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Do the Calgary Flames Have a Toughness Problem?

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Calgary Flames

Members of the Calgary Flames must be at least a bit relieved that they won’t be playing the New York Rangers again for the remainder of the 2023-2024 regular season. 

Two losses? Not great.  

One goal scored in two games? Maybe the Flames are just a poor matchup. 

Rangers veterans injuring two U-25 Flames forwards with zero response from the Calgary roster?  

That might be a problem. 

The first injured player in question is Jakob Pelletier, who left the game on Monday night after a brutal Jacob Trouba body check. 

Ryan Huska was unable to provide an update on the 2019 first round draft pick after the game. 

The other player is, of course, Adam Ruzicka, who never really returned to form following a questionable hit from Rangers winger Jimmy Vesey. After putting up four points in his first seven games, the 6-foot-4 Slovak recorded a mere goal and five assists in 32 appearances following his return to the lineup.  

Points Per Game: Adam Ruzicka in 2023-2024

Oct. 11 to Oct. 24: 0.57  

Nov. 7 to Jan. 24: 0.15 

Ruzicka was waived along with defenceman Nick DeSimone on Jan. 24 and claimed by the Arizona Coyotes, who are yet to dress him for a game.  

 

What’s to be Done?

At face value, the two losses fall under the category of acceptable.  

A minor hiccup over an 82-game season. Injuries are bound to occur over the course of 4,920 minutes of regulation NHL hockey. If it’s more likely to happen against the Rangers? Well, it’s a good thing they only play them twice a season. 

The underlying issue is that the Flames have a bit of a rough track record when it comes to matching pace with physically intimidating teams.

A recurring theme going back to Matthew Tkackuk and the puck flip debacle, Elliotte Friedman weighed in on a divide among the Flames roster following the incident during an early February 2021 episode of 32 Thoughts: The Podcast: 

“Those players look really frustrated,” said Friedman. “I think Tkachuk was really frustrated by what happened. That whole puck flipping thing led to a meeting that I think just sent them sideways. I think Tkachuk feels that some of the players didn’t want him to create something every game and I think he’s confused by that. I think he understands only how to play the game a certain way, and I think he’s questioning it now.” 

The issue goes even further back.

The 2018-2019 Calgary Flames found themselves in a similar situation to Monday night when then-rookie Dillon Dube received a thunderous body check from Canucks blue liner Erik Gudbranson. In a defining moment of former Flame Travis Hamonic’s character, the veteran took on Gudbranson.

The hulking Canucks defenceman broke Hamonic’s jaw in the melee.  

The Calgary Flames simply didn’t have a nuclear option to send out after the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Gudbranson. Hamonic knew that and did what he could.  

While Brad Treliving (with Darryl Sutter’s input) rolled out the likes of Milan Lucic, Brett Ritchie, and Gudbranson himself as peacekeepers for the Flames, rookie general manager Craig Conroy has only brought in currently injured winger AJ Greer to solve the toughness issue this season.

Greer, to his credit, accounts for three of Calgary’s eight fights in 2023-2024. 

With Lucic and Ritchie dealing with injuries last season and Gudbranson following Johnny Gaudreau to Columbus, the issue of team toughness became all the more apparent against – you guessed it:  

February 6, 2023 vs. the New York Rangers

With both teams gearing up for the stretch drive, chaos first began to boil over during the first period when Rangers defenceman Jacob Trouba took out Dillon Dube with a devastating open-ice hit. Chris Tanev went to bat and fought Trouba. 

Tanev took an extra roughing minor on the sequence served by Milan Lucic, who was dealing with a shoulder injury at the time and couldn’t fight. 

Minutes later, New York winger Sammy Blais destroyed Lucic with another big hit.  

Nikita Zadorov stepped in to wrestle Blais. McKenzie Weegar also fought in what was a sound victory over Will Cuylle. Weegar is a lefty and caught the rookie Cuylle unprepared for a southpaw.  

The final sequence of note, and perhaps the most important to the point, was a Trouba hit on Nazem Kadri. Learning the code from Travis Hamonic, Dillon Dube took an instigator, a misconduct, and a fighting major to stand up for Nazem. 

That hit ended up tilting Kadri’s season for the worse. The high-flying center saw his production drop from .75 points per game to .58. The London, Ontario native found himself haunted by ill-timed turnovers for the remainder of the season.  

Had Trouba been properly addressed early on in the game, there is a case to be made that the hit never occurred. 

