Let’s face the facts. The Calgary Flames‘ 2020-21 season that started off with such promise went off the rails pretty darned quickly. It featured a shocking mid-season coaching change, dismal efforts by many of the team’s core players, and another failed attempt at making the postseason. The only good news I can muster up is that it won’t take much to improve on a pandemic-shortened, sub-par campaign that we’d all like to forget.
So, with training camp getting ramped up and the opening night roster looking like it’s finally taking shape, it’s time to set our sights toward the upcoming NHL season and do what everyone from casual fans to seasoned hockey writers love to do this time of year — make some bold predictions! Let’s kick things off with one of the core players who is coming off a very disappointing campaign and should be a lock to turn back the clock.
Matthew Tkachuk Will Have a Bounceback Season, Sign a Long-Term Extension and Be Named the Flames’ Next Captain
I know there’s been a lot of chatter that the Flames’ super pest is on the trading block, but I really think the team is going to double down on Matthew Tkachuk and bet that he can once again be the team’s best player. Last season not only saw the 23-year-old winger take a step backward on the scoresheet, but as a team leader as well. There were rumors the room was not impressed with his infamous puck-flipping incident with Jake Muzzin, while Tkachuk himself was reportedly very upset that nobody had his back. I think he’s put all of that in his rearview mirror, and in a recent interview with the NHL Network, he explained why he’s ready and willing to lead the Flames to a deep Stanley Cup playoff run.
“I know you make your personal and your team legacy in playoffs. So that’s what I’m hoping to do this year is make a very long run in the playoffs and do something special with our team. Because I would love to do that with that group of guys there. I consider myself to be a solid player that hasn’t done a lot so far in the league yet. So [I’m] hoping for a year where I can prove that this year. It has nothing to do with me… it’s got everything to do with team success. It’s time for us to do something this year.”Matthew Tkachuk, on the coming season
While talking to reporters last Friday on the NHL/NHLPA Player Media Tour, Tkachuk further vented his frustrations: “It’s kind of enough is enough right now,” he told the media. “Time is ticking, and average isn’t fun, and that’s what we’ve been. We’ve been making playoffs, missing playoffs, make the playoffs, lose [in the] first round, it’s not been fun. It’s time for us to really do something, take that next step, but I think guys really have to dig in and do it from the start.”
In 2021-22, Tkachuk will earn a base salary of $9 million while carrying a cap hit of $7 million. As the team’s highest-paid player, I’m sure Flames management would love for him to once again start acting like it. Last season saw the left winger only pot 16 goals in 56 games (his lowest total since his rookie year). However, it really feels like the feisty forward is getting tired of losing. So, I’m looking for “Chucky” to notch at least 30 goals this campaign, and before the 2021-22 season is over, I also expect him to sign a huge extension that comes with a brand new C stitched to the top left corner of his jersey. Say hello to your new captain and the cornerstone player for years to come.
Jacob Markstrom Will Return to Elite Form, Become a Top 5 NHL Goaltender
When the Flames landed one of the biggest free-agent fishes in the sea last year, there were a lot of fans in the C of Red who let out a huge sigh of relief. By signing Jacob Markstrom to a six-year, $36 million deal, it appeared Calgary finally put an end to their goaltending woes and secured the heir apparent to the legendary netminder Miikka Kiprusoff. But, after a very up and down 2020-21 campaign, a lot of people questioned if that bold proclamation still holds water.
After a blazing start that saw the 6-foot-6 netminder post a 8-4-1 record and .924 save percentage (SV%), Markstrom had a terrible middle stretch that saw him sidelined with a concussion. His post-injury numbers were simply abysmal: a 4-10-1 record with a .872 SV%. While he did bounce back by winning 10 of his final 15 starts, the damage was already done, and the playoffs were out of reach. The big Swede vowed to be better while talking with the Flames’ Firestarter Podcast last week.
“I wasn’t happy and I wasn’t good enough, and that’s on me” Markstrom told the podcast. “So, that’s the pressure that I put on myself. I feel like I had a great summer and I feel like I’m ready to get this season starting again… We were done playing at a time when nobody wanted to be done playing. The whole team has a chip on their shoulder coming into this year. ”Jacob Markstrom, on the Flames’ 2020-21 season
Much like Tkachuk, Markstrom’s 2020-21 performance fell well below expectations, and just like the Flames’ pesky winger, I expect No. 25 to have a big year that shuts up the naysayers and leads the Flames back into the postseason. The 31-year-old will have the benefit of a full season of head coach Darryl Sutter’s defence-first playing style in front of him, so I’m predicting he starts 60-65 games and posts at least a .925 SV%.
With a brand new season comes a brand new mask, and I’m betting this intimidating/toothless homage to fellow teammate Chris Tanev will help erase the bad memories of Markstrom’s previous campaign. It’s common knowledge that you won’t find success or make a deep playoff run without great goaltending, so I’m counting on a big bounceback effort for Calgary’s number one goalie to help the Flames do just that.
Noah Hanifin Will Take on the Mantle of Flames’ Number One Defenceman
Noah Hanifin is actually on the opposite end of the spectrum than the other two players mentioned in this bold prediction article. Unlike Tkachuk and Markstrom, Hanifin is coming off his best year as a Flame, so that means expectations heading into the 2021-22 season are sky-high for the 24-year-old defender. Previously labeled as a streaky player at best, No. 55 was paired up with the veteran Tanev last season, and the chemistry was instant. In fact, they didn’t surrender a single 5-on-5 goal for over eight games to open the season.
The departure of Mark Giordano to Seattle in the expansion draft has left a huge hole in the Flames’ D-core, so who will take the now vacant mantle of Calgary’s number one defenceman? I’m betting that Hanifin builds on his excellent 2020-21 season and grabs hold of those extra minutes the former captain ate up on a nightly basis. Giordano was logging over 24 minutes a game, while Hanifin was only skating 20 minutes a night, but he feels he’s more than ready for the added responsibility. (from ‘Is Noah Hanifin ready to reach his potential on the Flames’ blue line?’, The Athletic, 09/13/2021)
“There’s opportunity there this year. You lose a guy like Gio, that’s a lot of minutes, that’s a lot of different situations where someone’s going to need to fill that role. That’s something I’m excited about. I’m hoping to go and have a really strong camp, get my game in order, get ready to go, and then obviously try to take advantage of the opportunity that presents itself.”Noah Hanifin, on taking on a bigger role
I see Hanifin’s playing style as the closest match to the former captain’s, so replacing Giordano atop the defensive totem pole should be a no-brainer. The Boston native is already entering his seventh NHL campaign, so some might argue his game “is what it is” at this point of his career, but Flames assistant coach Ryan Huska disagrees with that assessment. (from ‘Is Noah Hanifin ready to reach his potential on the Flames’ blue line?’, The Athletic, 09/13/2021)
“He’s just coming into his own and hitting his prime,” Huska said. “Instead of being a younger guy, now he’s becoming someone that’s right in that sweet spot, where all those lessons that he’s learned along the way, he has to take those and use them to continue to make himself better.” I agree with this take, and I’d be very surprised if we don’t see a career year in both points and average ice time from the young defender.
If These 3 Bold Predictions Fall Flat, The Flames Are in Big Trouble
Most of the Flames’ offseason moves point to a defence-first style of hockey on tap for their 2021-22 campaign, so it’s absolutely critical all three of these players play to their full potential. If Sutter wants to win those tight 2-1 and 3-2 games, these guys will have to lead the charge. If Tkachuk’s goal-scoring dries up again, Markstrom has another rollercoaster year, and Hanifin takes a step back, we could be in for another long and frustrating season in cowtown.