It’s looking more and more like Calgary’s 2014-15 brilliance was an ahead-of-schedule anomaly. And that’s OK. This team remains on a long-term path to success.
The pun-packed headline read, “Internal Combustion: Young guns look to ignite the rebuild with a culture of accountability in place.”
Affixed to the top of the page: a prediction, “7th in Pacific,” and Stanley Cup odds of 125 to 1.
It was the Calgary Flames preview in THN’s Yearbook for the start of 2014-15. Oddly enough, 412 days later, it still rings true. If you fell off your bike Oct. 8, 2014 and sustained a coma-inducing head injury, only to wake up today, the Flames would be exactly what you thought they were. You wouldn’t believe the story of Calgary’s magical 2014-15 season.
“Jiri Hudler had 76 points and won the Lady Byng? Sean Monahan scored 30 goals as a 20-year-old? Little Johnny Gaudreau became a legit NHL star as a rookie? Kris Russell set a single-season record for blocked shots? Bob Hartley won the Jack Adams? MY Flames finished third in the Pacific Division, ahead of the Los Angeles Kings? And won a playoff series? That’s it. I’m going back to bed for another year.”
It was a mind-blowing season because the Calgary Flames were so darned ahead of schedule. There was a reason they picked fourth overall at the 2014 draft, snagging future franchise player Sam Bennett: they were deep in the rebuild stage, years away from contention, slowly trying to amass prospects. Then last year happened, and everything went haywire.
Of course, we knew what the advanced statistics suggested: that Calgary was among the NHL’s luckiest teams, that it played way over its head and would regress the next season, just as the Colorado Avalanche from 2013-14 to 2014-15 and the Toronto Maple Leafs from 2012-13 to 2013-14. Bad habits come back to bite you, and the Calgary Flames had too many. They finished with 97 points despite a pitiful 5-on-5 score-adjusted Corsi For percentage of 44.2, good for 28th in the NHL. They actually regressed from 2013-14 to 2014-15. They allowed far more shot attempts than they generated. Winning was not sustainable.
And so the stat heads called a Calgary collapse in 2015-16 all the way. The Flames were the topic of much debate in the THN office during summer prediction season, as a few of us – including me – thought GM Brad Treliving had addressed the analytics deficiencies enough to remedy the puck-possession problem. After all, he brought in Corsi darling Michael Frolik as a free agent to patrol the wing and swung a blockbuster trade for defenseman Dougie Hamilton, who posted strong possession numbers in Boston. I figured those additions, plus the presumed progression of youngsters like Gaudreau, Monahan and Bennett, would offset any other bad tendencies.
I was wrong. The Flames have sputtered in 2015-16’s first quarter to say the least. They sit 8-12-1, seventh in the Pacific, two points up on last-place Edmonton. The key culprit is, of course, possession. Per war-on-ice.com, the Flames are 28th in 5-on-5 score-adjusted Corsi For percentage at 47.0. Same old same same old, and the luck has run out. I wouldn’t get too excited about the Flames bouncing back to win six of their past 10 games, either. During that stretch, they’ve merely improved to 48.0, or 21st, hardly the mark a “hot” team should shoot for. Their playoff chances sit at 7.1 percent. Woof. Frolik’s possession numbers are actually good, second best among forwards, but he can’t move a mountain on his own.
None of this is news. Calgary’s secret is out. This is not a good hockey team, and it doesn’t look like it will be all year. The question I have for everyone is…what if we just accepted there was no problem with that?
Flash back 412 days again. A little more than a year ago, the Flames were on the long track to success. What if we throw our hands up and decide they still are? They still plan to build around 22-year-old Gaudreau, 21-year-old Monahan and 19-year-old Bennett. They have two high-end goaltenders, Jon Gillies and Mason McDonald, developing in the pipeline. Their prospect tree has deep roots that include goal-scoring winger Emile Poirier and even somewhat forgotten project Mark Jankowski, the 2012 first-round flier who has started scoring as a senior at Providence College. They snagged a couple interesting blueliners in Swedes Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington at the 2015 draft.
Hamilton hasn’t delivered as advertised but is just 22 and signed through 2021. Another good Flames blueliner, T.J. Brodie, is 25 and locked up through 2020. So many of Calgary’s best players are nowhere near their primes. This team is not finished developing. Just because it struggles this year doesn’t mean it won’t flourish in, say, 2017-18. Especially if and when the Flames secure another high-end prospect at the 2016 draft. Depending on how pear-shaped things go, imagine if Calgary lands Auston Matthews, setting up an epic Alberta rivalry with Edmonton’s Connor McDavid in the decades to come. How cool would that be?
So yes, even the Flames apologists like me must, well, apologize for being so wrong. It doesn’t look good for the rest of 2015-16. But there’s plenty of reason for optimism about this team’s future. All you have to do is pretend 2014-15 didn’t happen and adjust your expectations.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin