After last week’s crucial back-to-back victories against the 4th place Montreal Canadiens, the Calgary Flames have reached the halfway point of the 2020-21 NHL season. As their middling 13-12-2 record suggests, this is a frustrating team to watch and they have yet to be competitive on a regular basis, which is exactly why GM Brad Treliving punted Geoff Ward after less than half a season behind the bench. Management is betting the farm that the second coming of Darryl Sutter can flip the script from a failing grade in their first semester to an A+ in the second.
Very Few Brights Spots in an Underperforming Forward Group
While the Flames’ forwards have had a few stand-out performances, overall, they are not getting the job done. They are dead last in the Scotia North Division in goals scored, which is well below expectations. But, before we dive into who has faltered in the first half, let’s look at who has played well in the team’s first 28 games of the season.
ANDREW MANGIAPANE: Despite being bounced between all three top lines, Mangiapane has somehow found chemistry with whoever he plays, and he has been the Flames’ best winger this season. He’s second on the team in goals, but it’s his all-around game that puts the third-year forward at the top of my list. You can plug No. 88 into any situation, and he’ll play a solid 200-foot game. It doesn’t hurt that he’s skating alongside Mikael Backlund, the team’s most dependable centerman. Midseason Grade: A
ELIAS LINDHOLM: While he did play a couple of games on the wing, it’s safe to say Lindholm is the Flames’ best option down the middle and it’s looking more like his move to center will be permanent. And why not? He quietly goes about his business, takes on the opposition’s top guns, and plays on both the power play and the penalty kill. The 26-year-old Swede is one of the most utilized players on the roster and has the most points on the team with 24. Midseason Grade: A-
JOHNNY GAUDREAU: The diminutive winger had a red-hot start to the season, prompting puck scribes everywhere to ask: Is Johnny Hockey Back? While he leads the Flames in goals and is second in team scoring with 23 points, his goal production and shots per game have really slowed down in recent weeks. The fact that half of his points have been racked up on the power play has raised questions about his ability to drive the play at even strength. Midseason Grade: B+
Forwards Who Are Quietly Having Solid Seasons
DEREK RYAN: The veteran forward has been a solid addition to the team’s stable of centers since the Flames signed him ahead of the 2018-19 season. The 34-year-old has consistently put up 30-35 points a year while displaying a versatility that allows him to play up and down the lineup, so I was surprised to see him stumble out of the gate. But, since he returned to the roster, after missing 10 games with a fractured finger, he has been one of the Flames’ best players. No. 10 has re-energized the fourth line, and has brought out the best in newcomer Josh Leivo, who is finally making an impact. Midseason Grade: B
DILLON DUBE: It’s been an up-and-down first half of the season for the hardworking winger. After a great start, an injury sidelined Dube for three games and he struggled when he returned. After being shuffled around the lineup, the 22-year-old is back on the Lindholm line and is rebuilding his confidence after scoring his first NHL hat trick against the Ottawa Senators in early March. Midseason Grade: B-
MILAN LUCIC: The big man has been a lightning rod of controversy since the Flames and Edmonton Oilers swapped their undesirable contracts a couple of years ago, so expectations have always been low for Lucic. After finishing the 2019-20 season strong and playing well in the playoff bubble, the burly winger is on pace for his best offensive output in five seasons. He’s also upped his physical game in recent weeks and has re-established himself as an intimidating force. Midseason Grade: B-
Forwards Who Really Need to Step Up Their Game
MATTHEW TKACHUK: After leading the team in scoring last season, I was convinced the Flames’ highest-paid player would continue to carry his squad on his shoulders during the truncated 2020-21 season. So far, that hasn’t happened. Yes, the 23-year-old is still third on the team in points with 22, but we haven’t seen many big-time goals and he has seemed out of sorts. Rumours of the room being unhappy with his on-ice antics after the infamous “puck flipping” incident may have also contributed to Tkachuk’s inconsistent performance during the first half of the campaign. Midseason Grade: C+
SEAN MONAHAN: Like his perennial sidekick Gaudreau, Monahan was really looking for a bounce-back season after the worst campaign of his eight-year NHL career. While an impressive two-goal performance Saturday night against the Habs might be the reboot the 26-year-old desperately needs, the big center has seriously underperformed in the first half of 2020-21. Nobody expects Monahan to show an excellent two-way game or drive the play, we just need him to stand in front of the net and utilize that great release to pile up a bunch of goals. Midseason Grade: C-
SAM BENNETT: Of all of the underachievers, I think Sam Bennett has the best shot at stepping up his game. Ever since his agent blindsided the team with a trade request early in the season, the controversial winger/center has been a major distraction. The 24-year-old has been shuffled all over the lineup, been made a healthy scratch many times, and only has three goals and three assists. Nothing worked. That is until the new head coach slotted him on a rejuvenated fourth line with Ryan and Leivo. Now, let’s see if Bennett can get out of the doghouse in the second half of the campaign. Midseason Grade: D
Flames Have a New Number One D-Pairing
Heading into the 2020-21 season, I pencilled in Mark Giordano and Rasmus Andersson as the team’s top defensive pair. While they still might be the number one duo on paper, reality paints a different picture. The ageing veteran and the young Swede have been overtaken by former Vancouver Canuck Chris Tanev and third-year Flame Noah Hanifin as the squad’s most effective partnership.
