What We Learned: Flames need push amid newsworthy weekend

Glen Gulutzan was unhappy with the way the Flames were practicing on Friday and launched into an F-bomb-laden tirade. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

Plenty of goings on in Calgary this weekend, kicked off by the Great Glen Gulutzan Stick-Tossing Incident of 2018.

He was, apparently, unhappy with the way the Flames were practicing on Friday and launched into an F-bomb-laden tirade that included both the phrase “check the standings” and impressive distance on the stick toss itself.

It was a bit of a surprise because the Flames are generally playing really well and, at the time, had picked up two straight wins. So maybe this was an outsized reaction to guys maybe playing at 75 percent intensity in practice, but his point about the standings should be well taken by everyone on that roster: This Flames team has the talent to be cruising in the Pacific, and isn’t. It’s a criticism that could apply to a few other teams in the division, of course, but through 40 games, they had just 20 wins, and have also played in five three-point games against Western Conference teams. Which is to say they’re giving away a decent amount of points and the team was about to enter a bit of a tough stretch, with a home game against Anaheim (directly ahead of them in the standings) before a four-game road trip.

So the motivation for the meltdown is apparent enough: If the Flames didn’t keep up their recent winning ways, they maybe come back from that road trip three, four, or five points back of the last wild card spot.

There was some amount of handwringing about how performative the display was, especially given that there were national TV people in the building, and you’ve certainly seen less scenery chewing in local dinner theater productions of Death of a Salesman. But sometimes you need a bit of scenery chewing. It’s not always a bad thing. Jack Nicholson isn’t exactly going for “subtle” in The Shining, right?

And certainly with the Flames dramatic win on Saturday night — which barely avoided gifting Anaheim at least an OT point — maybe people will say it worked. It’s difficult to draw that correlation; the Flames dramatically outplayed a team in the midst of a five-game roadtrip which they are, frankly, better than. There were some problems in the third period and drama throughout, but on the balance the Flames deserved the win. Is that Gulutzan’s doing? Probably not, but he’s done a pretty good job with this club after coming in with plenty of question marks about why he got hired over, say, Bruce Boudreau.

The Flames are currently fourth in the NHL in possession but have a surprisingly low shooting percentage (seventh-last in the league) that has almost certainly cost them a number of games. The special teams are wanting, especially the power play. And that doesn’t make sense for a team with as much top-six talent as the Flames have on hand. Even Micheal Ferland seems to have developed into a nice little skill player — check that pass to Dougie Hamilton for the game-winner — and when you have that luxury, it doesn’t make sense that the Flames should have a minus-3 goal difference, especially because they draw more penalties but commit fewer than the league average. (Dig into the numbers and you’ll find that Calgary has a lot of trouble getting their high number of power play shot attempts on net.)

And as to the possession thing, the Flames have five defenseman who have played at least 500 minutes halfway through the season. Only Hamilton and Mark Giordano are north of 50 percent in possession (they are, in fact, both pushing 58), and the rest are a smidge below it. So while this club seemingly has an elite process, that’s only because their top pairing (and the 3M line of Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik, and Matthew Tkachuk) are beyond dominant, and everyone else is relatively pliable. The problem is, those five guys are only on the ice for about a third of the game, so that leaves a lot of time in which the Flames aren’t doing anywhere near as well as the overall numbers would lead you to believe.

The roster problems aren’t Gulutzan’s fault, of course. The Flames have a great top-six forward group and probably the best top pair in the league. After that, you run into issues. (It should also be said that Mike Smith is punching well above his weight, only adding concern that if he turns back into a pumpkin, the team’s playoff chances could be toast.) The first two lines are pushing around opponents quite well, the third line is doing okay, and the fourth is getting caved in most nights.

Things may only be complicated by what is perceived as a failed experiment with Jaromir Jagr, who is now reportedly working with Calgary management on an exit strategy despite some solid underlying numbers in his 22 games. This seems more like an issue of both “fit” — the Flames play fast, as does most of the league these days — and “fitness” — Jagr seemingly can’t stay healthy this year — than the sport’s elder statesman being not good enough to play in this league any more. Calgary’s goal difference per 60 rate when Jagr is on the ice at 5-on-5 is among the highest on the team, albeit against lower-end competition. Still, without Jagr, the Flames’ forward depth is just a little more exposed, and that’s not going to help them win games long-term.

