Things sure have not gone according to plan for the Calgary Flames this year. They entered the season as a popular wiseguy pick - not a Stanley Cup contender, but a team with a good chance to win a lot of games, contend for their division, and make bettors a whole lot of money along the way. They had a strong offseason that addressed their biggest needs while locking their biggest stars up for the long term, and they made a promising coaching change. It seemed like they were poised to explode.
Through 17 games, though, they have more points than just one team in the NHL - and that team, the Coyotes, has just three fewer points and has played three fewer games. The season isn't even a quarter of the way through, and the team had a promising 1-0 win in Minnesota on Tuesday night to stop a four game losing skid, so all is not lost. Yet.
But can this team get back on track and correct things before it is too late? Or has the underwhelming play of the first month and a half of the season provided a window on what to expect all year? Here's a look at five factors to consider when pondering those questions:
Coaching: After last year's disappointing season, the team fired head coach Bob Hartley, who was just a year removed from winning Coach of the Year honors. It was absolutely the right move - Hartley had been around for too long and his message wasn't resonating anymore. He was fired just when Bruce Boudreau was let go in Anaheim, so it seemed as if the plan was to hire the great Boudreau. Instead, they bypassed him, and every other high-profile coach on the market, and took a very long time before hiring Vancouver assistant and former Dallas head coach Glen Gulutzan. It was a bit of a stretch of a hire - Gulutzan had underwhelmed in Dallas and wasn't at the top of a lot of lists when the offseason began. His early time in Calgary has not been ideal. I don't think I have ever seen a coach struggle so badly to come up line combinations. He shuffles players around every game up front and on defense. He's searching for chemistry that works, but players seem uncomfortable. His is definitely a different system and approach than Hartley, and it seems clear that players have not fully embraced it yet. He needs to get that buy-in quickly or his second head coaching stint will be shorter than the 130 games he had in Dallas. It feels like he is already on shakier ground than a coach should be after just 17 games. My gut tells me that he is in trouble and that the team is already losing patience.
The big stars: Like all teams, this one is built around a small core of star players. For Calgary those stars are forwards Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, who both signed long-term deals for well north of $6 million a year this summer, and defensemen Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie. The biggest issue for Calgary to date is that those four have all been varying degrees of lousy. Giordano has been less than his best, and Brodie has been mostly bad. It doesn't help that the two have been defensive partners for several years but have only rarely been playing together as Gulutzan shuffles things nightly. Up front both Gaudreau and Monahan have looked like the weight of their immense contracts has been too much. Both have struggled badly. Gaudreau has been much less than his best, and Monahan has often been embarrassing. Gaudreau, who is a truly elite offensive talent in the league, finally started showing signs of returning mojo lately - the Flames have five goals in their last four games, and Gaudreau has scored three and assisted on a fourth. Even that good news is tempered, though - Gaudreau broke a finger thanks to a brutal slash on Tuesday and is out for surgery. Until the best players play better, the team is doomed. The good news is that there is plenty of upside. Whether Monahan can shake off his fun without his linemate, though, is a big question.
Goaltending: Last year the goaltending was a nightly horror show. Just awful. They overhauled everything this offseason, cleaning house and bringing in Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson. It should be a much-improved duo, but so far the results - aside from Johnson's shutout on Tuesday - have been disappointing. They aren't making the game-saving saves, and they just haven't been good enough. Elliott's eight losses in 11 games are already as many as he had last year in St. Louis in 41 starts. It's not all the fault of the goalies - neither the defense or the goal support has been adequate - but the twosome needs to be much better before this team can really turn things around.
Special teams: Frustratingly toothless special teams were a big reason that Hartley was fired. Things have not improved at all. Last year they were 30th in penalty killing percentage. Now they are 29th, but at a lower percentage. Last year they scored on 17 percent of power plays, which was 22nd in the league. Now they sit 28th with a dismal 10.2 percent. This is just not nearly good enough. The constant personnel changes and lack of chemistry that result is a big factor, and so is the lack of overall buy-in to what Gulutzan is selling. If they don't improve here - and dramatically - then they are doomed.
Home cooking: The Flames have been just horrible at home. They are 2-6. Only one team has fewer home wins - Buffalo - and the Sabres have played two fewer games and still have as many points at home as Calgary thanks to a 1-3-2 record. Calgary just seems to be trying to do too much at home and is making things too complicated. There is no reason at all for them to struggle so badly at home, though, and that alone is a reason to be at least somewhat optimistic about the future.
Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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