While the garbage fire in Columbus has been grabbing headlines, few have noticed that the Flames are quietly staging their own meltdown.
Calgary has opened the season dismally, going 1-5 while getting outscored 25-12. And it’s about to get worse. After hosting the Red Wings on Friday, the Flames play five of their next six, and 10 of 16, on the road.
Yeah, this could get ugly. Really ugly.
If something can go wrong, it will. It’s been that kind of season so far.
The goaltending has been a jumble of nerves, and seems to cough up at least one backbreaker each night. On Tuesday, it was a Karri Ramo miscue that led to Alex Ovechkin’s second period tally in Washington’s 6–2 win at the Saddledome.
To be fair, the Flames have gotten little help from a defense that was expected to be one of the best in the West, but instead is in total disarray. Captain Mark Giordano hasn’t been the Norris-worthy player he was last season. T.J. Brodie is hurt. Newcomer Dougie Hamilton can’t seem to get out of his own way, but has no problem stepping aside for opposing forwards. Dennis Wideman is playing like his 2014-15 campaign was a total aberration and he has no chemistry with partner Kris Russell, who’s being physically overwhelmed. Little wonder Calgary is allowing 4.17 goals per game. That’s more than twice what the offense is generating.
A year ago, the Flames struggled to get shots on net, averaging just 27.5 per game, which ranked 28th in the league. They compensated for that by posting the second-highest shooting percentage in the NHL, 10.45, trailing only the Tampa Bay Lightning. This year, there’s been a drop in both volume (just 24.8 shots per game) and in efficiency. The Flames are converting just 8.05%, ranking 18th.. Sure, luck has something to do with it. But it’s more about the inability to make clean breakouts and the unwillingness of their forwards to pay the price down low.
Most troubling though is that they have a collective heart of glass.
“Let’s face it, our confidence is very fragile,” coach Bob Hartley said. “There always seems to be a piece of the puzzle missing in our game. Tonight was the same. I liked our start. Then we … self-destruct. That second goal, I could feel the guys on the bench, getting down. Then they came down, scored the third one, the fourth one.
“Right now, that’s where we have to show some character. We have to roll up our sleeves and be ready for any kind of adversity.”
While Hartley struggles to find solutions, GM Brad Treliving is looking for a few of his own.
He sent a message to the team on Wednesday morning by putting Ramo on waivers. The goaltender’s struggles–a 4.37 GAA and .879 save percentage—merit the move, but the significance goes beyond the numbers. Ramo was signed as an unrestricted free agent over the summer and was Calgary’s opening night starter. He also was a favorite of Hartley’s. It’s a move that shows everyone is accountable.
But beyond that, what options does Treliving have to prevent the wheels from falling off completely?
A big trade? Sounds good, but who else out there is looking to shake things up this early? Anaheim? The team that knocked the Flames out of the playoffs last spring makes for an awkward partner. Columbus? Maybe, but is a package based around Cam Atkinson, a player who is rumored to be available, going to knock Calgary back on track?
There might be a few others as well willing to take a player or two off of Calgary’s roster, but bargaining from a position of weakness wont earn the Flames much in return.
And unlike Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen, who replaced Todd Richards with John Tortorella after his team got off to an 0-7 start, firing the coach isn’t really an option for Treliving. At least not any time soon. Remember, Hartley is the reigning Jack Adams Award winner, the man who guided the Flames to 45 wins and a 20-point gain in the standings over 2013-14. While that doesn’t grant him immunity, it’s not as if he’s forgotten how to coach or lost the room in a matter of two weeks, either.
He deserves every chance to pull them out of this tailspin. But both he and Treliving have a lot of work ahead if they’re going to stabilize a team that doesn’t appear to be anywhere near as good as we thought.
GALLERY: Fastest NHL Coach Firings Since 1995
Fastest NHL Coach Firings Since 1995
3: Peter Laviolette, Flyers, 2013
Given one last chance after a playoff DNQ, the third-year coach was canned after an 0-3-0 start. Owner Ed Snider clearly had an itchy trigger finger. “I felt training camp, quite frankly, was one of the worst training camps I’ve ever seen,” he said. “Unfortunately my worries were realized in the first three games, scoring one goal in each game and looking disorganized.” Laviolette's successor Craig Berube managed to goose the Flyers into the playoffs where they fell to the Rangers in seven games.
