During the last few seasons, the Calgary Flames have been one of the most frustrating and bewildering teams in the NHL.
Just look at the treasure trove of talent in Calgary. Johnny Gaudreau powers what’s perennially one of the best top lines in the league. Matthew Tkachuk and “The 3M Line” basically don’t allow opponents to touch the puck. Oh, and they also employ Mark Giordano, who’s a Norris defenseman without the trophy.
Considering all of those strengths, it’s been mind-boggling to see the Flames not only fall short of being an elite team, but miss the playoffs in two of the last four seasons, managing a single playoff series win during that span.
Along the way, they’ve surely teased us with moments of brilliance. With that in mind, maybe this post will be filed under “Fool Me Once …”
Yet … it does kind of feel like the Flames might be turning the corner.
Calgary won its fourth consecutive game in Thursday’s game against the Wild (which devolved into violence at the end), pushing their record to 18-9-2. That gives them 38 points in 29 games, which amounts to a pretty comfortable lead in the Pacific Division. Even more impressively, the Flames are 8-1-1 in their last 10 games.
This isn’t just a matter of beating up on the lesser lights in what’s admittedly a weak division. Calgary’s only a point behind the Predators and Avalanche (each with 39 points in 29 games) for the best record in the West.
At minimum, they’re in a strong position to at least land a berth in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Could they make an even bigger leap and become legitimate championship contenders? What’s been going so well during this 8-1-1 run? Let’s dig in.
Strong team numbers
Early on in 2018-19, the Flames must have given Bill Peters bad memories from his Hurricanes days, as Calgary was generating strong puck possession numbers but couldn’t get over dicey puck luck and wobbly goaltending from Mike Smith.
Overall, that seems to be leveling out now (their PDO is almost exactly at 1, which would indicate that the bounces are more or less “even”), and they remain a strong puckhogging group, via Natural Stat Trick and other site’s numbers.
To little surprise, they’ve been a high-end possession team during the last 10 games, as you can see at Puck on Net.
Granted, certain things are likely to sink, and a red-hot power play stands among them. During that 8-1-1 run, the Flames have connected on 31.6-percent of their chances, the fourth-highest rate in the NHL since Nov. 17. In their 19 previous games, the Flames were middle-of-the-pack at 18.5 percent, so that’s one obvious area where things could sink.
Overall, though, there are enough promising underlying numbers to suggest that the Flames have the making of a strong team.
Of course, we might as well consider their frequent Achilles Heel.
Role reversals in net
For most of this season, Mike Smith’s been struggling (10-7-1 record, .892 save percentage), while David Rittich saved the day (8-2-1, .919).
Things have been inverted during this 8-1-1 run, though. In six games, Smith’s 5-0-0 with a .939 save percentage; meanwhile, Rittich’s save percentage was .899 in five appearances.
In the grand scheme of things, this could be a fine development for the Flames. Yes, Rittich struggled, but still managed a 3-1-1 record thanks to some goal support. There must be increased organizational trust in the 26-year-old going forward.
But Smith gaining confidence is crucial. The big 36-year-old can get as hot as just about any goalie, so it’s promising to see him trending upward.
Are there caveats? Sure. Smith hasn’t always had the greatest injury luck throughout his career, and goalies his age usually don’t become sturdier with time. It’s nice that Rittich shows some promise, yet if Smith goes down, the Flames might still need to eye the trade market.
This still ranks as a promising stretch for a goaltending position that’s … let’s just say, vulnerable for the Flames.
Usual suspects, but with a supporting cast
You likely don’t need to ask who’s leading the way for the Flames when it comes to scoring.
With a whopping 18 points in 10 games (including eight in his last three), Johnny Gaudreau tops all Calgary scorers since Nov. 17. In fact, Gaudreau ties Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen for second-most points over that period of time, trailing only Nikita Kucherov‘s 22 points.
Gaudreau lighting up the scoreboard is really nothing new, as he now has 37 points in 29 games.
The difference is that the Flames are enjoying nice contributions from others. Sean Monahan (14 points) and Elias Lindholm (13) aren’t surprising as his linemates, and Matthew Tkachuk is going from “a handful” to a flat-out star, including getting 11 points in 10 games. Impressively Giordano rounds out the players with at least 11 points during this run.
It’s almost as promising to see some of the other names down the playbill.
Noah Hanifin‘s settling in, collecting eight points in 10 games. They’ve received six points from Derek Ryan. Sam Bennett‘s even offered five.
Some of those players will naturally cool off, but if the Flames can heat them up in decent intervals, they could be scary. Now if only they could get James Neal going …
As of early December, it looks like GM Brad Treliving’s “riverboat gambler” mindset has been paying off.
If Treliving wants to add that extra piece via a trade, he’d likely need to be creative. Cap Friendly places Calgary’s cap space at less than $900K, although their estimated deadline space would be about $4.08M.
That provides moderate wiggling room, yet they’re unlikely to make the sort of splash that, say, the Maple Leafs could consider.
Instead, if they clinch a playoff spot, they’re probably going in with largely the same group that Treliving put together entering 2018-19. If they can play anywhere near this recent level, the Flames may finally go from frustrating for their fans to frightening for opponents.
MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.