Calgary Flames face more questions than answers after disappointing road trip

Sep 24, 2023; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Calgary Flames head coach Ryan Huska on his bench against the Vancouver Canucks during the second period at Scotiabank Saddledome. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 24, 2023; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Calgary Flames head coach Ryan Huska on his bench against the Vancouver Canucks during the second period at Scotiabank Saddledome. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports /

Following a win over the Winnipeg Jets at home to open up the season, Ryan Huska’s Calgary Flames hit the road for a five-game trip with stops in a total of zero cities that are home to a club that qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season. While the Flames didn’t make the playoffs last year either, if the goal is to get into the postseason in 2024, expecting seven or eight points out of a possible ten is not a ridiculous expectation. Five or six would have been okay. But here we are looking in the rearview mirror fully aware of the fact that the Flames are en route back to Calgary with only three measly points earned (or seven thrown in the trash, depending on how you look at it).

The Flames opened up the trip with a stop in Pittsburgh, where they lost 5-2 at the hands of the Pens. Rolling into Washington, the Flames were embarrassed by the Capitals and the fact that a player who should currently be on their roster, Matthew Phillips, had a hand in two of the goals that carried the Caps to a 3-2 shootout victory. The road trip’s lone W came in Buffalo, where the Flames won by a narrow margin (4-3). Next up was a visit with Johnny Gaudreau and the Blue Jackets in Columbus where the Flames were dealt a 3-1 loss and a four-game suspension for Rasmus Andersson. Finally – in probably their worst game of the trip and season so far – the Flames were destroyed 6-2 on Sunday by the Red Wings.

Prior to and during the road trip, I wrote that while it’s early in the season, it would be advantageous to have some answers to key questions by the time the Flames are back in Calgary. Maybe that would help fans set expectations and better comprehend exactly who these Calgary Flames are under GM Craig Conroy and head coach Huska. Perhaps I tread directly into the bear trap that is Flames fandom at this time of year, but my optimism has taken a serious blow not only because of the road trip’s impact on the NHL’s standings table, but because we might actually know less about this team than we did before the trip.

In this article, I’m going to take a look at some of the biggest questions Flames fans are facing at this juncture. In an attempt to answer them, I won’t be speculating what the Flames will do, but what they should do to answer those questions. Before I jump into it, a couple preface points are required: (1) these questions are mine as well as Flames fans’ (thanks to the vocal bunch on Flames Twitter/X for always providing great source material) and (2) the season is still early and lots can change (remember the Flames were 5-1 at this time last season).

Short-term questions facing the Calgary Flames

1. Where will the scoring come from?

In my worthless opinion, this might be the most important short-term question. When I look at the Calgary Flames roster, I am fully aware of the fact that it’s deeper than some in the league and that in order to win, all four lines and all three D pairs, along with special teams and goaltending, will have to contribute to success. On the surface, that doesn’t sound like such a bad thing. After all, isn’t that the formula to winning the Cup once you make the playoffs? Good D, at least one goalie who can steal a game, depth down the middle, and you can compete in the postseason, right?

The short answer: yes. The longer, more realistic, and unfortunate answer for the Flames: you have to make the playoffs first. And in order to make the playoffs, you need to have consistent scoring from guys who can get you on the board early and/or bury in desperate moments.

I don’t see any bona fide NHL scorers on the Flames roster – there’s not even someone on the level of Tyler Toffoli when it comes to having a natural nose for the net. The Calgary Flames have put their goal-scoring hopes on the shoulders of Elias Lindholm, Andrew Mangiapane, Matt Coronato, and maybe Nazem Kadri…

Sure, Lindholm had 40 on a line with Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk in 2021-22, but as we all know, we witnessed a magical run for that line. I don’t subscribe to the fact that Lindholm was solely a benefactor of his wingers’ play, but I do believe that specific trio had brilliant chemistry and complementary individual toolkits that overlapped in the most beautiful Venn diagram you ever did see. In other words, betting that the Flames are going to recreate a situation akin to Gaudreau-Lindholm-Tkachuk spring-boarding Lindholm back to 40-goal, 82-point output might be a pipe dream. Lindy can shoot, he’s the Flames best all round player, but given the personnel he’s currently surrounded with, highlighted by debatably underwhelming production we’ve seen from 10-28-X, I wouldn’t bet on circumstances emerging that can support Lindholm as the go-to goal-scorer the Flames so desperately need. However, he can be one of them — he just needs additional scorers in the lineup contributing at a close-to-equal rate.

