What went wrong: 2020-21 Calgary Flames

What went wrong: 2020-21 Calgary Flames
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PHT’s “What Went Wrong” series aims to analyze why each team missed the playoffs. The “What Went Wrong” series continues with the 2020-21 Calgary Flames.

Win-loss records only tell you so much in sports. That’s especially true in the modern NHL, where a team can “go .500” in very misleading ways.

Sometimes a record can summarize a story neatly enough, though. (And not just because Bill Parcells said, “You are what your record says you are.”)

Under Geoff Ward, the 2020-21 Calgary Flames authored an 11-11-2 record. When Ryan Huska kept the seat warm for Darryl Sutter, they went 0-1-1. Sutter could only change so much, coaching them to a 15-15-0 mark, leaving them 26-27-3 overall.

The Flames weren’t terrible; they weren’t great. And they certainly weren’t good enough to earn a spot in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, even in the middling North Division.

So, what went wrong, right, and in between for the Flames in 2020-21? Let’s mull that over.

What went wrong before the Flames’ 2020-21 season

Yes, Geoff Ward took over the Flames under difficult circumstances. Bill Peters’ ouster was shocking in 2019-20, and coaching in the pandemic playoff bubble wasn’t ideal.

But did he necessarily make it a no-brainer for the Flames to remove his interim tag? If the Flames were thoroughly convinced, they had a funny way of showing it. After all, they waited about one month after they were eliminated by the Stars to move Geoff Ward from interim to full-time head coach.

In hindsight, maybe that provided some worthwhile foreshadowing.

While the Flames showed timidness regarding who would coach them (at first) in 2020-21, they boldly forged into the offseason to … uh, poach some Canucks? The Flames made big commitments to Jacob Markstrom and Chris Tanev (and a smaller one to Josh Leivo), yet much like the Canucks themselves, Calgary could not reach the playoffs in 2020-21.

What went wrong during the Flames’ 2020-21 season

Despite that big investment in Markstrom, the big Swedish goalie managed the same mediocre save percentage (.904) as David Rittich this season, before Rittich was traded during the deadline. Blame it on injuries or other factors, but Markstrom ultimately wasn’t an upgrade in net.

Cam Talbot put together a much better 2019-20 season for Calgary, and remained steady (not to mention cheaper, with a less risky contract term) for Minnesota.

Goalies are unpredictable, yet over and over again, teams seduce themselves into thinking that they’re the missing piece. No, the Flames aren’t regretting signing Markstrom in the same way the Panthers must feel doomed with Sergei Bobrovsky. But it’s one of several moves that make you wonder if the Flames are fatally behind the curve.

If there’s another theme for the Flames, it’s that their best players simply weren’t good enough.

[NBC 2021 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

None of Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, or Mark Giordano were outright terrible for the Flames in 2020-21. Instead, their play slipped, and bad vibes did indeed abound.

And, perhaps because the Flames remain behind the curve, they haven’t unearthed the sort of depth that can keep the ship afloat when the big stars sink.

The “Hmm, maybe this is a team with only old ideas, or no ideas left” concerns really became grave when they went the retread route with Darryl Sutter. Maybe Sutter can bounce back during a more normal season? Perhaps they can reshape the roster to put him, and the Flames, in a better position to succeed than they saw in 2020-21?

All of those things are possible. But none of those comments leave you with overwhelming confidence in the Flames’ general direction.

Oh yeah, it also must’ve stung to see Sam Bennett flourishing basically the second he set foot in the Panthers organization. If you’re feeling harsh, you might ponder that the Panthers keep getting the most out of talent (see: Bennett, Carter Verhaeghe, a revamped Anthony Duclair), while the Flames’ top players boast the spirit and vigor of an even-more-bummed-out-than-usual Eeyore.

What went right

If you looked at stats both fancy and simple, you might scratch your head at the Flames’ 2020-21 failures.

In some areas, they were almost great, such as ranking seventh in the high-danger chances battle at even-strength (53.86-percent, according to Natural Stat Trick — ahead of the Panthers, Golden Knights, Lightning, and Capitals). Their special teams weren’t great, but they weren’t catastrophically bad.

So, structurally, they don’t look hopeless.

And, interestingly, one of those Canucks signings paid off far better than expected. It just wasn’t the most important one.

When the Flames signed Chris Tanev, it looked like … again, a sign that the team might just be throwing ideas at the wall. Yet, compare his ugly-looking RAPM chart from 2019-20, his last Canucks season:

Then consider his eye-popping positive pure defensive impact for the Flames in 2020-21 (both via Evolving Hockey):

While there are still concerns over Tanev — much of the worry regarded giving term to a rugged defensive defenseman, often a player type that ages especially poorly — this was a shockingly strong first season.