CHRIS TANEV/NOAH HANIFIN: After two full seasons wearing the flaming C on his chest, I wasn’t sure what to make of Hanifin or how the team should utilize the 24-year-old blueliner heading into the 2020-21 campaign. He had shown streaks of solid play followed by significant stretches of lacklustre play, but that all changed when he was paired with the veteran Tanev. Hanifin is now playing his best hockey as a Flame and is starting to show more offensive upside, while his partner’s ability to block shots and shut down the opposition makes the duo very tough to beat at even strength. In fact, they didn’t surrender a 5v5 goal for over eight games to open the season. Midseason Grade: A
MARK GIORDANO/RASMUS ANDERSSON: After TJ Brodie’s departure in the offseason, the Flames were counting on Rasmus Andersson to fill his shoes on the top pairing. After half a season, the results have been mixed at best. While Andersson leads all blueliners with 14 points, he was briefly demoted to the third pairing after the coaching staff found his defensive game lacking. While the captain may never return to his Norris Trophy-winning form, Giordano still plays a ton of minutes, faces the other team’s best players, and has quietly been holding his own. That being said, advanced stats indicate that this pairing has the Flames’ worst expected goals for (xGF) at 46.5% (courtesy Natural Stat Trick). Compare that to 66.2% xGF for Tanev/Hanifin, and you can see why Giordano/Andersson are now the number two duo in my books. Midseason Grade: B-
JUUSO VÄLIMÄKI/NIKITA NESTEROV: To be clear, Välimäki is a work in progress and has made some big-time rookie blunders. However, the 22-year-old has also shown great poise by confidently jumping into the rush and by proving he can quickly get back into position if those rushes don’t pan out. The young Finn has been unflappable out there, but I don’t know how many flubs his new head coach will put up with. The third pairing has also featured Nikita Nesterov for 21 of the season’s 28 games, and while the Russian has been pretty solid on the back end, he might be on the way out. First, rookie Connor Mackey was given an audition, and now Oliver Kylington has seen some action with Välimäki. Sutter has been spreading out the ice time in the forward ranks, but I don’t know if he can trust the third defensive unit with more minutes just yet. Midseason Grade: C+
Goaltending Has Been a Strength Through Half a Season
The Flames have been searching for a legitimate number one netminder since the legendary Miika Kiprusoff hung up his skates after the 2012-13 season. In fact, the organization has kicked the tires on 13 different goalies since Kipper left a gaping hole in the roster. But, by all accounts, they have finally found their man.
JACOB MARKSTROM: Markstrom was the club’s biggest free-agent signing in the offseason, and so far, the big Swede has delivered. With a six-year, $36 million contract, the six-foot-six netminder gives his new team a chance to win almost every time he suits up. The ex-Canuck has probably been the Flames’ best player in the first half of the season and is likely the only reason Calgary is above .500 with a shot at making the playoffs. That being said, the 31-year-old saw a dip in his performance a few games before an injury kept him out of the lineup for six games, but he has since shaken off the rust and again looks like the saviour that impressed the hockey world out of the gate. Midseason Grade: A
DAVID RITTICH: Because of the Flames’ mediocre first month of the season, the team’s coaching staff leaned heavily on Markstrom to stay afloat, leaving David Rittich to wither away at the end of the bench. The Czech netminder only saw three starts in the first 17 games, and when he did finally see action, the team in front of him didn’t offer the requisite effort to win. So, when Markstrom’s injury made a struggling Rittich the starting goalie for a two-game set against the division-leading Toronto Maple Leafs, nobody knew what to expect. What happened was the reappearance of “Big Save Dave,” as the 28-year-old played like a world-beater and came within 90 seconds of posting back-to-back shutouts. That was the high point of Rittich’s season, who’s been both hot and cold since – which has always been the big knock against him. Midseason Grade: C+
Overall Team Performance Is Underwhelming
Just days before Treliving fired former head coach Geoff Ward, the Flames’ GM was lamenting what seemed to be his team’s ‘A’ game and ‘D’ game, but they could never muster up a ‘B’ game enough for success on some nights to eke out a victory. That has been Calgary’s biggest problem throughout the first 28 games of the season, and it’s going to be a huge challenge for new bench boss Daryll Sutter to try and remedy.
The gruff rancher with two Stanley Cup rings recently told reporters that he feels the beginning of his tenure is the beginning of a new season, one that the Flames have started one game under .500. After winning both contests against the Canadiens last week, I can already see an improved work ethic and a new commitment to winning, but that doesn’t do much to change my overall assessment of the first half of the 2020-21 campaign. Treliving was right: with only an ‘A’ game and a ‘D’ game, it’s obvious which mark to hand out to this underachieving squad. Midseason Grade: C+