McKenzie: The Calgary Flames are not escaping the shadow of last season

CALGARY — Hours before the Calgary Flames played their seventh game of the season, Nikita Zadorov spoke his mind and didn’t hold back. He is never one to mince words, especially when the Flames are coming off poor performances. With many fans exasperated at the Flames’ start to their season, his words added fuel to their fire.

“I think the main thing for us, we’re just not working as a unit. We have too many individuals playing by themselves. We got to figure out if we’re going to play as a team or if we’re going to play as our own guys,” Zadorov said.

A five-game road trip did little to inspire confidence around these Flames. Nazem Kadri has looked like a shell of his past self. Jonathan Huberdeau has four points, but patience has already worn thin with him. The Flames remain a work in progress on offence, defence and special teams. They lack the foot speed, offensive firepower and even desire to keep up with their opponents.

Remember, this isn’t a team that tore it down to the studs and committed to tanking. This isn’t a team that endured a major reconstruction in the offseason — that was the previous summer. This is largely the same team as last year. It may still be early in the season, but those good vibes from training camp are slowly turning into the familiar doom and gloom from last season when Darryl Sutter was still head coach.

The decision to remove him remains the right choice. But with Sutter out of the picture, it’s on the players to deliver more than ever before.

“Last season was different. It was Darryl. Now there’s no Darryl. So, there’s no excuses,” Zadorov said.

Those players haven’t delivered.

Not after a listless 3-1 loss to the New York Rangers on Tuesday night that saw them, once again, fail to play a full 60 minutes. Three second-period goals, including two power-play goals allowed, sank them. Once the Flames reached the third period, they did little to inspire confidence they could come back. To be fair to the Flames fans who attended despite the early week snowfall and construction detours, it never felt like they believed from the minute the pregame introductory video began.

“There’s been these 10-minute lapses in games, and they’re costing us,” Flames forward Blake Coleman said. “Tonight, we lost the special teams battle. You can dominate five-on-five all you want in this league, you’ve got to win special teams. And we lost by two today. And that was the difference in the game right there.”

Now the Flames are on a three-game losing streak without their best defenceman, Rasmus Andersson, and likely without Adam Ruzicka, who left Tuesday’s night game due to injury. Those dark clouds that should have been removed when Sutter was fired continue to linger, and players like Coleman are “pissed off.”

“At the end of the day, losing’s got to keep you up at night,” Coleman said. “I know it’s easy to say, but I’m sick of losing. I think I can speak for the guys in our room that we’re sick of losing. But it burns me up. You’ve got to be one of those guys who hates to lose more than win. I think we’re just, as a group, we’ve got to have way more fire.”

When asked about Zadorov’s comments, Coleman said he disagreed in the hopes of upholding team unity and the idea that they remain a “close-knit group” — a repeatable theme from last season.

“Guys need to take it on themselves,” Coleman said. “Whether his words just got misused or whatever it was, I think he’s coming from a place of care. He wants to win just as bad as I do, just as bad as we all do. Sometimes when you’re frustrated, you say things that can come out the wrong way. We believe in our group.

“We’ve got a lot of really good people in this organization. I think the guys are going to do it the right way. I think we’re going to get better as we go here.”

The Flames still have time to change course in their season, and even Zadorov admitted as much Tuesday morning. However, the organization requires a deep soul search if it wants to progress. Eventually, general manager Craig Conroy will have to find a way to implement younger players in his lineup or even make some kind of trade to improve the team. But until that happens, it’s on the team to figure it out internally.

With the loss to the Rangers soon to be in the rearview mirror, the Flames have circled their Thursday encounter against the St. Louis Blues on their calendar.

“We’ve got to roll up our sleeves here,” Flames captain Mikael Backlund said. “Next game is the biggest game of the year. We’ve got to come out of this and start winning some games. It starts with the next game.”

The Flames cannot afford to fall flat against the Blues as they did Tuesday. At some point, whatever benefit of the doubt they have left will run out. Depending on who you ask, it may already have run out.

(Photo of Jonathan Huberdeau: Sergei Belski / USA Today)

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