The Calgary Flames were the best long putters in the NHL a year ago.
They would constantly save par, or in their case win games, after giving themselves tough odds. At least that’s how general manager Brad Treliving saw it.
“Sure it was a successful year, but we equated it to winning the Masters and sinking 18, 40-foot putts,” he said. “That’s probably not the way you’re going to plan to do things on a regular basis.”
This year those attempts have often come up short.
A year ago, the Flames had 97 points and this year they’re on pace to hit 74 points. They made moves in the summer to strengthen their overall game – trading for blueliner Dougie Hamilton and signing forward Michael Frolik. This was on top of the belief that youngsters Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan would take the next step.
Even though Gaudreau has become a point-per-game player as a sophomore and Monahan is on pace for similar numbers to a year ago, the Flames have regressed in almost every category.
They score 2.73 goals per-game this year compared to 2.89 a year ago. Last season they allowed 2.60 goals per-game while this year that number has ballooned to 3.14 goals allowed per-game – worst in the league. Their power play and penalty kill numbers have also dropped.
“I think we’ve been pretty inconsistent all year and it’s been disappointing,” Captain Mark Giordano said. “This year the confidence to do that wasn’t there.”
A year ago the Flames were third-to-last in 5-on-5 CF% at 44.5 percent according to War on Ice. Because of this, they tried to push puck possession this season and not double down on the same philosophy again, knowing it could lead to some regression. They acquired Hamilton to help their defense and brought in Frolik in order to give them more skill up front.
“We wanted to become deeper on defense, we wanted to hold on pucks and create more offense,” Treliving said. “We wanted to become more of a possession team. The fact that you want to do those things doesn’t necessarily mean they happen.”
The Flames’ possession numbers have improved to a 48.0 percent CF%, better than playoff-bound groups like the New York Rangers and Minnesota Wild, but that hasn’t equated to wins.
“I think we were one of the best teams last year at transitioning off the rush,” Giordano said. “Even if we didn’t possess the puck in the other team’s zone, we were getting a lot of chances off the rush and scoring a lot, so … but I think the thing we came in and expected to be a playoff team this year and when we got behind early in the season, that really got into our heads and became an uphill battle for the rest of the year.”
Last season the Flames were one of the best comeback teams in the NHL. They won 20 games when their opponent scored first, a number that ranked second in the NHL. Their winning percentage when the other team scored first ranked sixth at .435. They ranked fourth in the NHL in winning percentage when trailing after both one and two periods.
This year they rank 26th in winning percentage when trailing after two periods and 13th in winning percentage when trailing after one period. The Flames have won just seven games when their opponent has scored first. Their winning percentage in those contests is .200.
“It’s a near impossible league to chase and when you’re chasing, whether that be in-game or chasing your season, it’s a hard league to chase in,” Treliving said.
That ‘chasing’ feeling started early in the season for Calgary. After the first two months, the Flames were 8-14-2. In the past when the Flames got down, there was swagger that the group could make a comeback. That same type of feel wasn’t there this year.
“We started the wrong way and that created the doubt in our minds that we’ve been trying to catch up since,” coach Bob Hartley said. “But as we know when you fall behind in this league it’s tough to get back.”
A lot of those numbers with the Flames fall on the goaltending. Veteran Jonas Hiller, a pending unrestricted free agent, has a 3.51 goal-against average and . 879 save percentage. Injured teammate Karri Ramo had taken over the starting job and was posting decent numbers with a 2.63 GAA and .909 save percentage before succumbing to a knee issue on Feb. 11 that knocked him out the rest of the season.
Ramo is also a pending UFA and really both he and Hiller aren’t considered long-term options for the Flames in net. Joni Ortio, who was called up after Ramo’s injury, hasn’t really impressed either with a 2.77 goal-against average and .903 save percentage.
After a recent 8-3 loss to the Anaheim Ducks, Hartley called out his goaltending for their inability to make saves in the game.
"You give them a few freebies from the start, and you know it's going to be a long game," he said. "Our goalies had a tough night. Nothing to take away from the Ducks, but in order to beat them you need a few saves here and there."
Treliving said that spot will be addressed in the offseason, though couldn’t figure out how he would look to improve the position – via free agency, trade or even with someone in the organization.
“We need to improve there,” Treliving said. “How and when and where that gets done, that’s been a focus of ours for some time now and how this thing plays itself out, but no question upon it, whether that’s externally, whether that’s a combination of internal, external, we’re going to dig as deep and as hard as we can, but we know we have to improve in the position.”
It’s not all doom and gloom for Calgary.
Gaudreau will probably finish in the top-10 in the NHL in scoring. Monahan continues to cement himself as one of the better young two-way centers in hockey. Sam Bennett, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, will finish his first pro season with near 20 goals. Hamilton’s sophomore year with Calgary will surely be better than his first season. Even in a down year, he still has 41 points in 78 games.
A lot of the core pieces from a year ago are there. The Flames know this – they just need to refigure their winning formula with the group.
“I think we have some really good, young pieces, no question,” Treliving said. “That’s a starting point. But we’re done talking about a year ago. The reality is we are where we are and you have to accept where you are and it’s not good enough.”
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