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Calgary Flames reflect on season fizzle and frustration

CALGARY — A mid-season coaching change in a short season didn't ignite the Calgary Flames. Calgary (26-27-3) finished fifth in the North Division and four points out of a playoff berth.

CALGARY — A mid-season coaching change in a short season didn't ignite the Calgary Flames.

Calgary (26-27-3) finished fifth in the North Division and four points out of a playoff berth.

After winning four of five when Darryl Sutter stepped behind the bench in early March, Calgary then lost eight of nine.

So the Flames chased a playoff berth, which felt laborious in a season of COVID-19 isolation and schedule changes, no fans providing energy, and the same divisional opponents game in and game out.

"It was a good team that underachieved," general manager Brad Treliving said. "Clearly there's some holes that we needed to fill or need to fill.

"The last five, six weeks, even on nights when we didn't get the result, I thought our team game was in a much better place. We went through a stretch where we didn't score enough."

Calgary went 11-11-2 under Geoff Ward and 15-16-1 with Sutter. 

The Flames didn't string together more than three wins in a row.

"I think the team was significantly, significantly behind in terms of the pace of the game," Sutter said.

"I think that most teams that I've been associated with, you'd evaluate probably at the 20-game mark. I think I was behind the bench for 30 games. You're looking at best case, probably the last 10, 12 games to see exactly where you're at.

"I think we've made that adjustment. That's something you have to continue to work. You just can't do it overnight. I think there's a summer of training that goes into that, and in training camp, and a practice mentality, and then a game mentality has to be built there."

Top centre Sean Monahan played through a hip injury down the stretch, which limited his production and ended his season early for surgery.

Top-four defenceman Noah Hanifin was out the last nine games with a shoulder injury and also had surgery.

"I think the losing eight of nine games hurt us big time," captain Mark Giordano said. "I think the main thing, taking away from our meetings today, was just playing with more pace, playing quick. 

"That's the new NHL."

Calgary started the season taking five of six points before a schedule quirk had them off for a week.

That beginning may have infused the Flames with false confidence that a condensed pandemic season wouldn't be that hard, said winger Milan Lucic.

"We lose in overtime in Winnipeg, we beat Vancouver twice at home, then we have a week off and everyone's feeling pretty good about themselves," Lucic said. "That's when things started to go the wrong way. 

"And we never really dug ourselves out of the hole that we dug ourselves into."

The Flames carried the same core group of players that spurred Calgary to first in the Western Conference in 2019, although the team is on its third coach since then.

Treliving halted what was a goaltending carousel in Calgary by signing Jacob Markstrom to a six-year contract in October.

The Swede largely delivered with a 2.68 goals-against average. Markstrom's was Calgary's best player early in the season but a concussion sidelined him for six games in late February. 

He indicated it took longer than that to regain his form.

"If I wasn't healthy I wouldn't have played," Markstrom said. "It came at a bad time.

"After the injury, I wasn't playing as good as I need to be as a number one goalie in this league."

The Flames tightened up defensively with improved checking under Sutter, Treliving said, but the offence never gained traction.

Calgary's 2.77 goals per game ranked 21st in the NHL compared to 3.30 for third in 2019-20.

Many of the Flames top producers were slightly off their pace of last season with the exception of Johnny Gaudreau (.88), Elias Lindholm (.84) and Andrew Mangiapane (.59).

Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk said playing under Sutter was an adjustment. 

Sutter made a backhand comment about Gaudreau's energy to the media and Tkachuk's ice time was initially reduced.

"It was a little bit of a rough start there for me personally starting with Darryl," Gaudreau said. 

"That's expected with the new coach. In getting rid of the old coach, there's going to be a little bit of a timeframe to get adapted to it. 

"It just sucks it was in the middle of the year where we need to be winning games and I wasn't playing my best."

Said Tkachuk: "Just didn't play as much from the get-go. That was an adjustment. Had to get used to that and definitely my role changed a little bit.

"Coming into this year we I truly, truly thought we had a great team and I still do. I thought that this was one of the years to definitely go on a run. I've got some time to think about what went wrong I guess."

The shift of Tkachuk from the left to the right wing of Lindholm, with Gaudreau on the left, over the final month of the season showed promise for 2021-2022.

The June 21 expansion draft is a puzzle for the Flames, as it is for all teams that can protect just seven forwards, three defenders and one goaltender.

If Giordano is left exposed, the 37-year-old defenceman would be an attractive pick for the Seattle Kraken because of his experience, leadership and ability to play big minutes.

The captain says he and Treliving will discuss the expansion draft in the off-season.

"I've been here my whole career and I love it here," Giordano said. "I want to still be here next year."

Forwards Derek Ryan, Josh Leivo, Brett Ritchie, Buddy Robinson, defencemen Michael Stone and Nikita Nesterov and backup goaltender Louis Domingue will be unrestricted free agents this summer.

Notes: Flames forward Dillon Dube withdrew from Canada's team at the men's world hockey championship because of a concussion suffered in Wednesday's season-finale. Mangiapane will play for Canada . . . Leivo suffered a broken thumb in the last week of the regular-season . . . Calgary ranks 13th in the entry draft lottery with a 2.2 per cent chance of snaring the first overall pick . . . The Flames' American Hockey League affiliate relocated to Calgary this season, but Treliving expected the Heat to return to Stockton, Calif.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 20, 2021.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press