After tough homestand, Flames need to reclaim identity on upcoming road trip
Head coach Darryl Sutter has not minced words during the Calgary Flames’ current four-game losing streak.
With his team sputtering to a 5-4-1 record to start the season, Sutter called out the team’s new superstar Jonathan Huberdeau, took aim at a group of blueliners many thought was the deepest in the league, and said his players lacked the courage to execute a recent gameplan. On Saturday night, he played another card – benching three veterans in the third period. Mikael Backlund, Milan Lucic, and Kevin Rooney combined for three shifts in the final 20 minutes against the New Jersey Devils, a game that the Flames eventually lost in overtime.
"They don't have the energy or the emotion in the game, then they don't get to play,” he said.
“It's not. I don't care. It doesn't even matter who they are. The guys that played in the third got us a point."
Much has changed since the Flames got off to the best start in franchise history by winning five of their first six contests. They dominated the offensive zone, hemming teams in with Sutter’s dump-and-chase, heavy hockey tenants and killing plays defensively while getting decent goaltending. They dominated the Oilers in the first Battle of Alberta on Oct. 15 and came back from two goals down versus the Carolina Hurricanes to win in overtime.
Since then, those dominant offensive zone shifts have been few and far between, forcing Sutter to change up his lines in an effort to get his wingers going. Perhaps the coach’s biggest mystery to solve is Huberdeau, who has just one even-strength point so far. Huberdeau has also looked lost in the offensive zone, often losing stick battles and giving the puck away as he adjusts to the more physical Western Conference.
“I think there has been way too much talk about goals, and assists, and points, and last year,” Sutter said.
“It’s so different. When that happens, [the player thinks] ‘OK, I’ve got to score more.’ He does everything else. He’s a good player. Instead of putting pressure on yourself to score or make that play, just play the game.”
“Yeah, I mean, I still got a lot of work to do. Obviously, it hasn’t been easy for me at the beginning of the year,” Huberdeau said. “I’m way better than what I am right now and I think he’s right. Thinking a little too much, not moving my feet as I used to last year and I think I gotta start doing that. I want to do it as soon as possible but I just gotta relax and play my game. I know I’m a good player. I got to come back to the basics.”
Another cause for concern is Calgary’s back end. Many thought that the Flames had one of the deepest bluelines in the league coming into the season, but the Flames are 0-3 when missing one of their top-four defencemen. On Saturday night, Calgary started the game without Chris Tanev and then lost Michael Stone in the opening period. Rasmus Andersson, MacKenzie Weegar, and Nikita Zadorov all played over 28 minutes, surely unsustainable over the course of 82 games.
“When you get short on the back-end and you’re not where you want to be there, and then you’re just not getting the production from some of the top-end guys, then it’s tough,” Sutter said.
As cliche as it sounds, the Flames’ three-game road trip is coming at the perfect time. After eight straight at home, a stretch they finished at 3-4-1, Calgary can focus on getting back to their identity far from the all-too-familiar confines of the Saddledome. They can go back to Sutter’s dump-and-chase, point-shot, net-front, physical hockey that propelled them to that impressive start. Perhaps more importantly, they can get out of their current routine and build more off-ice chemistry while on the road. Many players cited the team’s early Eastern Conference road trip last season, which they went a perfect 5-0, as crucial for team bonding.
“Seems like we’ve been home for a long time,” said Sutter when asked of the malaise of the homestand.
“But I’m not looking that far ahead. It’s not winning or losing, I’m looking at the process and performance of guys. That’s a concern.”
SPARKS OFF THE FIRE
-Sutter emphasizes shot volume, and that’s taken a step back for Calgary. This season, they’re taking 46.81 per cent of shots at 5-on-5, 15th in the league. Last season, Calgary was third in the league, taking 53.34 per cent of shots at 5-on-5.
-Calgary’s shooting percentage has dipped as well, going from 10.0 last season (12th) to 8.8 (25th) now.
-The Flames look vulnerable against teams with speed…New Jersey, Buffalo, and Edmonton took advantage of Calgary in that regard. This roster, on paper, is very good – but they lack high-end speed, especially at forward.
-Connor Mackey just does not look capable of defending at the NHL level right now. Nicolas Meloche is a recall option for the Flames, especially if Michael Stone misses any time
-Ryan Rishaug had a great breakdown the other day on how the Oilers' power play has evolved in recent years and gotten creative with puck movement. Calgary's man advantage just doesn't look creative in how they enter the zone and set up shots, and teams seem to have figured it out. An example is Nazem Kadri coughing up the puck, leading to a Yanni Gourde short handed goal. The Flames have talented offensive players but lack the dynamism and unpredictability of other powerplay units. Over their recently-completed eight-game homestand, the Flames' power play was 27th in the league, clicking at 15.4 per cent.