Meanwhile, special teams problems are, to me, a coaching issue. Gulutzan’s job is to figure out those problems specifically. That he seemingly can’t or hasn’t yet is an issue. The club just played Game 41 and it’s still not in the playoffs. They’re close and there’s plenty of runway left, but this club needs a middling winning streak or three to really cement any sort of playoff position. You have the high-end talent, so to not get results like this in what seems to be a fairly fixable way may speak to larger limitations.

Broadly speaking, it’s tough to get a read on this team. What “should” they be? Probably top-three in their division, but it’s also not hard to see why they’re not. Maybe the stick toss is a turning point for them. Maybe it’s not. The point is it was probably necessary because, on paper, this team shouldn’t have to count on a few winning streaks to solidify their playoff bona fides.

What We Learned

(Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)

Anaheim Ducks: Tough way for the Ducks to lose but they didn’t really deserve to be in that third period as much as they were in the first place.

Arizona Coyotes: Seems like a lot of the guys on the Coyotes might benefit from a “change of scenery.

Boston Bruins: When you can chase a goalie before he even makes a save, that’s good. The Bruins have a plus-30 goal difference in their last NINE games.

Buffalo Sabres: I’m writing this before either one starts, but I’m going to assume attendance at the Sabres game directly opposite a Bills playoff game was negative-50.

Calgary Flames: You need to be able to build off this.

Carolina Hurricanes: Congrats to Cam Ward: You gave up two goals on the first two shots you faced and now your next start is against…. Tampa?

Chicago Blackhawks: Arrested Development voice: He’s not.

Colorado Avalanche: Halfway through the season, the Avs now have as many wins as they did all last year. Good for them, fun team to watch.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Some of the contracts on this team are and should have always been the big concern with Columbus as a going concern.

Dallas Stars: If the top line can really get going, the sky’s the limit for this team.

Detroit Red Wings: The Wings entered Sunday’s game against Tampa having taken just one point of the last 18 against the Bolts, and having lost 13 of the last 14 meetings. That’s bad.

Edmonton Oilers: Man, the knives are OUT.

Florida Panthers: Nice little story about the Panthers’ potential future goaltender loving Roberto Luongo.

Los Angeles Kings: Don’t look now but the Kings have lost four of their last six, all against Western Conference opponents, and three of the losses were against their own division. Not ideal.

Minnesota Wild: The Wild are still holding onto a playoff spot, but for how much longer?

Montreal Canadiens: Victor Mete is coming back after the Habs’ bye week.

Nashville Predators: Man, imagine if the Preds trade for another young, top-six forward? Get outta here!

New Jersey Devils: What a headline.

New York Islanders: The Islanders really are playing a shockingly poor brand of hockey lately.

New York Rangers: How many games does this headline apply to in Lundqvist’s career? Like 40 percent?

Ottawa Senators: Gotta think this was their Cup Final.

Philadelphia Flyers: Tyrell Goulbourne made his NHL debut and was credited with doing a lot despite playing just 5:23.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Ah, probably not.

San Jose Sharks: Gotta say: I agree with Don Cherry. Joe Thornton shouldn’t fight.

St. Louis Blues: Sure the Blues lost to the Flyers 6-3, but they won the Schenn trade in a walk.

Tampa Bay Lightning: The Bolts lost two games in a row. But they hadn’t done that since November so I wouldn’t sweat it too much.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Auston Matthews is quietly having a point-a-game season.

Vancouver Canucks: Mike Del Zotto is nothing if not helpful.

Vegas Golden Knights: This quote from Bill Foley is interesting: “I ask (McPhee) questions about players and I ask him what his thought process is. Things like ‘why this length of the contract?’” Hopefully that doesn’t lead to Meddling Owner syndrome. Hopefully he just wants to learn more about the nine-figure investment he made.

Washington Capitals: Matt Niskanen being back is a huge deal for the Caps.

Winnipeg Jets: Dustin Byfuglien just played his fewest minutes in any game over the last four seasons, and he’s mad.

Play of the Weekend

If you didn’t know about the weekend’s Butt Goal, now you know:

Gold Star Award

I guess four goals is a good amount for Patrice Bergeron to have scored.

Minus of the Weekend

Corey Crawford being hurt is incredibly bad news for Chicago.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year

User “Dano85” is figuring things out.

To WPG: Pulock, 1st (NYI or CGY)
To NYI: Trouba

Signoff

Why is there smoke coming out of your oven, Seymour?

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)

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