This knack for game-breaking mistakes only compounded on Kadri when mixed with head coach Darryl Sutter’s in-your-face approach. The shoot-first pivot found himself slipping down the lineup as the Flames progressed down the stretch drive. The 2022-2023 Stanley Cup winner finished the season with 11 instances of posting a -2 plus/minus rating. 

All of this is to say that perhaps the Calgary Flames need to address the issue that Jacob Trouba and the New York Rangers represent. One injury is a lot. Three is a problem. When the playoffs get going, you better hope your team is able to solve problems like that. 

How Do Other Teams Hold Up?

A quick look at fights per team. Ordered by standings as of Feb 13.

Contenders

Vancouver: 13 
Boston: 11
New York Rangers: 11
Florida: 15
Dallas: 6
Colorado: 5
Vegas: 9
Winnipeg: 15
Carolina: 5
Philidelphia: 15
Edmonton: 8
Tampa Bay: 19
Toronto: 14

Fighting for a Wildcard

Detroit: 8
Los Angeles: 10
St Louis: 7
New Jersey: 6
Nashville: 21
New York Islanders: 6
Calgary: 8
Washington: 7
Pittsburgh: 5

Bottom Ten

Minnesota: 27
Seattle: 10
Arizona: 20
Montreal: 16
Buffalo: 10
Ottawa: 17
Columbus: 9
Anaheim: 17
San Jose: 13
Chicago: 16 

League Average: 11.87 fights
Most Fights: Minnesota (27)
Least Fights: Carolina and Colorado (5)

The problem with simply taking fighting stats at face value is that if a fight is taking place, chances are good that the other team has sized up who they may fight against and decided with relative confidence that they won’t lose too badly. We can examine totals of fights easily enough, but measuring the use of intimidation as a physical deterrent falls into a category of intangible that simply cannot be objectively recorded.

What can we tell from this data? Well, we can make a few inferences.

1.) The bottom of the league is more likely to fight than the top of the league

Losing is frustrating. 22nd-place Minnesota, a team that went as far as to fire their head coach mid-season, is the perfect example of this concept. They lead the league by a vast margin at 27 bouts on the season.

Teams near the bottom of the standings also have less to lose, and their players have more reasons to fight, given that they want to provide the crowd with something to justify the ticket price during a loss as well as potentially give their team energy/momentum. Something you tend to need when you’re losing.

2.) Fringe competitors are tentative about fighting

Chalk it up to being concerned about the impact on the game for a team fighting tooth and nail to get into the playoff picture. Either way, we see the least fights among the teams hovering around a Wildcard spot.

You can also chalk it up to not having the high-end skill to assign a depth roster spot to a knuckle chucker. Ryan Reaves perfectly highlights cases like that. The 6’2″ enforcer has found contending, playoff-bound teams with depth room for 12 consecutive seasons.

3.) Fight as much as you want as long as you’re winning

We see the most variance in the top 13. Organizations with defined team identities and likely strong enough scoring depth to forgo the need to give the team a spark with a fight.

For Whom the Bell Tolls? 

Back to the Calgary Flames. Interestingly enough, the Flames have been dressing only one player of late with a fighting major on his record this season – and it’s not someone you would expect.  

 

 

Spirited, but not exactly nightmare fodder.  Nazem Kadri’s lightweight bout with Cole Sillinger is the only fight among Flames players in the lineup on Monday. Here is a quick list of fights involving Flames players this year.  

 

Fights in 2023-2024 – Calgary Flames  

Nazem Kadri vs. Cole Sillinger
AJ Greer vs. Robert Bortuzzo
Dennis Gilbert vs. Michael McCarron
Nikita Zadorov vs. Jeremy Lauzon
AJ Greer vs. Marcus Foligno
Dennis Gilbert vs. Tenner Jeannot
AJ Greer vs. Sam Carrick
Elias Lindholm vs. Joel Farabee 

With Gilbert pushed out of the lineup, Greer on LTIR with a lower body injury, and Zadorov and Lindholm off to Vancouver, all that remains of those willing to drop the gloves is Nazem Kadri.

While the subject of team toughness remains contentious among fans and executives alike, two prudent questions remain. In the words of Evander Kane, who challenged any and all Flames players to do something following a questionable hit on Nazem Kadri at the 2023 Heritage Classic:

“What are you gonna do? What is anybody here gonna do?” 

Craig Conroy and the Calgary Flames are still searching for the answers to those questions. 

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