I love Andrew Mangiapane. He’s a work horse, he can play up and down the lineup, and he does have the ability to get his stick on pucks, transforming plays that may otherwise result in nothingness into a goal for his team. I don’t even think it would be crazy for Mangiapane to score 35 again – this season or in the near future. But despite all of his positive qualities, we need to remind ourselves that Mangiapane had his 35-goal campaign in a secondary scoring role, he’s paid like a secondary scorer, and his best performances this season have been when he’s slotted to provide secondary scoring. If the Flames were able to deploy a top scoring line that shift-over-shift was a dangerous offensive threat, the opponent would have no choice but to send their best shutdown unit over the boards in that match-up as frequently as possible. Voila, Mangiapane hops out next on the Flames’ second or third line and that’s where he scores his goals. I’m afraid relying on Mangiapane to make the leap to lethal sniper in critical moments is like asking Superbad not to be funny.

Matthew Coronato is one of the best prospects the Calgary Flames have had in their system in a long time and it’s both a relief and cooler than ice cold to see him make the team out of camp with opportunities in the top nine as well as on the power play. He’s going to be a great NHLer (and hopefully a Calgary Flame) for at least the next decade and a half. What Matthew Coronato is not is a 30+ goal-scorer in the best league in hockey (yet?). He’s not Connor Bedard. The guy has never played a gruelling 82-game NHL season, he’s never played pro hockey, and he needs ample time to learn how to be a pro before the Flames pull a Sabres/Levi and throw him a map, compass, horse named Epona (or Blasty), and demand he guides us all over Hyrule, defeating Ganon in the process. As an organization, the Flames should not expect Coronato to be the answer to their goal-scoring woes, but a player who can develop under great veterans and contribute to the scoresheet because of the opportunities he earns. His trajectory should be about development and nothing else. Unlike Martin St-Louis, Matthew Phillips, Sam Bennett, and countless others, maybe this hockey club under Craig Conroy can get it right with Coronato.

Within hockey culture, the term “nasty” has become a colloquialism that’s actually a good thing. For example, a “nasty” goal is typically highlight reel-worthy. In everyday contexts, though, “nasty” means “highly unpleasant, especially to the senses; physically nauseating.” Unfortunately, Nazem Kadri’s “Nasty Naz” moniker is starting to relate more to the latter. Unlike Mangiapane and Coronato, the $7 million dollar centremen should be someone the Flames count on for clutch goals. While Kadri’s 87 points over 71 games in 2021-22 was an anomaly for Kadri, he did hit the 30-goal mark twice with the Maple Leafs (2016-7 and 2017-18) and still managed 24 tucks last season despite falling off of a cliff after the All-Star break in his first season with the Flames. Through his first six games this season, Kadri hasn’t been hesitant to shoot the puck, but he seems to be missing the net more often than not. He either needs to start tickling the twine or dishing to his linemates in order to create sustained pressure more often. I’m rooting for Kadri to find his form, but I based on evidence broadcast to me via the big black Toshiba thing in my living room, I’m not overly optimistic about it.

Beyond individual player production, the Flames power play needs to get going. At the time of writing this, they’re down to a 15% PP conversion rate, good for 20th league-wide (worse than last season’s).

I have serious concerns about the Flames’ ability to score goals. A lack of snipers combined with a power play that isn’t producing is troublesome.

2. Is it time to waive Dan Vladar to get Dustin Wolf into the lineup?

If you think waiving Dan Vladar now is the right idea, you’re out to lunch. He’s an awesome goalie — just kidding.

Vladar has been brutal. In two starts, he’s allowed nine goals on 57 shots – good for a dismal .842 save percentage and a 4.51 goals against average. Granted he was sick in one game and the team in front of him was horrible in the other, but even so, these are not performances that should warrant keeping Dustin Wolf in the minors.

