As we wait for the news that the 2020-21 season will hopefully start on Jan. 1, analysts will soon be asked to predict how far their NHL team will go. Every writer knows that their predictions will be the egg they wipe off their face at the end of the season. There are no sure bets in the NHL anymore and even teams that just barely crawl into a playoff spot have a shot at winning Lord Stanley’s chalice.
In the last 10 seasons, the Calgary Flames have only made four appearances in the postseason. In that time, they have won just one playoff round. To love them is hard. As an object of Calgarians’ affection, they are the type of lover your mother warns you about, repeatedly jilting their fans in callous fashion.
Forlorn lovers of the team will not soon forget 2019 when the team rode into the playoffs atop the Western Conference only to be eliminated in the first round in just five games by the lowly wild-card Colorado Avalanche. This season, after a promising preliminary round win over the Winnipeg Jets, the Flames were shown the door in the first round by the Dallas Stars after a humiliating collapse in Game 6 of the series.
Prediction: Flames Go Deep in 2021 Playoffs!
I am naturally fearful that foretelling how far the Flames will go in the 2021 Playoffs will come back to embarrass me. But here goes – I predict the Flames will make it at least to the Western Conference Final. They are a young hungry team that made big improvements to their lineup this fall. They will be formidable this season and atone for past disappointments. Here are the reasons why.
Markstrom Solves Goaltending Problem
Goaltending has been the Flames’ biggest weakness for years. Stellar performance between the pipes is a must for playoff success. The Flames have not had league leading talent in goal since 2013 when Miikka Kiprusoff last donned the pads in Calgary.
Signing free-agent goalie Jacob Markstrom to a 6-year, $36 million contract will go a long way to solidifying the Flames as a Cup contender this season. It should also bolster the Flames in the Pacific Division against the rival Vancouver Canucks – a young team expected to be competitive again this season, but now playing without Markstrom.
With a .918 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.75 goals-against average (GAA), the 30-year-old Swede can steal close games and should provide Flames forwards with the confidence to play with the edge and risk-taking required to win championships. This will be important if the exciting talent the Flames have upfront is to excel in 2020-21.
Markstrom’s statistics will likely improve in 2020-21 given the solid corps the Flames have assembled on the blue line. He has the potential to rival the top goaltender in the league, Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning (2.56 GAA and .917 SV%). He may even surpass the Jets’ Connor Hellebuyck. (2.75 GAA and .918 SV%).
While not considered old for a goaltender and having a reputation for being able to handle a heavy workload, the coaching staff can give Markstrom nights off when he needs them by turning to David Rittich. His numbers are respectable and this duo should provide the Flames with playoff-winning performances.
Tanev Bolsters Defense
The blue line will look very different in 2021. Five defensemen have left the team including heavy hitters T.J. Brodie and Erik Gustafsson along with Travis Hamonic, Derek Forbort and Michael Stone. Adding defenseman Christopher Tanev, who was signed in Oct. to a 4-year, $18 million contract, should help fill in some of the holes. It’s difficult, however, to see how Tanev can make up for Brodie’s departure to the Maple Leafs.
Related: Flames Take Gamble on Tanev
Both Tanev and Brodie are 30-year-old veterans. However, the Flames have lost a 30-point-per-season defenseman in Brodie while Tanev brings around 10 points. Tanev has a reputation for his high hockey IQ, the ability to move the puck and block shots. He logs solid playing time having averaged just over 19.5 minutes per game last season.
The question the Flames coaching staff faces is where he fits in the lineup. There is speculation that he may play with Noah Hanifin or Mark Giordano. The loss of five defensemen combined with 36-year-old Giordano’s point production tailing off last season leads some to conclude that the team’s defense will be a weak spot in 2020-21.
It is widely believed that general manager Brad Treliving is looking to add a quality right-shot defenseman to the roster, but that will be difficult given the team’s lack of cap space. Nevertheless, the Flames’ blue line is one teams would love to have. Last season, Giordano won the Norris Trophy and youngsters Rasmus Andersson and Juuso Valimaki will light the path to the future in 2020-21.
Offensive Firepower Led by Tkachuk
The Flames’ offense scored a middling 210 goals during the shortened 2019-20 season. By comparison, the Canucks and Vegas Golden Knights racked up 228 and 227, respectively. However, their total goals against were significantly less than the Flames’. The addition of Markstrom and Tanev should improve these statistics, but so too will the Flames’ offence if all goes well. That means staying healthy and living up to their full potential.
Matthew Tkachuk is off the injured list. If he can stay there he should rack up impressive points. As one of the league’s leading pests, perhaps only surpassed by his brother Brady of the Ottawa Senators, he will inflict misery on opposing teams and provide welcome leadership.
The top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm and Sean Monahan should be able to pot plenty of goals. However, Gaudreau has a reputation for being good when it doesn’t count. In the last two seasons, he has not shown up for the playoffs, and he will need to shake off last season’s performance when his goal production fizzled after a glittering 99-point season in 2018-19. He should be a point-per-game player. If he doesn’t achieve this, watch for him to be traded for talent the Flames need for a playoff run.
Related: Tkachuk More Than League’s Best Pest
Big things are expected from Dillon Dube, Sam Bennett and Andrew Mangiapane in the upcoming season. Dube and Bennett turned heads in the 2020 Playoffs while Mangiapane stepped up his goal production during the tail end of the truncated season with an impressive 32 points.
The 2020-21 Flames are the Real Deal
Calgary has been a disappointment for the last 10 years, and they have their weaknesses still. Yet, they have overcome recent adversity and have built character. To win, teams understand they must first learn how to lose. Most importantly, the Flames have solved their biggest problem – goaltending. They have exciting offensive power and with a solid blue line, they will go deep into the 2021 Playoffs. They are the real deal.
Paul covers the Calgary Flames, the Ottawa Senators and the OHL’s Ottawa 67s for The Hockey Writers (THW). He also hosts the Flames Faceoff show for THW’s Podcast Network.
Paul has been sought for media interviews for the thoughtful pieces he has written on hockey’s response to the major social and political issues of the day including the place of gay players in the game. Paul is also known for his interesting perspectives on the key issues and challenges facing the teams he follows.
Of his work with THW, Paul says, “I love to tell stories about the game of hockey and the personalities – both past and present, who have made it the greatest game on the planet!”
Follow him on Twitter at @pquinney