Columnist image
Frank Seravalli

TSN Senior Hockey Reporter

|Archive

The usually quick jaunt down Highway 2 must have felt like a cross-continent plane ride as the Flames returned to Calgary on Friday.

There is a lot to unpack, much more than just three weeks’ worth of bubble supplies.

Where do the Calgary Flames go from here?

A chinook of change is bound to be blowing through Cowtown. From the interim coach to an underwhelming core, to free agents galore, change is just about the only guarantee as GM Brad Treliving and Co. begin a most critical autopsy after yet another disappointing finish.

Six seasons into Treliving’s tenure – the 10th-longest in the Now Hiring League – the Flames have just one postseason series win, setting aside the pandemic oddity of a qualifying-round victory over the Winnipeg Jets.

The first and most obvious question surrounds the immediate future of interim coach Geoff Ward. 

It was Ward who said after Thursday night’s crushing loss – the only Stanley Cup playoff game in hockey’s 102-year history where a team trailed by three goals and won by four – that he felt the Flames “took a step” forward “as opposed to last year.”

It certainly did not feel that way. The Flames won the Pacific Division last year with 107 points and were on pace to finish with a middling 93 this season.

Unlike last spring, when the Flames were extinguished by Nathan MacKinnon, this series against the Dallas Stars was there for the taking. Calgary was 12 seconds away from a 3-1 edge in the best-of-seven before blowing a late lead. The Flames appeared to lack the step-on-your-throat mentality required to win in the second season.

If Ward did not do enough to have the interim tag removed pre-pandemic with a 24-15-3 record, it’s hard to imagine that his panicked goalie pull after Cam Talbot blew a three-goal lead helped his case.

If Treliving opts to start fresh, the Flames’ new bench boss would be Treliving’s fifth in seven seasons, and his fourth hire after Glen Gulutzan, Bill Peters and Ward.

Which players will the next Calgary coach have at his disposal?

That’s where the temperature gets turned up.

Fingers are already pointed at Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, the common refrain being that this playoff run would be the once-and-for-all referendum on Calgary’s core.

They are not unfair questions to raise.

But if this summer solidified anything, it’s that the Flames are Matthew Tkachuk’s team. He was already their heartbeat, but missing Tkachuk for the final four and a half games against the Stars was proof that he is also their best player.

The danger in making that distinction lies in the decision that follows it. The knee-jerk reaction might be to blow it up, ship at least one of the core players out. The smarter play might be to find a better supporting cast for Tkachuk, to take the heat off Gaudreau and Monahan in the matchup game and maybe make those two lines among the best two-headed monsters in the league.

To be clear: Johnny and ‘Mony’ are not absolved from scorn. They combined for exactly one even-strength goal in the series – on an empty-net. But they did create at least six power-play goals over 10 games, and the scoreboard doesn’t distinguish between even strength and power play – especially in the postseason.

You can bet Treliving’s phone will be ringing off the hook, with 23 of the league’s 31 teams able to trade with each other by Monday, to inquire if either are available.

Their contracts, each under control for at least the next two seasons, are incredibly reasonable relative to their production.

Consider: Over the past six seasons, Monahan has 172 goals – the 15th-most in the NHL – and more than Leon Draisaitl (168), MacKinnon (168), Mark Scheifele (166) and Jeff Skinner (161). Over the past five seasons, Gaudreau has 380 points – the 11th-most in the NHL – and more than John Tavares (368), Claude Giroux (365), David Pastrnak (352), Aleksander Barkov (347) and Jack Eichel (337).

Instead, attention might be better spent on net. Goaltending might not have lost the series against Dallas, but it certainly cost them Game 6.

If there is one true knock on Treliving’s tenure, it would be in his failure to adequately address the Flames’ goaltending. Talbot, a pending free agent, and David Rittich provided Calgary with its best season in net in six years, but the Flames have averaged a 20th-place finish in save percentage over the past six years.

Treliving has trotted out 11 different goalies in six seasons: Jonas Hiller, Karri Ramo, Joni Ortio, Niklas Backstrom, Brian Elliott, Chad Johnson, Jon Gillies, Rittich, Mike Smith, Eddie Lack and Talbot.

This is the off-season to make a splash, with more starting-calibre goaltenders likely available than possible starting positions – from Vancouver’s Jacob Markstrom to proud Western Canadian Braden Holtby, from popular teammate Robin Lehner to playoff pedigreed Matt Murray – that should make the annual game of musical chairs play to Calgary’s advantage.

With a goal line-out approach, the blueline is next. The Flames will be counting on Rasmus Andersson and Juuso Valimaki to shoulder top-four loads, but what does that mean for T.J. Brodie? Travis Hamonic is unlikely to return after opting out of the return to play, plus Derek Forbort and Erik Gustafsson are also free agents.

The Calgary chinook of change is coming. There are no shortage of questions, and they will all require careful consideration.

Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli​