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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