I think it’s safe to say the recent additions of Blake Coleman, Tyler Pitlick and Trevor Lewis have made the Calgary Flames’ forwards a significantly stronger group heading into the 2021-22 regular season. However, when we turn our eyes to Calgary’s defenders, the offseason moves made by general manager (GM) Brad Treliving have definitely weakened the team’s defensive core. Say what you want about Mark Giordano’s skill set falling off from his Norris Trophy-winning season of 2018-19, but losing the former captain to the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft left a huge hole to fill on the back end, and the defence pairings will look a little different this coming season.
The First Pairing: If it Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix it
Yes, I know I just used this cliché in my most recent article about the Flames’ forward lines, but I simply had to recycle it. Like the team’s top forward unit, projecting Calgary’s best defensive pairing is another no-brainer. Heading into the 2020-21 campaign, I don’t think anyone expected the brand-new duo of Chris Tanev and Noah Hanifin to find instant chemistry and be as successful as they were. The 24-year-old Hanifin had been criticized for inconsistent play since first arriving in Cowtown in 2018, while the 31-year-old Tanev had a history of nagging injuries while playing with the Vancouver Canucks, prompting many to wonder if he had lost a step. They certainly proved all of the naysayers wrong. Like, really wrong.
Just how good was the duo of Tanev and Hanifin to start last season? So good that neither of them gave up a 5v5 goal the entire month of January. They finally surrendered their first even-strength goal of the season in Calgary’s Feb. 2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets after eight games and nearly two hours of ice time together. While the pairing didn’t set the world on fire offensively, they were easily the Flames’ most effective defenders the entire season. However, head coach Darryl Sutter did split them up to help revive Giordano’s game after it became apparent his pairing with Rasmus Andersson wasn’t panning out. If Tanev and Hanifin don’t start the season as the team’s top pairing, I’ll be flabbergasted.
The Second Pairing: Make Way For the New Guy
When Giordano was plucked off Calgary’s roster at the recent expansion draft, replacing him became a top priority — and an almost impossible task. The former captain may not be the same player he was a couple of years ago, but he still logged the most ice time of any player on the team and still led all defencemen in scoring. So, can newcomer Nikita Zadorov fill those big shoes? Nope. Not in a million years, but what he can bring to the team is a hulking presence on the back end that we haven’t seen in ages.
While the native of Moscow, Russia won’t be chipping in many goals, he can certainly dole out punishing hits and make opposing forwards think twice about how they enter the Flames’ offensive zone. The 6-foot-6 defender plays a solid defensive game and will likely be paired with Andersson, who had a down year, but can definitely add some offensive flair.
It’s safe to say this potential second unit has a lot of question marks surrounding it, so I think the Flames are praying this new duo will be inspired by the instant success of the Tanev/Hanifin pairing and find some good chemistry while providing rock-solid defence.
The Third Pairing: Your Guess is as Good as Mine
Heading into last season, there were high hopes that Flames’ prospect Juuso Välimäki would have a breakout year, with some hockey pundits even listing him as a dark horse candidate for the Calder Trophy. While the 22-year-old defenceman played some solid minutes alongside Nikita Nesterov on the third pairing, his glaring miscues and inconsistent play made him Sutter’s whipping boy in the second half of the campaign. While Välimäki found himself a healthy scratch six times, I feel the young Finn has a tremendous upside and is still the best option to start on the third pairing when they drop the puck on the 2021-22 season. But who will play with him?
The Flames do have some players in the system that could step up and grab the open spot in the third pairing. Oliver Kylington suited up for the Flames 38 times in 2018-19 and then played 48 games in 2019-20 before falling out of favor during Calgary’s most recent campaign. The 24-year-old Swede only played eight times in 2020-21 and is still without a contract. Meanwhile, American Hockey League (AHL) prospect Connor Mackey could be ready to make the jump to the NHL on a full time basis. The 24-year-old product of Tower Lakes, Illinois, played six games for the big club last season and finished up his year with a bronze medal playing for Team USA at the IIHF World Hockey Championships.
Dark Horse Candidates to Round Out the Flames’ Blue Line
The Flames recently signed Andy Welinski to a one-year deal, and while that certainly adds depth to the organization’s defensive core, I don’t know if he can crack the opening-night roster. He has 46 career NHL games with the Anaheim Ducks under his belt and another 191 in the AHL, so I’m thinking the 28-year-old will likely start the season with the Stockton Heat.
My next option might have some Flames’ fans rolling their collective eyes, but I say bring back Michael Stone — one more time. The 31-year-old defenceman first appeared on Calgary’s blue line during the 2016-17 season and like a bad penny, they can’t seem to get rid of him. They even bought out his contract in 2019, only to re-sign him a month later. Last year, Stone appeared in 21 games and actually played well enough to earn another shot to play on the third pairing, or perhaps as the team’s seventh D-man.
With six weeks to go before the opening of training camp, I’m really hoping the Flames are actively looking to sign another depth defenceman, because as it stands right now, Calgary’s back end could definitely use the help.
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.