The Calgary Flames are a much different hockey club than they were 12 months ago – or even four months ago – as a disappointing season led to organizational change. Those changes have made for an eventful summer, as well as seem to have the Flames primed for an interesting training camp.
Here’s a rundown of the five battles to keep a keen eye on as the Flames kick off training camp.
Top Six Wingers
Flames general manager Brad Treliving made sweeping changes to his roster over the summer, and nowhere will that more apparent than the top two forward lines. Joining existing top six centers Sean Monahan and Mikael Backlund, and wingers Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk, are newcomers Elias Lindholm and James Neal.
While Treliving’s changes have given his coaching staff many, many options – Lindholm can play center or wing, while Neal and Tkachuk can play either wing – it’s not readily apparent who will slot in where. Monahan and Gaudreau are two thirds of the first line, while Backlund will anchor the second line, but that’s where certainties end.
Who fits where on the wings is likely more a product of fit than any performance – it won’t be the “best” player necessarily, but the one that gives new coach Bill Peters the most versatility. Given Peters’ reputation as a line-juggler, it’s probably best not to get too married to whoever plays beside Gaudreau and Monahan as we’ll likely see all three of Neal, Lindholm and Tkachuk there throughout the season.
The Back-Up Goalie
The Flames brought in Eddie Lack prior to the 2017-18 season to provide stability behind starting netminder Mike Smith. It did not work, to the point where Lack barely played and Smith started the majority of games in the first quarter of the season. The club brought up American Hockey League starter David Rittich to replace Lack, with much better results.
But Rittich didn’t flourish when Smith was injured down the stretch, so there’s still a chance for third string netminder Jon Gillies to nab a full-time NHL job with a strong camp. Gillies is younger and arguably has a higher developmental ceiling, but if the idea is to keep Smith fresh for the stretch drive by leaning on the backup more early in the season then the Flames might rely on the goaltender they feel is better right now. Whoever has the stronger preseason performance likely starts the season wearing the Flaming C – albeit sitting on the bench and holding a clipboard most nights.
The Fourth Line Mix
In 2017-18, the Flames fourth line had some issues. The most common grouping included some combination of unproven youngster Curtis Lazar and veterans Kris Versteeg, Matt Stajan and Troy Brouwer. It didn’t work too well, in the sense that the line’s lack of speed (and cohesion) often resulted in the opponents getting a few minutes respite and fourth line shifts killing the Flames’ momentum.
Well, Versteeg, Stajan and Brouwer are gone and Lazar’s not guaranteed a spot, creating a grand opportunity for the Flames to remake and reconfigure their fourth line. It’s likely that Mark Jankowski and Austin Czarnik start the season in this group, immediately upping the speed quotient, but the list of players that could slot in with them is quite long and diverse. There’s fast players like Lazar, gritty players like Garnet Hathaway and Anthony Peluso, versatile youngsters like Dillon Dube, and even offensive-minded players like Spencer Foo.
The fourth line will likely be more effective with the new group, whoever they end up being, but we’ll be able to tell a lot about what Peters wants out of this unit based on who ends up making the team.
The Third Pairing
Last season’s third pairing was primarily Michael Stone and Brett Kulak. They were fine, in that they weren’t usually the reason the Flames had trouble winning games, but they weren’t positive difference-makers either. Stone’s likely to return to his spot on the right side, if only because he’s thought to be a reliable, low-event defensive defender. What happens around him is up in the air as camp opens.
"Getting things started after the summer, it's always fun."
Training camp is off to a great start for Juuso Valimaki. pic.twitter.com/egSLByrUyC
— Calgary Flames (@NHLFlames) September 8, 2018
The burning question here is whether the Flames can get more from their third pairing by replacing Kulak on the left side. 2017 first round selection Juuso Valimaki is going pro after a tremendous stint with the Western Hockey League’s Tri-City Americans. 21-year-old Oliver Kylington has played three full seasons in the AHL and has quietly turned into a reliable defender – and occasionally a big difference-maker – at that level. And 2015 draft pick Rasmus Andersson has become one of the AHL’s top blueliners and is pushing for full-time duty.
If Valimaki, Kylington or Andersson are an upgrade on Kulak, they’ll start the season with the big club.
Every camp has surprises. Last preseason’s most consistent trio was Dube, Mark Jankowski and try-out forward Tanner Glass. Aside from the race for the back-up goaltending spot, the Flames have enough openings in their roster – and enough flexibility with the salary cap and contracts – to entertain a surprising player opening the regular season in an NHL spot.