Sutter points to Flames’ defensive issues as root cause of team’s struggles

It was exactly six weeks ago the Calgary Flames punctuated a dramatic win in Anaheim with a short flight to Vegas where they eventually tucked themselves into bed atop the NHL standings.

Yes, first place overall.

They’ve won two games since.

A tailspin that has seen the club lose eight of its last ten may have hit a new low Thursday night when the lowly Ottawa Senators pumped the Flames 4-1 in front of a small, less than enthused crowd of hungry, thirsty patrons.

We’d call it rock bottom if not for the fact their next attempt to climb out of this hole comes Tuesday against the Florida Panthers – a juggernaut that recently contributed to the Flames’ misery by pumping six goals past the once-defensively sound visitors.

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Despite their stellar start to the season, the Flames now sit on the outside of the playoff picture.

Sure, they have three or four games in hand on most teams above them, but the reality is that the Flames are third in the wild card race, fifth in their division and 17th in the league with a rapidly declining 17-11-6 record.

Many are suggesting their woes revolve around the team’s utter lack of secondary scoring – an issue overshadowed earlier in the season by the stellar play of its top line and a structure that made their goalies look like Vezina candidates with a forecheck that kept the puck out of Calgary’s zone.

Darryl Sutter sees the problem differently.

One day after questioning the team’s emotional engagement, Sutter identified what he thinks the problem has become.

Not surprisingly, it revolves around the goals against.

“If you (look at it) over the course of the season, we’re scoring three goals a game, and you’re going to go through stretches where you’re only going to score two,” said Sutter, whose club’s troubles at both ends of the rink of late has seen them outscored 20-7 through their four-game losing skid.

“So the biggest factor for me in all that is not goals scored, but I would say it’s the four, six, four and six goals scored against in those games.

“I’ve said this so many times, this organization was way out of whack in terms of what it would take to (be successful).

“It was automatic from outside the organization they were going to win two rounds and the way they were going to do it was to outscore the opponent. Now, whenever the team struggles, the question is, ‘how come you can’t score?’ That’s sort of going back to where you were.”

As Sutter points out, it’s wrong to suggest the team’s scoring woes stem from being limited by what some people erroneously dub as a defence-first system.

The focus is on puck pursuit and dogged forechecking that keeps the puck in the opposition’s side of the ice, forces turnovers and creates scoring chances, when done well.

“The structure of our team – look at Johnny (Gaudreau), look at Matthew (Tkachuk), look at Lindy (Elias Lindholm) – it has allowed them to be more productive because if you can play in the o-zone more and have the puck more, and you have the ability to score, you’re going to,” said Sutter.

“Some of (the scoring issues) are personnel-related, but a lot of it has got to do with maximizing your skillset. There are some experienced players here that are clearly not (Maximizing their skillset.)”

There have been endless disruptions, postponements, a Covid shutdown and so many more obstacles they’ve had to deal with.

But at the end of the day, they’ve simply gotten away from the identity they spent the first two months of the season building.

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“Our jump isn’t there as much as it was the start of the season,” said the Flames’ recently-named all-star game representative, Johnny Gaudreau, when asked to pinpoint what’s been missing from their game of late.

“I think we’re not burying our chances when we have opportunities. I think the past four, five games we’ve had one goal, two goals, one goal, zero goals. We need to create a little more offence and we’ve got to be smarter in our defensive zone.

“We played against some good teams, but at the end of the day you’ve got to be better in your own zone. You’ve got to help out your goaltenders a lot more than we have the past few games.

“Everyone needs to look in the mirror and come to work, and play better and find a way to put the puck in the net.”

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And keep it out, which could be even more problematic if Jacob Markstrom is still battling an ailment as many suspect.

He missed practice “for maintenance” Friday after missing a start the previous week for not being 100 per cent, according to Sutter.

Of late he hasn’t been as solid as he was to start the season, but he’s still the most important player the franchise has moving forward this season.

When on his game, he can mask the mistakes the group in front of him makes.

He hasn’t done that of late.

“We’ve given up too many scoring chances, too many goals against,” said Mikael Backlund of the team’s biggest issue.

“In this league, you can’t give up four, or hardly three to win.

“We know we’re a hard team to play when we play the right way – when we do check and we do play aggressive and be hard to play against. When we know we’re only going to give up one or two goals a game.

“That’s the way we’ve got to win, and we haven’t done that lately.”

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.


Several weeks after the deal for a new Event Centre with the Flames was dissolved, Calgary city councillors spent two days dissecting where things went wrong and how the city might be able to get back to the business of trying to build such important infrastructure.

They voted to find a third party who could see if the Calgary Flames ownership group had any interest in reopening talks for a possible partnership, or if another party might be interested in partnering with the city to build a place to house the Flames.

That unnamed third party will report back to city council with their findings Mar. 8.

The move drew no immediate response from the Flames.

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