When the Calgary Flames opened their 2015-16 season on Oct. 7, the prevailing opinion in the hockey community was that they would come out firing, continuing the torrid pace that took them all the way to the second round of the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Instead, the Flames were dropped 5–1 by the Vancouver Canucks, kicking off an early-season slide that saw Calgary win only two of its first 10 games.
The young squad hasn’t looked quite as hapless as of late, but their 9-14-2 record certainly doesn’t suggest the ship has been righted — nor does their position in the basement of the league standings. It isn’t difficult to pick out reasons for Calgary’s struggles so far.
Exceptionally bad goaltending has played a central role. However, the Flames’ overall defensive game has looked subpar for much of the season as well. These two factors have combined to leave the Flames as the league’s worst in terms of goals-allowed per game, currently sitting with a mark of 3.56.
One stark difference between Calgary’s outstanding 2014-15 season and this one has been the play of captain Mark Giordano. The veteran rearguard has not been terrible for his club so far, but he simply hasn’t looked like the same player at either end of the rink.
Defensively, 2015-16 hasn’t been kind to Giordano.
He’s currently sporting a minus-14 rating – the worst mark on his team and is also ranked last among his club’s defensemen in terms of goals-against per 60 minutes at even strength (with a mark of 3.7). Both figures are a far stretch from Giordano’s performance in 2014-15, when he finished second among the team’s defensive core in even strength goals-against per 60 minutes (bested only by partner T.J. Brodie) while finishing as a plus-13 (the fourth-best mark on the team).
It’s important to consider the fluctuations that the Flames’ blue line went through early this season. A preseason injury to Brodie meant that Giordano started the season without his usual linemate, playing instead with marquee offseason addition Dougie Hamilton — a pairing that failed to find much chemistry.
In the nine games Giordano played before Brodie’s return, he accumulated a minus-three rating but did manage to post one spectacular game against the Detroit Red Wings — a contest that saw the captain rack up an assist and two goals, including the game-winner.
Even since Brodie returned on Oct. 28, Giordano’s play hasn’t risen back to its usual level. In the 16 games since Brodie’s season debut, after which Giordano found himself back on his usual pairing, the captain has been a minus-11 and has posted only four points.
While Giordano has brought his signature relentless style and remains fairly reliable, the numbers show just how drastically different his play has been compared to last season. Through the first 25 games of 2014-15, Giordano owned a stellar plus-14 rating, compared to his current minus-14 through the same number of games.
The most dramatic difference lies in his offensive contributions. By last season’s 25-game mark, Giordano had already accumulated 25 points – six goals and 19 assists. He currently has eight points on the year.
Giordano’s offensive game was vital to Calgary’s success over the first half of the 2014-15 campaign. By game 50, he had already racked up an astounding 42 points and looked like a bona fide Norris Trophy-calibre blueliner.
Given Calgary’s notable lack of offensive depth last year (more than a third of the team’s total goals came from their first line trio of Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, and Jiri Hudler), that blue line offense was crucial. Its disappearance this season has contributed greatly to Calgary’s underwhelming effort.
By the end of 2014-15, the Flames had found an excellent balance of offensive contribution from their blue line and top trio, allowing them to finish with the sixth best goals-for per game mark in the league. That ranking has dropped to 22nd in the league this season. Similarly, the Flames currently sit 21st in the league in shots per game.
Giordano has surely contributed to that slide, as he’s shooting at his lowest per-game rate in three seasons.
The offensive slump might be overlooked if Giordano’s defensive game remained on point. However, the captain has already been on the ice for a total of 42 goals-against in only 25 games. If that pace were to continue, Giordano would have over 130 goals-against during his ice-time by the season’s end. That’s a significant drop considering the fact that in each of the last two seasons, he was on the ice for less than 65 goals-against.
The Flames are in need of a change to find a way out. Giordano’s ceiling is clearly top-tier, and thus, his subpar performance so far points to a bigger problem in Calgary as the club’s system doesn’t seem to be measuring up at the moment.
The Flames sit seven points out of a divisional playoff spot, with the Arizona Coyotes currently holding third place in the Pacific Division. Calgary’s divisional setup could play to the team’s strengths, however. While Los Angeles and San Jose seem likely to stand their ground atop the division, the Flames certainly have the personnel to take down Arizona, Vancouver, and the surprisingly abysmal Anaheim.
That being the case, it seems the Flames’ situation isn’t dire just yet. Much of the club’s play has looked somewhat off in 2015-16, but the Western Conference alignment has worked in their favour, leaving them with a manageable gap to close should they right the ship. The Flames should be thanking their lucky stars that they’re not in the Central Division, where the top five teams are all already above 30 points and unlikely to slow down.
There’s still time to salvage their season, but it’ll have to happen sooner than later – before the Ducks wake from their early season mediocrity and begin challenging for a playoff spot themselves. It all starts with their captain, however, as Giordano has proven to be the heart of Calgary’s success in both ends of the rink. As long as Giordano can find his game – or the Flames can solve the underlying problems that are negatively affecting their leading man – it seems the team has plenty of time to prove 2014-15 wasn’t just a fluke.