the result we want. Overall through 16, I'd say we're inconsistent and it's just not good enough yet."
What you get from the Flames one night is not necessarily what you'll get the next. Slow starts have become an all-too-regular thing, with Calgary allowing the first goal in 11 of their 17 games now and the 18 first period goals they've allowed is the sixth-most in the league -- and come at a worse rate than the Vancouver Canucks.
On Friday, even though Calgary did score that important goal to cut down Edmonton's lead, the fact is they were still outshot 16-8 and outchanced 14-7 at 5-on-5 in the final two periods.
They're now 8-8-1, three points out of fourth, and on the precipice of dipping below a .500 points percentage.
"We've talked ad nauseam here it seems about our starts," the GM continued. "It's everything from puck management, to being determined, to digging in and be willing to pay a price. Winning is hard in this league and I think this year's even harder. You’ve got a shorter schedule, you’ve got games coming on top of each other, you’ve got a really competitive division, every game has a feel of a playoff game.
"You have to do things harder, longer than the opposition."
Perhaps the biggest criticism from the Flames on the outside is around a perceived lack of effort. While Calgary certainly has shown it can be hard to play against and be considered with the other teams in the running for a North Division playoff spot, on other nights they look like a much less engaged group.
This came to a head after Wednesday's 5-1 loss to a Canucks team that was trying to find momentum from an early-season lull of its own and who the Flames let off the mat.
Treliving discussed what, specifically, the Flames need to do better, but on the idea that they are struggling because the players -- or anyone -- don't care, the GM pushed back.
"I think it's a [expletive] narrative that people don’t care," Treliving said. "If that narrative's out there it's wrong and it's a lazy narrative.
"There’s things you can do to increase your chances of winning. When I talk about the hard areas of the game, it's winning a crucial face-off, it's making a play at a blue line that is difficult sometimes to make -- you have to take a hit to do it. It's getting into the forecheck, not swinging by but playing direct and getting into somebody. It's getting into the traffic area, getting to the front of the net.
"I don’t think we're shy to do those things. I don’t think we're not willing to do those things, but we've got to be willing to do them on a consistent basis. That’s the basic part of the game."
At 5-on-5, the Flames are allowing an average of 30.58 shots for every 60 minutes, the eighth-worst mark in the league and just ahead of the Ottawa Senators. Free-agent signing Jacob Markstrom has bailed them out many times, but Rittich will be getting more time now and he may not be able to cover up those holes as often.
The offence, which was the sixth-best in the league from Jan. 1, 2020, until the year was paused, and then averaged 3.30 goals per game in the playoffs, is now 21st in the league at 2.65 goals per game. Geoff Ward has taken some heat (Treliving said the coach had "a good feel for our group"), but remember, he turned this team from one that was below .500 when he took over in a tumultuous time last season into the eighth-best team by points percentage the rest of the way.
It's not one thing that's ailing the Flames. Buy in, commitment, playing better in the hard areas -- everything needs to level up right now. Friday's game, described by Sportsnet's Eric Francis as more of a chess match than a battle, wasn't the kind of emotion you'd like to see from a struggling team against their biggest rival. After another loss, it'll be interesting to see how they respond, again, on Saturday.
If Calgary drops another, and especially if they don't look good doing it, the temperature will turn up even more on the group.
"Every action has consequences, so if your play is poor and you’ve been horse [expletive] on the ice, guess what? There’s gonna be criticism. There should be criticism," Treliving said. "We shouldn’t be focusing on that, we should be focused on the task at hand, doing all the steps you have to do to, not make the criticism go away, but to give yourself a chance to win."
ON SAM BENNETT
Treliving was speaking before Sam Bennett was benched in Friday's game, limited to just 6:30 of ice time and getting none in the third period. Bennett was a minus-two and though he's been used everywhere in the lineup, from the fourth line all the way to riding with Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau, he has not found any level of sustained success.
Through his agent, Bennett asked for a trade earlier this season but he won't be an easy player to move. He's not overly productive with three points in 16 games and his $2.55 million cap hit is expensive for what he gives you. Ultimately, the referendum on Calgary's season will be based on what they do in the playoffs, if they get that far, and that's where Bennett usually morphs into a different and key contributor for them. They might still need him for that.
Treliving addressed the trade rumours and request around Bennett.
"Sam's agent decided to have a conversation with the media talking about changes of scenery," Treliving said. "We'll determine, whether it be Sam Bennett or anybody else, what their scenery is and when it's gonna change.
"We think Sam's a hell of a player and we expect him to be a really good player here."