Flames mid-season report: Stuck in mushy middle, changes sure to come

NHL analyst Eric Francis joins the Jeff Marek Show to discuss which players he thinks will be traded by GM Craig Conroy in an attempt to retool this .500 Flames team, with Elias Lindholm being their definite best trade asset right now.

TEMPE, Ariz. — Halfway through the season, it’s still hard to understand where the Calgary Flames are going, other than to say significant changes are on the horizon.

The team has depth, leadership, goaltending and a work ethic that has them leading the league with seven third-period comebacks.

They also have several big trades to make.

Bouncing back from a tough start, the team is in the thick of a tight playoff race that is only going to get tougher and tougher.

Complicating their quest to return to the playoffs will be endless trade rumours surrounding a club with four obvious trade targets and a desire to keep getting younger.

General manager Craig Conroy has made good on his promise to inject more youth into his roster, dipping into his AHL coffers with regularity — a move he’ll continue making following a trade deadline that promises to significantly re-tool a team stuck in the mushy middle for decades.


Record: 18-18-5 (6th in Pacific Division, 24th in NHL)

Goals per game: 3.1 (17th in NHL)

Goals-against per game: 3.17 (18th in NHL)

Power play: 12.4 per cent (30th in NHL)

Penalty Kill: 83.9 per cent (7th in NHL)

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Connor Zary

With a stellar goal, an assist and yeomen’s work to set up Noah Hanifin’s game-turning goal in the third period Tuesday, Zary joined two pretty big names in Flames lore.

Only two other Flames rookies in the last three decades have eclipsed the 20-point mark in their first 31 games, and their names are Johnny Gaudreau and Jarome Iginla.

The best part for Flames fans — no one saw this coming.

Sure, Zary was a first-round pick in 2020 (24th), but after playing parts of four seasons in the AHL, several other Wranglers were still deemed to be ahead on the organizational depth chart when he was summoned nine games into the season.

As one of the last cuts in training camp, he responded by leading the Wranglers in points and forced the Flames to give him a shot.

He scored on his third NHL shift, on his very first shot, and has progressed as a huge fan favourite ever since.

Not only did he help Nazem Kadri get out of an early slump, but his play on the second line with Kadri and Martin Pospisil has been so solid he has replaced Jonathan Huberdeau on the top power-play unit.

His nine goals and 12 assists in 31 games have him second only to Connor Bedard in terms of points per game (.68) amongst rookies, and no newbie in the loop has a better plus-minus than Zary’s plus-13.

“I think he understands that the way he plays the game when he’s sharp, and he thinks it well, that he has impact every night,” said coach Ryan Huska of the 22-year-old left winger who has poise with the puck beyond his years.

“He controls the puck, he makes good plays with it and he’s got great composure.” 

He has quickly emerged as one of the organization’s building blocks.

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Jonathan Huberdeau

Consider him the league’s biggest project.

Nothing is more important to the Flames organization than to try to get their $10.5-million man going offensively.

There have been signs of late, with six points in his last six games, coinciding with his return to the top line with Elias Lindholm and Yegor Sharangovich.

But the stat line still shows him with six goals and 21 points in 41 games, putting him on a pace to be well below last year’s disastrous debut in Calgary where he had 55 points.

He’s the team’s 11th-leading scorer and sits dead last on the squad at minus-14.

A classy veteran who knows better than anyone he needs to be better, his attitude remains upbeat, and he continues to answer every question about his struggles when prompted.

The city is pulling for him.

When he ended a 12-game pointless string on New Year’s Eve, the announcement of his assist drew a rousing ovation from fans who empathize with a man who had 115 points the year before he was traded to the Flames.

His play is monitored and dissected on a game-by-game basis.

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The big question at the quarter pole was whether the team’s 7-3-2 rebound from a horrific start was for real.

The answer: kind of.

The team clawed back to .500 and is a team with enough depth and high-end goaltending to stay in the playoff hunt right until the very end.

The question moving forward revolves around how Flames management decides to deal with its three biggest UFAS (Lindholm, Hanifin and Chris Tanev) and how those decisions affect the team’s play.

Sources say the Lindholm decision has essentially been made by the lofty dollar demands of Lindholm’s representation, essentially clinching a trade that should land the Flames a first rounder, top prospect and likely a third player 

Still, this organization spent three decades without a top-line centre until Lindholm arrived, meaning the team will have to fill a massive hole with his departure.

He’s also the first player over the boards for every power play and penalty kill.

Talks have reopened with an eye on keeping Hanifin in town, but if those fall through the team will be short one of the top No. 3 defenders in the league.

Tanev has been dubbed “untouchable” by teammates Rasmus Andersson due to the veteran’s fearlessness, leadership and mentorship. Alas, the 34-year-old is likely on the move too, given the demand for a playoff warrior like him around the league.

Will they trade Dan Vladar to make room for Dustin Wolf?

Will Oliver Kylington rejoin the Flames following a stint with the Wranglers?

The next couple months will go a long way towards shaping (or reshaping) the club.

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