Obviously, it wasn’t enough. It would be especially unfortunate if Tanev doesn’t have many (or any) comparable seasons left in him.

What’s next?

Changes are coming for the Flames. It’s just a matter of when they happen, and how drastic those changes might be.

Whether Johnny Gaudreau stays or goes, he needs a contract after next season. Will Mark Giordano be exposed to the Seattle Kraken expansion draft? Oh yeah, it’s a contract year for Matthew Tkachuk, too. And the future’s pretty blurry for Sean Monahan, whose deal only runs through 2022-23.

No, the Flames don’t need to blow up their core. They might even be better off keeping cool (even if it just means not selling low on Gaudreau and others). But the clock is ticking.

As of this writing, the Flames are slated to pick 12th overall in the 2021 NHL Draft. Could that pick be in play? Perhaps they’ll make a trade during 2021 NHL Draft weekend, possibly like the whopper involving Dougie Hamilton, Noah Hanifin, Elias Lindholm, and some prospect named Adam Fox?

Overall, it should be a busy offseason for the Flames. Unless those decisions spill into next season. (In a way, that would be almost as big, too.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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    Mitch Marner extends Maple Leafs-record points streak to 21 games

    Mitch Marner
    USA Today
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    TORONTO — Mitch Marner extended his franchise-record points streak to 21 games with a second-period goal and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Los Angeles Kings 5-0 on Thursday night.

    Marner gave Toronto a 4-0 lead with his 11th goal of the season, scoring on a slap shot after a Los Angeles turnover inside its blue line.

    Marner became the 10th player in the past 35 years to string together a streak of 21 or more games. He has 10 goals and 16 assists during the run.

    Auston Matthews, Pierre Engvall, David Kampf and William Nylander also scored for Toronto. Ilya Samsonov made 29 saves for his first shutout with the Maple Leafs and the seventh of his career.

    Toronto has won seven of eight to improve to 17-5-6.

    Los Angeles dropped to 14-11-4 with its seventh loss in 10 games. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick made 36 saves.

    Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice with his teammates just 10 days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

    The 35-year-old Letang remains out indefinitely, with the club describing him as “day to day.”

    Letang said he felt “pretty good” after being greeted by stick taps from his teammates when he skated onto the ice at the team’s practice facility. Still, the married father of two called the experience “scary,” particularly for his family.

    “My kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not,” he said. “They care about having a dad. Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there’s so much more. After hockey, there’s a long time and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.”

    Letang missed more than two months in 2014 after his first stroke, which was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. The condition also led to the second stroke, which Letang suffered on Nov. 28 after dealing with a series of debilitating headaches.

    This time, the symptoms have resolved themselves much more quickly, according to team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, who described this stroke as “smaller” than the one Letang endured in 2014.

    Letang began skating on his own just two days after the diagnosis and was cleared to return to practice on Thursday though both Letang and Vyas stressed they are in no rush for him to play in games.

    “We don’t think this is accelerated in any way,” Vyas said. “We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play and when that time comes we’ll let him go back to playing his sport.”

    Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said it was a “relief” to see Letang back at work.

    “It’s a great visual that he’s making progress,” Sullivan said. “Our medical team that has monitored him extremely closely feels comfortable with some of the progress that he’s making and the steps he’s taken. Everyone was excited for him to join the group.”

    Letang signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that will carry him into his 40s if he decides to play that long. Vyas said the data around strokes is “evolving” though it is unclear if Letang is now more susceptible to having additional strokes now that he’s had a second one.

    The six-time All-Star is cautious but optimistic.

    “We’ve been through this,” Letang said. “Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding that we’re going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it’s no danger for me to keep going.”

    The Penguins are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games and have won three straight heading into a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They’re also eager to have Letang’s familiar No. 58 back in the lineup, but only when he’s ready.

    “He’s been here for a long time and his experience and everything that he brings on and off the ice, the way he competes (is important),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But I think in the (locker) room, (he has) poise and (he’s) somebody who’s been around a long time and whose experience you feel when he’s around.”

    Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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    Russell LaBounty/USA TODAY Sports
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    COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

    Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

    “It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

    Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

    “That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

    Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

    Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

    Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

    Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

    “We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

    Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

    Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

    Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

    Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

    Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

    STREAKING

    Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

    NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

    UP NEXT

    Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

    Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

    Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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    Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports
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    PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

    T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

    Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

    Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

    Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

    Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

    Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

    The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

    Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

    UP NEXT

    Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

    Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.