The Flames are coming off another disappointing season under their current roster core. For those counting at home, that makes seven seasons, four playoff appearances and a single round won.
Rather than blowing it up, they’ve chosen to double down on their guys once more, this time adding UFA goaltender Jacob Markstrom to the mix in hopes of finally solidifying their crease. They’ve also overhauled their blue line in an effort to become more mobile, with some exciting young players taking on bigger roles.
While I don’t think they’ve improved their team enough to do anything other than prolong the inevitable dismantling of their core, I respect the decision to give it one last try in a season that’s guaranteed to be bonkers either way.
Looking at this forward group on paper, there aren’t many holes. They’ve got a fairly high end top line (who struggled mightily last season) and the depth to roll four solid lines, which should especially bode well for them in a condensed season.
They could certainly stand to have another bonafide Top 6 winger in the mix, though Andrew Mangiapane had a nice little breakout last season and will look to improve upon it & solidify his spot in the process.
Sam Bennett, coming off a strong playoff performance in which he filled in admirably for the injured Matthew Tkachuk, will be competing for a Top 6 spot as well.
Drafted with the hope of one day being a top line forward, he’s been unable to consistently perform in an offensive role as he enters his sixth season with the club.
Tkachuk is a player I’m expecting to thrive in a condensed season, health permitting. With his blend of skill, physicality and big game ability I’m expecting him to take another step in his development, which I think has him become the face of the Flames’ core as they move beyond this season.
Dillon Dubé plays a responsible game and will look to take a step forward & contribute some scoring to the Bottom 6. He’s not flashy but there’s untapped offence there.
New additions Dominik Simon and Josh Leivo provide both depth and a little offensive upside. Leivo in particular put up impressive numbers last season, with 19 points in 36 games for Vancouver.
The Flames will need a return to form from their top line of Elias Lindholm, Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau for the team to reach the playoffs in an ultra-tight Canadian division, and they’ll need that high level of play to continue into those playoffs in order to finally prove they can win when it matters most.
ON THE BACK END
This is where Calgary has seen the most turnover. Out are the likes of T.J Brodie, Michael Stone, Erik Gustafsson, Derek Forbort and Travis Hamonic, in are newcomers Chris Tanev, Alex Petrovic and Nikita Nesterov.
Two key roles will likely be filled internally by Rasmus Andersson and the now-healthy Juuso Valimaki, and their respective ability to take a step forward will be key to the success of this group as a whole.
Andersson is entering his third full season with the team, coming off a year where he averaged nearly 20 minutes a night and took some nice strides in his game defensively.
He’s a strong possession driver with good offensive potential who’s still figuring out how to translate that into production at the NHL level. Should see another bump in his usage this season.
Valimaki, who missed the entirety of 2019-2020 with a torn ACL, will look to pick up where he left off after a strong showing in 24 games with Calgary in 2018-2019.
He just tore up Liiga while on loan to start the season, leading the league in points by defencemen with 19 in 19 games while playing 23 minutes a night, which should put concerns about his knee to rest. He’ll be pushing for a spot in the Top 4 and I don’t think it’ll be too long before he grabs one.
Mark Giordano will be leaned on heavily yet again, and at 37 years old there are legitimate questions as to whether or not his abilities will take a significant drop. He’ll continue to be the Flames’ lynchpin until Father Time forces him to come undone.
Noah Hanifin has developed into a solid Top 4 defenceman. The frustrating thing about him is the flashes of high-end ability that leave you wanting him to live up to his status as a former fifth overall pick. He looked rejuvenated playing with Andersson in the playoffs and there’s a good chance they get paired up moving forward. Maybe this opens him up to take the next step in his development.
Oliver Kylington has played parts of the past two seasons with the Flames but has struggled to break out of a sheltered third pairing role. He’s stagnated a bit in his development and is approaching a crossroads with the club. He’ll look to establish himself as an every-game player this year, but will battle for time with veteran depth guys Alex Petrovic and Nikita Nesterov.
BETWEEN THE PIPES
In Jacob Markstrom, the Flames landed the big fish in a loaded goalie market. Coming off a season in which he finished fourth in Vezina trophy voting, Markstrom signed a 6 year, $36 million contract with the club and will be expected to offer stability and a high level of play, the likes of which the franchise hasn’t seen since the days of Miikka Kiprusoff.
For a goalie who, outside of last year, has never posted better than a .912 save percentage when playing in excess of 33 games in a season, that’s a really tall order. For a goalie who finds a way to consistently play as well as Markstrom did last year, it’ll be smooth sailing.
Management has insulated him nicely by holding onto David Rittich. That has the potential to be one of the better goalie tandems in the league. If both can get rolling this year, the Flames will be well positioned to compete for a playoff spot.
Disclaimer: Goalies are voodoo and we are but primitive sh*t-tossers when it comes to accurately predicting their performance.
Calgary is coming off 12th and 8th place finishes on the power play and penalty kill, respectively.
The power play should see similar success, with a decent chance of improvement if the top unit can return to its form shown in previous seasons.
The penalty kill will see quite the revamp, and I’m not sure how that plays out. Travis Hamonic, Mark Jankowski, Derek Forbort, T.J Brodie, Tobias Rieder, Michael Stone and Michael Frolik have all moved on. Each of them averaged at least one minute on the PK per game last year, with Hamonic leading the team at 3:06. It will be interesting to see who fills the holes and how well they do it.
UNDER THE RADAR
I went back and forth between Mangiapane and Hanifin here. Neither are going completely unnoticed, but I feel they both have the potential to significantly elevate the Flames’ performance with a big step forward in their play, something I believe they’re both capable of.
I decided on Hanifin. As previously mentioned, he shows flashes of elite play that remind you why he was drafted as high as he was, and despite the fact that he’s a veteran of five NHL seasons, he’s just 23 years old. Defenceman can take longer to develop and blah blah blah. You’ve heard it before.
In Hanifin’s case, though, he’s already developed into a good NHL player and has demonstrated the ability to be more than that at the NHL level. Here’s hoping for more confidence and consistency. He struggled a bit under the weight of a larger role last season, but I like his odds of bouncing back and taking on even more.
I’m going with Kylington here. It’s not so much that he’ll surprise by making the team, but that he’ll surprise by looking more like the player he was expected to be at this stage in his career.
I’m… I’m not going to lie to you, I don’t feel particularly confident I’ll be right here, but he’s got a skill set that still projects to be high end. He’s just been drifting farther and farther away from turning those projections into a reality.
Y’know, I write these rundowns and it seems like by the time I finish each team, I’ve adjusted my position on them. I initially had Calgary finishing sixth; staying in the wildcard mix for awhile before bowing out sometime in March.
I’ve bumped them up to fifth, which means I’ll be going back and switching Winnipeg to sixth, before finishing my rundown of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. I’ll probably then waffle and change sh*t again. And you’ll all be none the wiser because much like Randy Marsh, I’m a sneaky little bee. Buzz buzz.
Ultimately, I haven’t changed my view on Calgary where it matters most, and that’s the playoffs. I still think this core doesn’t have what it takes to be a cup contender on talent alone. They’ve been through the wringer psychologically for so long that old demons are just going to keep creeping back in until the group is dismantled or an exorcism is performed by the chick from Poltergeist. And I’m pretty sure she’s been dead for a decade.