McKenzie: Flames’ 5-on-5 struggles on full display in Heritage Classic loss

EDMONTON — Through nine games, the Calgary Flames’ offence has become a problem.

Ahead of a new season, it was fair to question whether or not the Flames would be dynamic enough offensively against elite teams, especially considering their personnel. It was more than fair to wonder if the team had sufficiently replaced the goal-scoring output from Tyler Toffoli this offseason. It was fair to wonder how much adjusting they’d need to do with changes on their power play while aiming to play more creatively. And younger players would be given a chance to contribute to that process.

Yes, the ingredients in the Flames’ mix were given the benefit of the doubt despite being the same as last year. But they wouldn’t be held back in a new system with new thinkers at the helm in Ryan Huska, Marc Savard, and even defensive coach Dan Lambert, who has experience running power plays.

But as we near the one-eighth mark of the Flames season, permanent solutions have yet to manifest. And the Flames’ best players just haven’t played like them. It was evident in a 5-2 loss against the Edmonton Oilers during the 2023 Heritage Classic Game at Commonwealth Stadium.

“Today, we played better than we had in some other games,” Flames captain Mikael Backlund said. “We’ve got to dig deep here now, roll up our sleeves and really come out next game and find a way to win.”

Is there time for the Flames’ offence to click? Sure. There were silver linings like Nazem Kadri scoring his first of the year on the power play. And yes, this team showed more fight Sunday than in its loss to the St. Louis Blues. But Sunday’s game required more from their difference makers and contributors up and down the lineup. The Flames never led and rarely took control against their provincial rival. Especially in the first, where they slagged behind in shots on goal and possession.

The Oilers desperately needed a win after a rough start to their season, and the Flames just couldn’t keep up — in goals or defending them in transition. Calgary’s best offensive chances came when it had the power play, where it did score twice. On eight opportunities. And rarely did the Flames strike fear in the Oilers’ hearts when they mounted attacks of their own.

It’s been 10 days since the Flames scored more than two goals in a hockey game, in a 4-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres back on Oct. 19. The Flames have scored only three times at five-on-five across their last four games. What could have been an opportunity for the Flames to build on positives and perhaps turn their season around ended up being more of the same so far in the 2023-24 season.

“I thought we were waiting for something to happen instead of going after it and attacking the game,” Flames head coach Ryan Huska said. “So, we were sitting back. I thought one team was skating and one wasn’t in the first period. I thought in the second and third period, we got better. And we had a lot more zone time from that point. Once you get into the zone you have to find a way to be a little bit more dynamic offensively in order to generate some five-on-five chances.”

Of course, it’s very easy to point fingers — deservedly so — at the Flames’ best players. But the Flames need more than A.J. Greer to show they can skate. Even then, their internal options could only do so much. Jakob Pelletier is missed, but he is a middle-six player at best as he continues the early days of his career. Connor Zary is leading the Calgary Wranglers in scoring and has had no problem flashing his transition play in the AHL. The question is whether or not he could stick at the NHL level. Those players aren’t quite ready to be difference-makers.

By the way, the Flames are still trying to figure out how to assemble those difference-makers. Dryden Hunt is riding shotgun with Elias Lindholm and Dillon Dube until Adam Ruzicka returns. Jonathan Huberdeau’s latest line saw him line up with Kadri and Matthew Coronato. Huska thought that line was “quiet”. It seems the only lines Huska can truly depend on are his MBC line of Backlund alongside Andrew Mangiapane and Blake Coleman, and his fourth line of Greer, Yegor Sharangovich and Walker Duehr.

“We have to get ourselves something soon. You can’t rely on one line to go out there and, as a coaching staff, trust that they’re getting the job done. You need more,” Huska said. “And that just means people taking it on themselves a little bit. They have roles, they have responsibilities. And they have to make sure that they’re at their very best.”

Unless something drastic happens, the Flames will more than likely be left to their own devices to get out of their early-season slump. It is early, but it is concerning that the Flames haven’t looked good after Nikita Zadorov implored them to play as a team. Or when Backlund said they had a must-win game against the Blues. It isn’t rock bottom quite yet. But the Flames need something to turn their fortunes around.

(Photo: Derek Leung / Getty Images)

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