Now that we are past the 25-game mark of the 2021-22 season, we’ve seen enough of the Calgary Flames‘ new additions to form a decent opinion and grade them according to their impact. As we shine the spotlight on the fresh faces in the lineup, a very distinct trend emerges: The newcomers are having great success keeping the puck out of their own net. But, putting the puck into the opposition’s net? That’s a different story.
Dan Vladar: A
My first reaction to the trade with the Boston Bruins to shore up a backup goaltender was, “Dan, WHO?” Before the Flames swapped a third-round pick for the young Czech goaltender, Dan Vladar, he was not on my radar. How could this relatively unknown player with only five NHL starts be ready for the big time? However, after a spectacular start to his rookie season in Calgary, he’s more than just ready; he’s thriving.
Vladar just lost his first game in regulation on Tuesday against the San Jose Sharks, allowing four goals on 26 shots. One might argue that this was his only misstep of the season, with an impressive 5-1-1 record and one shutout. His 2.10 goals-against average (GAA) and .928 save percentage (SV%) are both top-eight in the league, so I’m not sure anyone could ask for more from the newcomer. He has provided the Flames with a reliable, steady presence in the crease and showed no nerves when he stopped every shooter in his first NHL shootout against the Anaheim Ducks on Dec. 3.
Head coach Darryl Sutter has implemented a responsible, defence-first system this season, which has helped both of his goalies excel. But, Vladar has also made some all-world saves that can’t be explained away with a “good defensive structure” in front of him. There’s more good news: the 24-year-old has two seasons remaining on his contract at $750,000 AAV. That’s great value for an NHL backup.
Blake Coleman: B
The only splashy move the Flames made this offseason was signing two-time Stanley Cup-winner Blake Coleman to a six-year, $29.4 million contract ($4.9 million AAV). While the veteran winger has brought great speed, a responsible two-way game, and some true grit to Calgary’s forward group, I have to ask: Where are the goals? Coleman was brought in to bolster the team’s top six, and he has, but it hasn’t unfolded as promised.
Calgary has loaded up the second line with the team’s best two-way forwards: Coleman with Mikael Backlund and Andrew Mangiapane. The trio’s strong shutdown ability, along with the play-driving skill of both wingers makes for a really dangerous line that stacks up well against any of the opposition’s top units. While the combo has found great success controlling the play and getting good looks, it hasn’t translated into offensive numbers for Coleman. So far, he’s notched only four goals and three helpers in 25 games.
After scoring in his Flames debut, his goal output slowed to a trickle, including a 16-game drought that was snapped against the Ducks last week. But here’s the deal. Coleman’s advanced metrics show he’s doing everything right, except scoring. He’s also near the bottom of the team in shooting percentage, and I’m betting that will turn around at some point. Remember, he isn’t far removed from back-to-back 20-goal campaigns with the New Jersey Devils, so I’m confident the 30-year-old winger will find his scoring touch this season.
Eric Gudbranson: C+
After the Flames’ top defenceman and former captain, Mark Giordano, was selected in the Seattle Kraken expansion draft, the team had a massive hole to fill on the back end. When general manager (GM) Brad Treliving signed veteran blueliner Eric Gudbranson to be part of the solution, I was skeptical. I also balked at the hefty price tag of $1.95 million for a player destined to skate on the third pairing.
Like others, I was critical of the 6-foot-5 defender’s poor preseason showing, but I can admit Gudbranson has been pretty solid (for the most part) anchoring that third pairing. He’s played in all 26 games, put up five points, and has used his size effectively to make life difficult for opposing forwards entering the Flames’ zone. The big man has seen a revolving door of skaters paired beside him, from Juuso Välimäki to Nikita Zadorov to Michael Stone, but he’s played consistent enough to stay in the lineup.
The Ottawa native has also logged effective minutes on the penalty kill, so in the end, he’s been better than expected. I was tempted to give the veteran D-man a slightly higher rating, but after the entire defensive core had a catastrophic night in San Jose earlier this week, I’m a tad nervous we might see more regression in his game.
Trevor Lewis: C
Trevor Lewis was one of several offseason depth signings that seemed to have Sutter’s fingerprints all over it. The 34-year-old won the Stanley Cup with the Los Angeles Kings in 2012 and 2014, both with Sutter behind the bench. During the preseason, Calgary’s bench boss talked about finding the right role for his new additions, and applauded the recent signings for being adaptable pieces of championship teams: “A guy like Trevor went from playing on a top checking line, then within a year, playing fewer minutes on a fourth line,” he added. “Guys accept roles and guys maximize their skill sets in their roles, and those (players) we brought in are all capable and have done that.”
After a quarter of a season, Lewis has done everything Sutter has asked from him – playing on multiple lines with different line mates, but always providing a physical, defensive game. It hasn’t hurt that the veteran forward has also chipped in with two goals and four assists. The bottom line is, the native of Salt Lake City hasn’t been flashy, but for a player on a one-year, $800,000 contract, he’s proven to be a steady presence in the bottom six and a consummate professional.
