A trio of Calgary Flames are at a crossroads early into their National Hockey League careers. It’s not a “sell your soul to the devil” type of crossroads scenario – a la blues legend Robert Johnson – but a pivotal season for all three, nonetheless.
Rasmus Andersson, David Rittich, and Dillon Dube are all poised and eager to take the next steps in establishing their statures with the defending Pacific Division champions. For Andersson, this season presents an opportunity to prove he is a legitimate top-four defenseman and to garner the big contract that goes with that seeding. Rittich can establish himself as a bonafide number-one goaltender after signing a fresh new two-year deal with the southern Alberta club. And Dube can prove he deserves a permanent slot in Calgary as a regular Flames forward.
Opportunity Awaits Andersson
Andersson had a breakout campaign in 2018-19, as the third-year pro proved to be a reliable addition to the Flames back end. The 22-year-old played in 79 regular-season games last season, notching two goals and 17 assists while amassing only 23 penalty minutes (PIM). He appeared in all five playoff games, recording one goal and two assists with two PIM. His first taste of NHL competition came in the final game of 2016-17, and then 10 contests in 2017-18 before securing a regular spot in 2019-20.
The Flames were so impressed by Andersson’s play that he was moved from the third defensive pairing to the first alongside Norris Trophy winner Mark Giordano during the latter stages of last season, switching spots with the enigmatic T.J. Brodie. Andersson’s ice-time increased after the move and he scored 12 points in his last 26 games and did not play less than 15 minutes in a game after early February. His season’s ice-time average was 16:02.
Expectations were always high for the 2015 second-round (53rd overall) draft pick from the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League. Andersson’s ascension up the defensive ladder has validated the Flames’ conviction in him, and given that he is in the final year of his rookie contract, another season of stellar play should earn the 6-foot-1, 214-pound Swede a plentiful second agreement.
He is expected to start this season as a third-pairing mainstay once again, with significant power-play and penalty-killing time allotted to the 2018 AHL all-star game participant. Depending on the play and status of Brodie – who’s been mentioned in trade rumors – a move to the top four can be anticipated.
“You want to play more and more, every game that goes by,” Andersson told Kristen Anderson of Postmedia. (from ‘A leaner, fitter Andersson poised to take the next step with the Flames,’ The Calgary Sun – 9/13/19) “You’re not happy being on the third pairing. You always want to take the next step and that starts with a good training camp. That’s what I intend to do. I want to show the coaches that I can play more than I did last year. That’s really what the next step is all about. Obviously, I really don’t care about who I play with at the start – it’s one of those things you have to earn and you just have to work yourself up in the lineup.”
‘Big Save Dave’ Thirsts for Big Progress
Rittich is the main man between the pipes for the Flames this year, as last season’s platoon-partner of the departed Mike Smith impressed enough for the Flames brass to ink the undrafted free-agent to a two-year, $5.5-million contract just two days before the parties were to go to salary arbitration in Toronto.
“I’m happy with two years – I can prove I can be a starting goaltender,“ the 6-foot-3, 206-pound keeper told Sportsnet. “In my head, I just want to be better than last year – I want to be stronger, faster; that’s progress. If you look back three years, every year is better and that’s how I want it to work. I just want to better this year than last year.”
The 27-year-old posted starter-type numbers during 45 appearances last season, going 27-9-5 with a .911 save percentage (SV%), a goals-against-average (GAA) of 2.61 and one shutout. His road-starts featured particularly good numbers, as he went 14-7 with a 2.09 GAA and .932 SV%.
After suffering a knee injury on Dec. 31 against the San Jose Sharks, his numbers slowly suffered a little bit too, with his GAA ballooning up to 3.02 and his SV% dipping to .884 in February. The affable Czech was forced to pass on an invitation to play for his home country at the 2019 IIHF World Championships following the Flames’ playoff exit because of his bad wheel.
Now healthy, it’s up to Rittich to ensure the confidence shown in him by Flames general manager Brad Treliving and head coach Bill Peters is warranted.
“We’re not putting a whole bunch on him to be the starting goalie – we think he has a chance to be a really good goalie in the league,” added Treliving. “If you look at him since he joined our team, he’s taken a step every year. We believe he is a really good developing goaltender and still think he has another step or two he can take. I like how the tandem sets up.”
“I would like to play more than last year, but it’s up to how I play,” said Rittich. “I’m working really hard so I think I can play more than 60 games.”
Dube Looks to Stick in NHL
Dube began the 2018-19 season in Calgary, making the team out of training camp and scoring one goal and two assists in his first 25 NHL games. A somewhat injury-prone and inconsistent initial three months led the Flames to conclude that the minors would be more conducive to his development. To get more ice-time, the 5-foot-11, 187-pound center was sent to the Stockton Heat of the American Hockey League on Jan. 3.
Once healthy, the 2016 second-round (56th overall) draft pick out of the Kelowna Rockets organization of the Western Hockey League excelled in his top-six role with the Heat, scoring 15 goals and 24 assists for 39 points in 37 games. He was recalled by the Flames in early April and played in the final two regular-season matches.
“I think last year was all about developing my game. I was my first year pro, so I think there were a lot of nerves, just to see how I’d fit with men,” Dube told Kristen Anderson of Postmedia (from ”Feel good story’ over for Dube… time to earn a spot’, The Calgary Sun – 9/5/19) “and this year, I know how I fit in with men but all that matters is building my game. Whether that’s Calgary or Stockton, I just need to take a step to get to my best self as a pro.”
Related: Dube Leads Flames Past Sharks
Dube has proven he is willing and able to rise to the occasion and overachieve. His tenure in junior saw him named the captain of Team Canada at the 2018 World Junior Championships, and be awarded the 2017-18 Kelowna Rockets Presidents Award. A productive camp combined with the absence of unsigned forward Matthew Tkachuk means a roster spot might be there for the go-getter to snag.
The lofty albeit different expectations are a welcome challenge to each of the burgeoning NHL professionals. How those expectations are served will go a long way in determining their roles within the franchise and the future make-up of the Flames.
Allan is an award-winning writer, editor and journalist who has scouted high school athletes for the NCAA and MLB, and has worked in sports management and sales in professional soccer and football.