It was supposed to be different. At the beginning of the season, the Calgary Flames were billed as one of the most defense-rich teams in the NHL. However, instead of battling for top spot in the Western Conference, they’re fighting inconsistency and poor special teams play. The talent is certainly there. Perhaps the issue is behind the bench.
I am not generally an alarmist. As a lifelong Calgary Flames fan, I have rarely thought that drastic action was required whenever the team hit a slump. And, in 37 years, there have been plenty of slumps. Even at the beginning of last year, as the team struggled while learning the system implemented by Head Coach Glen Gulutzan, I was among the coolest of heads that ultimately prevailed.
I’m not sure I can say that now.
The team is now past the first third of the season. And, as up-and-down as they have been, there remains one constant: poor defensive play. This in spite of the fact that the team boasts one of the best top-4 defense groups in the league.
The Flames are 22nd in the league in the categories of shots-against-per-game (32.41) and goals-against-per-game (3.13). This group should clearly not be putting up these sorts of numbers. Of the shot suppression efforts of the defense group, Kent Wilson of The Athletic has this to say:
"As expected, only the Giordano pairing is above the team average here. Hamonic, after bottoming out recently, has seen his CA/60 and CF% rate improve slightly over the last few games, to the degree that he has nominally passed the still struggling TJ Brodie. Brett Kulak started out really well, but his numbers have suffered the more he has played. Stone and Matt Bartkowski tend to get outplayed most nights (especially if they play together), although they have better XGA rates than the second pair, which suggests Brodie and Hamonic have been more permissive when it comes to quality chances"
Wilson is quick to blame the individual players for the poor numbers. He includes Travis Hamonic‘s name (along with those of the essentially the entire fourth line) as GM Brad Treliving’s “gambles” that have gone wrong. He even goes so far as calling Hamonic “broken”, wondering if he isn’t weighing down TJ Brodie.
I do not entirely agree.
It is true: Brodie and Hamonic have to be better. They are elite defenders and more than capable of keeping shots away from Mike Smith. However, as Calgary Flames fans learned last season watching Dougie Hamilton, Gulutzan’s system can be difficult to adapt to.
My question is, why? What is it about Glen Gulutzan’s possession-based approach to the game that is so difficult for incoming defensemen to grasp? Is it unfair to suggest it may be an issue with his style? I don’t think so.
My other question would be, what is he not teaching?
Shot-blocking, for starters. In 2015-2016, under Bob Hartley, the Flames finished 3rd in the league with 1320 blocked shots. That number fell 1111 in 2016-2017 (19th in the league, Gulutzan’s first year). In those 2 years, SA/GP (shots against per games played) were 28.98 and 28.7, no significant change. This year, as of this writing, the Flames are tracking to 1107 blocked shots (25th in the league). Certainly, one or two more guys standing in front of the puck will help.
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There are also the unmeasurable signs. Last year, the Flames were confident. They were one of the top teams in the league in come-from-behind victories. This year, they seem unable to sustain themselves while being down a goal. Certainly, their ability to generate momentum after scoring goals is evident. But, my observation is that, once scored upon, Calgary Flames confidence leaves the building.
This begets the additional question…who do they not trust? Gulutzan is the obvious answer.
Finally, there is the following. After the most recent loss in Edmonton, Gulutzan identified the team’s emotional control in ‘big games’. His thesis was that the group needs to address emotional management in big situations, particularly when they’re down a goal or two. I agree; that needs to be addressed.
However, at about the 1:55 mark, Gulutzan spends time defending the group, capping it off by saying that nobody on the team has their ‘own agenda’. This, I thought, was a curious choice of words. Nobody asked him about it. Everyone in that press room was more curious about the loss.
Perhaps I’m reaching here, but why comment on agendas? This is pure speculation, but the coach doth protest too much, methinks. Put another way, he IS dealing with agendas. And he’s losing.
Even if I’m wrong (and I likely am), this team needs to address shot suppression. They need to address special teams play. Failure to do either will leave the Flames outside of the playoff picture in 2018.
And with a coach like Daryl Sutter sitting in his beachfront condo in Los Angeles unemployed, it is difficult not to speculate.
The path of least resistance here is for Gulutzan to address these issues immediately. However, as losses add up and consistency continues to struggle, I am losing confidence.