Brad Richardson: C-
Like Lewis, Brad Richardson was signed to bolster the bottom half of the forward group but after a preseason injury sidelined the 36-year-old at the start of the 2021-22 campaign, he ultimately lost his roster spot to Brett Richie. After injuries gave the veteran centerman a second chance to crack the lineup, he stepped in and hasn’t missed a game since. Richardson also won a Stanley Cup with Sutter in 2014, so while he might be new to the squad, he isn’t new to “Sutter hockey”. He joined the organization knowing exactly what was expected of him.
Richardson is also on a one-year, $800,000 contract and so far, it’s gone about as well as anyone could have anticipated. He’s been skating up the middle and on the wing, scoring two goals and two assists in 17 contests. The Belleville, Ontario native has been been solid, if unspectacular this season, averaging around 10 minutes a game – almost exclusively on the Flames’ fourth line.
And speaking of that unit, Sutter has been slotting all three of his former Kings players together from time to time, in the hope they can use their collective playoff experience to make the Flames a tougher team to play against. “If you just look at that one line with Brad, Looch and Trevor — those would be the guys I have connections with”, he said. “But the connection is, they have four Stanley Cups. This organization needs that.” Will the Richardson signing pay dividends come playoff time?
Tyler Pitlick: D
The Flames gave up a third-round pick when they traded for Tyler Pitlick this summer, hoping the 30-year-old forward could play a defence-first style of hockey, help the penalty kill and add some much needed secondary scoring to the middle six. So far, we haven’t see much of anything this season. Pitlick has been placed on injured reserve three times this year, missing five of the Flames first 26 games.
To be fair, Pitlick was brought in as a depth player slated to play tough minutes but I’m sure the Flames were hoping for more than his two assists in 21 games. As for his ice time, the native of Minneapolis, Minnesota is only averaging around 11 minutes a game, which is currently second last on the team. Before his latest injury took him out of the lineup, the newcomer’s most recent game against the Ducks was probably his worst of the season. Sutter benched his line for the entire third period and overtime.
I know that Pitlick has been tried out on five different line combinations this season, but the Flames really need a more noticeable contribution from the gritty forward. And if you think I’m being too hard on the bottom six winger, it’s because he wasn’t just another depth signing making the league minimum – this is a player who carries a $1.75 million cap hit. Calgary needs this guy to step up, or he might find he’s lost his roster spot to Adam Ruzicka or some other hotshot prospect when he’s healthy and ready to return.
Nakita Zadorov: D
The fans in the C of Red that were upset with the Gudbranson signing were also probably scratching their heads this summer when the Flames traded for Nikita Zadorov, then signed him to a whopping one-year, $3.75 million contract extension. Yes, the big Russian certainly brings a whole lot of truculence to Calgary’s back end, but what else does he offer? Despite a terrible training camp, Zadorov still found himself on the Flames’ opening night roster. However, the big man lost his spot on the third unit after only two games and found himself a healthy scratch for the next five contests.
Once the 6-foot-6 defender wrestled the third pairing job away from Välimäki, he seemed to settle in nicely with Gudbranson, as the “twin towers” offered up a pretty imposing challenge for opposing forwards trying to set up in Calgary’s zone. Unfortunately, Zadorov has a tendency to take bad penalties and make defensive gaffes, so he’s been swapped out a couple of times in recent weeks for either Välimäki or Stone. Furthermore, after having his worst game of the season on Tuesday night against the Sharks, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the big Russian watching the next few games from the press box.
Zadorov’s situation is comparable to Pitlick’s, as this wasn’t a low risk, league-minimum free agent signing. No sir, the Flames are paying the 26-year-old defenceman big money this year to stabilize a back end that was left reeling with the departure of Giordano. I really don’t think management was expecting a player making $3.75 million to be a healthy scratch seven times in 26 games. The big Russian does have two goals on the season (which is two more than Rasmus Andersson) so I’m not saying the Moscow native has been a complete bust, but he has to really improve his game to remain on this roster.
Did the Flames Make Enough Offseason Moves to Get Them Over the Hump?
On paper, Calgary’s current squad doesn’t really look much better than the 2020-21 version, but that doesn’t seem to matter. I didn’t think there was any chance Trelving’s roster tinkering would have led to the team’s incredible start to the 2021-22 campaign, but here they are, battling for the best record in the Western Conference. If the Flames can keep up this torrid pace right to the trade deadline, I wouldn’t rule out the GM loading up for a deep run; there could be more newcomers on the way.
And one last thing! Before anyone gets too excited about me leaving out a certain breakout defenceman, I really waffled over Oliver Kylington‘s eligibility for this list. While the smooth-skating Swede is only 24-years-old and suited up just eight times for Calgary last year, he’s hardly a newcomer to this organization. In the five seasons before his marvelous 2021-22 campaign, the Stockholm native played close to 100 games in Flames’ silks, skating in 38 contests in 2018-19 and then 48 more in 2019-20. Sorry folks, he’s not a newbie in my books but if he was… he’d definitely get an A.
Greg Tysowski is a former broadcast journalist who chose the exciting life of a stay-at-home dad for over a decade. He’s now a published author, parenting blogger and aspiring sports writer covering the Calgary Flames for The Hockey Writers. Greg is also a regular contributor to the weekly roundtable discussion “Flames Faceoff”, now streaming on YouTube and all podcast outlets.