4: Denis Savard, Blackhawks, 2008
Another coach doomed by a failure to make the playoffs followed by a listless camp, the Hawks Hall of Famer was given the heave-ho after an 0-2-1 start to what would have been his third season behind the bench. “It was a flat camp and we got out of the gate flat,” FM Dale Tallon said. “We felt we needed to send a message and invigorate this team.” Savard’s replacement: Joel Quenneville, who has led Chicago to three Stanley Cups.
4: Ivan Hlinka, Penguins, 2001
Only the second European to coach an NHL team, Hlinka led the Pens to the 2001 Eastern finals but suffered from his limited ability to speak and understand English as well as his personality clash with star winger Jaromir Jagr. “Total chaos,” one Penguin told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “By the time Hlinka figures out what to say, it’s too late. It’s already time to say something else.” Hlinka was Hlet-go when the team started 0-4 en route to a playoff DNQ under successor Rick Kehoe.
4: Jacques Demers, Canadiens, 1995
When Montreal did not reach the 1995 playoffs—the first time in 25 years it had DNQed—the Habs' coach started the next season squarely on the hot seat. Demers’ trousers burst into flames when the Habs got off to their worst start in 57 years (0-4). Team president Ron Corey then canned the coach and GM Serge Savard, saying “You might think I’m pushing the panic button, but I am not.” The Habs then went on a 12-2 run, their season finally ending in the first round of the postseason.
6: Bob Hartley, Thrashers, 2007
Leading the Thrashers to the best season in their history—franchise record 43-28-11 mark, Southeast Division title, first playoff appearance—wasn’t enough to earn their fourth-year coach any job security. Their 0-6-0 skid to start 2007-08 led to Hartley being booted. “We still have 76 games left,” said GM Don Waddell, who took over behind the bench. “There is lots of season left to make something up. We just couldn’t let it go any further.” Unfortunately the Thrashers DNQed and didn’t see the postseason again until after their 2011 move to Winnipeg.
7: Todd Richards, Blue Jackets, 2015
After guiding the Jackets to only the second playoff berth in their 13-year history, Richards presided over an injury-riddled 2014-15 that saw Columbus fall short but end the season on a torrid 15-1-1 run that raised expectations. The wheels came off again during a disastrous 0-7-0 start marked by clown car defense and the meltdown of goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. “We’re not responding the right way,” GM Jarmo Kekalainen lamented while introducing Richards’ replacement: the notorious whipcracker John Tortorella.
8: Ken Hitchcock, Flyers, 2006
The Flyers’ worst start in 17 years (1-6-1), including the worst loss in franchise history (9-1 to Buffalo), triggered a sudden housecleaning. Hitchcock, their fourth-year coach, was handed his walking papers a little more than a month after he'd signed a contract extension. Longtime GM Bobby Clarke stepped down, citing burnout. “I no longer wanted to make the decisions general managers have to make,” he said. Respective successors John Stevens and Paul Holmgren fared no better. The Flyers were on the golf course at the end of the regular season.
8: Pat Burns, Bruins, 2000
With the B’s answering a playoff DNQ with a 3-4-1 start and on a four-game slide, GM Harry Sinden decided to turn up the heat by firing their hotheaded fourth-year coach, who’d won the Jack Adams Award with Boston two years earlier. "The team's play over their last several games has convinced me we need to go in a different direction and that a different coach was needed for that to be accomplished," Sinden said. Different? Burns’s replacement, Mike Keenan, was notorious for his own five-alarm temperament. Iron Mike presided over another DNQ and was gone after the season.
11. Terry Crisp, Lightning, 1997
A catatonic 2-7-2 start cost Tampa Bay the only coach it had known during the team’s six-year history. When an 0-6-1 schneid deposited the Bolts in the Eastern Conference basement, GM Phil Esposito pulled the plug on Crisp, saying, "This is not a happy day in Tampa Bay Lightning history. We've been together since the beginning. However, I was convinced breaking training camp our club was pretty good. It didn't seem like they were responding." Added forward Rob Zamuner, "It was a situation I guess where Phil had to act. It's easier to fire one guy than 25 or 26."