Calgary Flames head coach Darryl Sutter has been playing a guessing game all season.
For all the time and energy spent on debating what the Flames need at the NHL trade deadline, the real problem is rarely talked about.
As badly as they could use another player who can make the best of his scoring chances, or a defenceman who can handle the many game-breakers in the Pacific Division and beyond, the biggest failure this year has been in the blue paint.
The goaltending is their weakest link.
And the most confounding element to that absolute fact is just how impossible it has been to improve it.
Sutter said it himself recently. Both goaltenders have been streaky. Nobody was criticizing Jacob Markstrom when the Flames got off to a 5-2 start in the month of October.
And even after a horrendous month of February, Dan Vladar still seems to be the goalie of choice among the Flames Faithful (who are losing faith by the minute when it comes to seeing their team make the playoffs this season).
Vladar was the only goalie at practice on Monday with Markstrom becoming a dad earlier in the morning.
And, yes, it’s entirely possible that the last few months have been even more challenging on the Swedish backstop given his personal situation.
But whatever the reasons have been for the Calgary Flames goaltenders’ yo-yo season so far, the new “win-and-you’re in” mentality Sutter says he has adopted is the only way to go with a tandem that has alternated from average to awful on a monthly basis since the drop of the puck. They’ve not been in sync at all — until they were both terrible during a February that has done serious damage to their playoff hopes.
This month, Markstrom (.855) and Vladar (.845) owned save percentages that were both below .900.
Markstrom owned .900 or better percentages in October (.903) and December (.906) but was well under that mark in November (.881) and January (.886).
On the whole this season, the Flames’ $6-million man has let the first shot against get past him seven times. In his last start against the Colorado Avalanche, it was the first two.
All of his metrics, like saves above expected, are among the NHL’s worst. Including backups. Sometimes even the backups’ backup.
Vladar has been better but not by a much as you might think based on the appetite to see him more. His sample size was smaller but he had an .896 save percentage in October, a stellar heater in November with a .918, then fell below the mark with an .897 in December and rebounded to .908 in January.
Sutter might as well throw darts at a couple of posters in the dark if he’s just going to ride Markstrom and try to pick out where it’s best for Vladar to jump in.
The play until you lose formula is the safest bet.
Somehow the Flames were linked to former goaltender Cam Talbot in all the NHL trade chatter lately. It’s hard to imagine investing more in that position when Dustin Wolf is waiting in the wings and you’d be hard-pressed to find a buyer for the struggling Markstrom unless it’s coming at a bargain basement price.
The Flames will just have to ride this out and hope one or both gets hot again and run with him until the streak ends.
Just remember, the Flames haven’t won more than three games in a row all season. And that was well before the calendar flipped to 2023.