If the Conroy cannot find a trade partner to ship out Vladar, his numbers are poor enough and his cap hit is high enough that he just might clear waivers. What’s the worst that could happen? The Flames lose Vladar and gain $2.2 million in cap space?

Of course, a trade with some form of asset coming back to Calgary – even if it’s a 100th round pick in 2069 – would be preferable, but if the market isn’t allowing a deal to go through, it might be time to move on from 80. Markstrom has been solid; go to him as your starter and let the kid in 32 become his understudy. In the words of Ozzy Osbourne, “Bark at the moon,” because it’s time for Dustin Wolf.

3. What line combinations will actually produce results?

We’ll constantly write articles on line combinations, so I’ll keep this one brief. The fourth line of A.J. Greer, Yegor Sharangovich, and Walker Duehr has been good enough. Blake Coleman, Mikael Backlund, and a winger is a good third line (especially if it’s Mangiapane).

The top six forwards are where things are a (borderline) mess. The Flames trying to find chemistry for Jonathan Huberdeau are like a kid wearing a blind fold searching for their last Easter egg in a corn maze. Personally, I think Huberdeau needs more time with Lindholm – we’ve seen the Huberdeau-Kadri experiment fail over and over again (and for the first time this season, got to see it flounder against the Red Wings!).

Dillon Dubé is probably more of a bottom six guy than a top six.

Adam Ruzicka is showing promise.

Matthew Coronato should probably play with Backlund or Lindholm, so he’s not stuck with Kadri, who’s defensive game is a liability.

So, here’s where I land with it as of right now given the current personnel:

Huberdeau – Lindholm – Mangiapane
Ruzicka – Kadri – Dubé
Coleman – Backlund – Coronato
Greer – Sharangovich – Duehr

I don’t like Dubé slotted there, but I think the priority needs to be on that top line sorting it out because frankly, I believe more in Huberdeau and Lindholm than I do in Kadri at this juncture.

Maybe it’s time to get Zary in the mix.

4. Can the Calgary Flames compete in the modern NHL?

Unless the Calgary Flames can find consistency, chemistry, discipline, and really solid systems execution, they’re far from being contenders in the NHL. They don’t have the speed or scoring ability to compete in track meets or high-scoring affairs. This was exemplified versus the Red Wings.

However, I do believe they’ll get better at the holistic game and will string some wins together. They can make the playoffs.

Long-term questions facing the Calgary Flames

1. Can the team “get rid” of Nazem Kadri and Jonathan Huberdeau? If so, how?

The Calgary Flames could theoretically buy out Kadri and Huberdeau, but it would be so expensive that it’s not a solution worth spending more time on.

How about a trade? Flat out, no team in the NHL has the combination of cap space and will to acquire underperforming players on overvalued long-term contracts who’ve already hit their career peaks.

Flames fans should remove the concept of a roster rid of Kadri and Huberdeau from their minds and accept that they’re here for the considerable future.

2. Is now the time to rebuild? If so, how?

Abiding by my commitment to allow significantly less leash to the Flames this season, my feeling would be to see where things stand at American Thanksgiving and if still too unclear, wait till the holiday season to commit to a full-on rebuild for the club.

With that being said, signing Lindholm, Noah Hanifin, or any of the other UFAs now is not a course of action I’d personally support. The Flames should keep unsigned players unsigned in order to reserve their trade capital. If the season’s outlook is bleak in the coming weeks and months, wouldn’t we want players other teams value as trade chips to acquire futures (draft picks and prospects)?

Assuming the Flames are removed from the playoff race and the decision is made to rebuild, the best way to do it would be to flip any/all of Lindholm, Hanifin, Nikita Zadorov, Chris Tanev, Dubé, Greer, Jordan Oesterle, and Dennis Gilbert for picks and prospects, thereby creating a heap of cap space to sign younger players next off-season and the ability to get Wranglers like Connor Zary, Cole Schwindt, Adam Klapka, Ilya Solovyov, and Jeremie Poirier into the Flames lineup to boost their development as professional hockey players and potential to contribute to a brighter future for Flames hockey.

3. With rumours circulating that Noah Hanifin is close to a contract extension with the Flames, would this be the right move?

Based on my answer above, I’ll say no.

Next. Who should be on Flames’ power play units?. dark