The Calgary Flames look like they can make the playoffs this year, but management shouldn’t be fooled into thinking this squad is anything more than a one-season wonder.
We’re a few months removed from the NHL holiday break, but the Calgary Flames just encountered two ghosts of Christmas past who can teach them a thing or two about their future.
Those ghosts came in the forms of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Colorado Avalanche, two teams that have fallen off precipitously after seasons very similar to the one Calgary is enjoying right now.
The Calgary Flames are this season’s statistical outlier, defying expectations and analytics as they battle for a playoff berth in a year many expected them to battle for the top pick instead. They’re getting career performances from several players in their lineup and they’re fighting through injuries thanks to a mix of intangibles like leadership, determination, coaching and pure luck.
But they’d be wise not to get too far ahead of themselves, because fortune’s wheel is not kind to teams like the Flames.
Just look at the Colorado Avalanche, who rode a hot start in 2013-14 all the way to top spot in the Central Division. The Avs actually registered more points than top contenders like St. Louis, Chicago and Los Angeles last year and remained strong right into the playoffs. Advanced stats people predicted doom all season, but it never came and the Avalanche finished third in the league while ranking 25th in on-ice Corsi at 46.9 percent.
Then they came crashing back to earth in 2014-15.
Colorado now sits at the bottom of the Western Conference’s squishy middle, more than 20 points ahead of tanking teams like Arizona and Edmonton, but just far enough from a wild card spot that it’s virtually impossible for them to make the post-season.
Semyon Varlamov has cooled off a bit from last year. Ditto for Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly. Each guy has fallen off just a bit, but cumulatively it’s been enough to doom the Avs.
So why did they fall off?
Guys get streaky. Guys get hurt. Guys don’t play the same year-after-year.
As any math expert will tell you, good and bad stretches always level out to the average over an extended period of time.
And the average numbers on the Avs were not good.
The Avalanche of 2013-14 were the Leafs of 2012-13, defying their dismal possession numbers en route to a playoff berth. They succeeded based on an extended period of over-performance, but that performance came back to the mean eventually.
Toronto was dead last in the league with a 44.1 percent Corsi rating during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, and we all know how they’ve cratered since then.
The Leafs’ success in 2013 convinced management the roster was better than it really was, as GM Dave Nonis added Jonathan Bernier and David Clarkson while signing Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel to long-term deals in hopes of jump-starting his rebuild.
Now the Leafs are a lottery team on the verge of tearing it all down. They weren’t ready to hit the accelerator in the summer of 2013, and they’re paying for it now.
That’s why Flames GM Brad Treliving will have to be cautious this summer. It would be easy for him to fall in love with his team’s success this year, but there’s every reason to expect the Flames will be worse next season.
Jiri Hudler and Mark Giordano have had career seasons, but they’re both 31 years old and on the verge of a decline. The same goes for 31-year-old Dennis Wideman, who has a shot at tying his 13-goal, 50-point career-best from 2008-09. Wideman has rejuvenated his career this season, but after his last two down years in Calgary, it’s hard to predict what he’ll be like in 2015-16.
Then there are the youngsters on the team. Johnny Gaudreau has performed above expectations and Sean Monahan has taken some huge strides in his game. But the two of them are still young, and they’re bound to hit some bumps in their development over the next few years.
It happened to a can’t-miss prospect like MacKinnon. It can happen to one or both of these guys.
With that in mind, Treliving must stay patient and accept the highs and lows of his young team as they grow into a proper contender over the next few seasons.
Gaudreau and Monahan will improve. Sam Bennett will arrive soon. T.J. Brodie will probably be the Flames’ top defenceman for the next decade, and they’ve got plenty of strong options in goal.
It’s not time to accelerate the rebuild, because the numbers say this roster is not yet as good as it looks.