Darryl Sutter is running out of ideas in his search to replace the type of firepower his club lost in the summer.
The GM and his scouting staff have been scouring the league in search of offensive help, and the team’s porous goaltending hasn’t helped matters at all.
Perhaps it’s time for a new approach.
While the Flames were busy stumbling into the quarter mark of the season with a 3-0 loss in Washington Friday afternoon, three of the organization’s top farm hands were back at the Saddledome, piecing together more of what the Flames need most: offence.
Guiding the Calgary Wranglers to their eighth win in their last 10 games, Matthew Phillips’ three-point outing included two goals, giving him 13 in 17 outings to top the American Hockey League.
His 23 points are second in the loop.
One of his setups was a gem of a feed to Jakob Pelletier, helping the slick first-rounder extend his league-high points streak to nine games.
He has six goals and nine assists in that span, landing him ninth in league scoring.
Surely Flames management, which is agonizing over the team’s inability to find any semblance of chemistry up front, has taken notice.
You can bet Sutter, whose son Brett captains the surging group, continues to be averse to considering the injection of undersized forwards the next time the team summons for some help.
If so, perhaps six-foot-three, 205-pound Walker Duehr might interest him.
Duehr had two goals Friday and possesses the type of size and speed combination Sutter craves.
First-rounder Connor Zary is another call-up option, sitting 13th in AHL scoring, w 18 points in 17 games.
Nothing seems to come easy for the 9-8-3 Flames up front this season, as they sit 22nd in the league, averaging 2.9 goals a game.
Solid starts, like the one that saw them all over the host Capitals Saturday, often don’t see the Flames rewarded, as they were a year earlier when Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk and Elias Lindholm formed the league’s top line, capable of winning games all by itself many nights.
Jonathan Huberdeau was promoted to the top line late in Friday’s loss, as Sutter says he’s looking to reward his improved play of late with more ice time.
Adam Ruzicka was demoted to the fourth line, with Sutter explaining, “He wasn’t sharp enough. There’s a leash, too. You go three or four games and your game starts dropping off. There’s still a reckoning for those young players.”
For Sutter, it’s all about trust.
Understandably, he struggles to put much faith in young players, making it even harder to fathom he or GM Brad Treliving would consider calling up a farmhand unless injuries force their hand.
Too bad, as Phillips deserves a shot — a chance this organization may very well pass on, leading Phillips to unrestricted free agency at season’s end when, surely, he’ll move on.
“Don’t look at his stature — he’s fearless, and he’s been like that watching him for five years now,” said Wranglers assistant coach and former NHLer, Joe Cirella, of the winger generously listed at five-foot-eight, 160 pounds.
“He consistently is one of our better players. He plays with details and he’s not afraid to go to those (tough) areas. That’s what goal scorers do. It’s impressive for how much abuse he gets out there all the time and the amount of ice time he gets. You have to really consider him (for a call up).”
The knock, of course, on the highly skilled finisher is his size.
Tough to overcome, for sure, which is why the junior superstar was taken in the sixth round in 2016.
However, after leading the Flames’ AHL affiliate last year with 31 goals and 68 points, it’s easy to see why Flames fans are clamouring for the 24-year-old to get a shot on a team that saw Gaudreau overcome his size.
This team needs a spark, a playmaker, a finisher.
“He’s an elite player and an elite scorer — if he does get a chance up there I’m sure he’d be able to translate it,” said Duehr.
“Right now he’s doing a phenomenal job for us.
“He’s a small guy, but you wouldn’t know that by the way he plays.
“He goes to the gritty areas, and a lot of his goals are probably two feet from the front of the net. He’s got a lot of heart.”
Duehr’s first pro camp with the Flames last season was so impressive he made the team’s opening night roster despite jumping straight from college. His stint was short, as he was sent back for pro experience, and a message to continue using his size and speed to grind down the opposition.
“If he continues to do that obviously he’ll open eyes for people who make decisions,” said Cirella.
Pelletier has been solid since the five or six-game mark, when he admits he finally got over the disappointment of a subpar training camp with the Flames.
“I’m just trying to play a 200-foot game and create offence and be good in my own zone,” said Pelletier, another undersized winger who was amongst rookie leaders in AHL scoring last year.
“Even at camp I was kind of stressed, and now I’m more relaxed and playing with Philly and (Radim) Zahorna makes it easy for me.”
These three are legitimate options for a team that opened camp with a stated goal of finding someone who could play in the top six.
The Flames invited Sonny Milano to training camp with that in mind.
Instead, he had two assists for the team the Flames lost to Friday.
The search continues.
On Friday, Phillips’ first goal was a deflection in the crease as he battled for position.
His second was a solo effort that saw him drive the net and finish like the 50-goal scorer he was in junior.
“I think I’ve kind of learned how my game needs to work in pro hockey,” said the Calgary-born Phillips, who also drew a cross-checking penalty.
“I think when I’m playing my game I’m kind of getting steps on guys, and a big part of my game is being quick and elusive and when that happens guys have a tendency to haul you down.”
If they can catch him.
“I think I had a strong season last year and having the same coaching staff and structure makes it easy to do the things I always do,” said Phillips, who has only played in one NHL game despite constant cries from locals to give him more chances.
“In Calgary, a Canadian market, it’s not something you can totally ignore, but that’s not something I focus on too much. I can’t let that get into my head. I just have to play as well as I can here.”
And wait for the Flames to act on the need for the current lineup to be injected with some help.