Johnny Gaudreau's finger injury is a potential dagger for what has already become a nightmarish season in Calgary.
The Calgary Flames may not top everyone's list of teams in turmoil to start 2016-17. The New York Islanders and Vancouver Canucks unofficially share that dubious crown. But in light of the bad news the Flames received Wednesday, it's time to wonder if they, too will soon stare down a lost season.
Their star scorer, left winger Johnny Gaudreau, scored their lone goal Tuesday night, which was enough to defeat the Minnesota Wild 1-0 and end Calgary's four-game losing streak. That will be Johnny Hockey's last goal for a while, however. A slash or slashes on the hand forced Gaudreau out of that game and, as Sportsnet's John Shannon reported, it turns out Gaudreau sustained a broken finger. He needs surgery and is out in definitely.
Ugh. It's not like things were going well for the Flames to begin with. Even after Tuesday's victory, they're just 6-10-1 on the season. Their .382 points percentage ties them with the Canucks for the NHL's second-worst.
So far, the transition to coach Glen Gulutzan from Bob Hartley, who got the axe a season after winning the Jack Adams, has been ugly. Calgary ranks 26th in goals per game at 2.29 and 27th in goals-against average at 3.41. It ranks 28th in power play efficiency at 10.2 percent and 29th in penalty killing at 73.8. It's not what you expect from a team that added right winger Troy Brouwer and goaltender Brian Elliott, among others, in the off-season.
On the bright side, the knock on Calgary during Hartley's tenure was always the team's ugly advanced statistics. The Flames struggled to generate and prevent shot attempts. Over Hartley's four seasons with them, they finished 27th in aggregate 5-on-5 Corsi percentage at 46.41. Theoretically, any coaching change offered a chance at better possession play…and Calgary actually has achieved that. It finished 22nd in 5-on-5 Corsi in Hartley's final year and has improved to 11th under Gulutzan thus far. The Flames, then, aren't playing as poorly as they seem to be on the surface. The biggest problem: despite acquiring Elliott, they rank 29th in save percentage, only one spot "up" from finishing 30th in 2015-16. He's been bad. There's no way around it. Elliott did post a .941 SP over a four-start stretch between Oct. 24 and Oct. 30, however, reminding us how good he could be. The Flames, in theory, had a chance to fight back in the Pacific Division.
That's what makes Gaudreau's injury so devastating. It threatens to halt any momentum generated by Tuesday's slump-buster. Suddenly, it's time to re-evaluate the Flames' immediate future, especially if Gaudreau's surgery keeps him out months and not weeks.
Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman made a strong point in his always-excellent "30 Thoughts" column this week: that Calgary's 2014-15 playoff run might have been a curse, not a blessing. This franchise has still missed the post-season in six of its past seven years. Maybe the Flames aren't on the road to contention as we thought they were. Or even if they're going to be just fine, the sluggish start and Gaudreau's injury might make 2016-17 a write-off anyway. Should GM Brad Treliving thus begin evaluating his roster differently and pondering which pieces might be expendable?
The Dougie Hamilton rumors are their own unique beast, as it's not like Hamilton is an aging veteran a floundering team "sells off." I'll scratch my head and set that aside. But, should Calgary tumble out of the playoff picture, does Treliving re-evaluate Elliott, a pending UFA? He would be no-brainer trade bate at the deadline. Same goes for defenseman Dennis Wideman, though he hasn't played well enough to attract interest yet. If Treliving decides his team is out of it in 2016-17 and maybe further away from real contention than he originally thought, might he make veterans like Matt Stajan and Michael Frolik available? The biggest question mark of all would be Mark Giordano. It may seem sacrilegious to even mention the captain's name, especially when he's been such a crucial backbone on Calgary's blueline. But Giordano is 33 and under contract five more seasons after this one at a $6.75-million cap hit. He still plays at a high enough level for the contract not to be immovable yet, but for how long? A decline could come any year given his age. Is it smart to hold onto him if the Flames look like they're destined to take a step backward in their rebuild, especially when that deal threatens to become an anchor in a couple years? Giordano has a no-trade clause but is a fiery competitor. If the Flames are years away from challenging for a Cup, might Giordano consider changing addresses?
Surely the Flames and their fans don't want to ask such questions. And this team is no doubt better than what it's shown early this season. But nothing can take away the 11 defeats in 17 games, and no one can replace Johnny Hockey as long as he's shelved. Calgary's future looks foggy.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to thn.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin