Flames Are Learning to Play the Right Way Under Sutter

The Calgary Flames have never been strong starters. In a league where parity reigns and two points are always highly contested, it is absolutely essential to avoid falling into an early-season standings pit. The current group of core Flames players has frequently had to battle back from an early-season deficit and have been reliant on putting massive winning streaks together just to make the playoffs. This has not led to much success. Thusly, it is imperative for Darryl Sutter to have his team up to speed and continue winning games early in the season.

So far, so good. It seems Sutter’s group has bought into what the coach is preaching as the Flames have picked up points in five of six games played. Early season positives include strong individual performances and strong team play overall. This group has historically struggled in the early going and Sutter is changing that by instilling new habits and structure to their game. The Flames will need to continue along this path of consistency if they hope to turn their fortunes around come playoff time.

Flames Lost Another Season Opener

The Flames kept their astonishingly lengthy and historic season-opening loss record alive to open the season with a 5-2 drubbing at the hands of Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers. Calgary has now lost 12 straight season-opening games dating back to 2010. Not only is this a record of futility in the National Hockey League, but it also carries across all sports in North America.

While the Flames’ fruitless record in opening games could just be viewed as a random statistically outlier, when you examine the body of games that have tended to follow, it is rather indicative of their inability to come out the gate strong. Since losing to the Anaheim Ducks, however, Sutter has his team playing a pretty consistent brand of hockey early and the Flames have strung together a four-game winning streak heading into Pittsburgh tonight.

Flames Record Through 10 Games Has Been Historically Mediocre

Every game matters in the highly contested and competitive battle for playoff positioning. Last season, had the Flames secured four more points in the standings, they would have qualified for the playoffs instead of the eventual Stanley Cup finalist, the Montreal Canadiens. A few more wins early in the year would have certainly put the Flames in a much better position to qualify for the postseason. Calgary has had a terrible time achieving a winning record through the first 10 games over the last five seasons:

SeasonRecord After 10 GamesGoal Differential After 10 GamesSeason Result
2016-174-5-1-4Lost in Round 1
2017-185-5-0-5Missed the playoffs
2018-195-5-0-3Lost in Round 1
2019-205-4-1-1Lost in Round 1
2020-214-5-10Missed the playoffs
Data from Hockey Reference

There is likely no direct causation between starting the season at or below .500 and a poor season outcome, but certainly, there is a connection given that this Flames group has mostly been the same nucleus of players since 2016.

“I can’t remember once since I’ve been here where we’ve had a good start and put ourselves in a great spot from, you know, the first 10-15 games.”

Matthew Tkachuk

The Flames’ early-season woes and inability to gain traction have not set them up for long-term success over the last handful of NHL campaigns.

Flames Have Relied on Huge Winning Streaks

Through February and March of the 2016-17 season, the Flames matched a historic winning streak being victorious in 10 straight games. Despite this feat, they finished fourth in the Pacific Division and did not earn a playoff spot with a ton of breathing room. In round one, they were promptly swept by Anaheim.

A midseason seven-game winning streak wasn’t enough to make up for a terrible start the following season, and Calgary missed the playoffs by a wide margin in 2017-18. Even in the year the team won the Western Conference and finished second in the entire NHL, they struggled out of the gate and were propped up by winning streaks.

Related: Flames Weekly: Blown Home Opener, Masterful Markstrom & Vladar Debut

After a dismal start to the 2019-20 campaign, the Flames managed to sneak into the qualifying round due to separate seven- and five-game stretches of winning hockey. They have, historically, been very streaky: either very hot or very cold. Once again, the Flames found themselves booted from round one, losing four straight to the Dallas Stars in a six-game quarterfinals matchup. The lack of consistency and inability to maintain a certain pace has been a long withstanding problem.

Burnt Out By Playoff Time

Whether it’s fatigue or inability to maintain the high level of play necessary to succeed in the NHL Playoffs, it has been abundantly clear that having to rely on massive stretches of winning just to make the playoffs has negatively affected Calgary’s postseason endeavors.

Darryl Sutter
Sutter is hoping to bring playoff success to Calgary. (Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE)

The Flames have been badly outplayed in all three of their last first-round series, sporting a 3-12 record in losses to Anaheim, the Colorado Avalanche, and Dallas. Regular-season inconsistency will not and has not led to any results in the postseason for Calgary over the last handful of years.

Sutter Has the Flames Learning to Play the Right Way

Darryl Sutter was brought in to make this team a playoff contender, and he seems to have the team ready to play a more consistent, sustainable brand of hockey this year. The team looked very strong at even strength, despite lack of results, towards the end of last season. Perhaps that is the silver lining in missing the playoffs last year: Sutter was afforded a few months to set the table and instill his brand of hockey into this club for the 2021-22 season.

Six games into the 2021-22 season, the Flames have looked ready to buck their trend of poor play early on. Despite dropping another season opener, they have gone 4-0-1 since and have some of the strongest even-strength expected goals for percentage and shot share percentages.

5v5 MetricNHL Rank
57.83 CF%2nd
52.63 xGF%8th
57.70 SF%3rd
62.10 GF%7th
Data from Evolving Hockey

Two of Sutter’s prime objectives heading into training camp were to improve team speed and individual fitness towards the goal of ensuring the Flames could sustain a certain level of play throughout the NHL season. Thus far, despite a few hiccups, the Flames look ready to play a more consistent style of hockey under Sutter.

“We’re learning how to play the right way. I think it’s a big adjustment for our group. Players that have been here for a while, it’s a big adjustment: the process of learning how to play the right way and do it consistently.”

Darryl Sutter following a 5-3 Win Against New Jersey

The results have been solid through six games. Fantastic performances from Elias Lindholm, Johnny Gaudreau, and Andrew Mangiapane have the Flames off to a promising start, despite setbacks in games one and two. Now, Sutter and his team need to ensure that level of play remains in order to capitalize early and set themselves up for a solid season and, hopefully, a solid run in the postseason.

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