Flames Offseason Signals Veteran-Laden, Defence-First Hockey

Darryl Sutter hockey is officially back in Calgary. With the recent signings of veteran players like Trevor Lewis, Brad Richardson, Michael Stone, Erik Gudbranson, and the addition of Tyler Pitlick through a trade, the Calgary Flames are looking to be a defence-first hockey club. It’s no secret that Sutter is a defence-first coach who has his teams play ‘boring hockey’ in order to win games. It may not be pretty or exciting for fans to watch, but it worked twice in Los Angeles in 2012 and 2014. The signing of Blake Coleman, who is an excellent two-way forward, should also fit into Sutter’s system.

The offseason plan seems more clear now: since they couldn’t land Jack Eichel, they are going to be a team that’s hard to play against. They now have big bodies on defence and several new forwards who play defence first. The team will rely heavily on its top two lines to create most of the offence, while the plan for the rest of the team seems as though they will lean on veteran players to suffocate opponents’ offence as best they can.

Veteran Presence in the Room

The loss of Mark Giordano to the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft was massive for the Flames, both on and off the ice. Giordano was still arguably the team’s best defenceman last season, and has been the captain for eight seasons after gracefully taking the reins from franchise icon Jarome Iginla. The team may not name a new captain this season, but the front office has tried to bring in more veteran voices, whether it be for better or for worse. The bottom of the lineup now has a lot of regular season and playoff experience, including guys who’ve won Stanley Cups in Lewis and Richardson.

Trevor Lewis Winnipeg Jets
Trevor Lewis, formerly with the Winnipeg Jets (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

Coleman has only been in the league for four full seasons, but he has already accomplished quite a bit. He may not have the most games played on the team, but he’s already in an exclusive club of players who’ve won back-to-back Stanley Cups. It’s no doubt that he will be leaned on in the room as a leader to speak from experience on what it takes to get over the hump and win it all.

Defence First on Offence

This new-look bottom-of-the-lineup will most likely be tasked with suffocating other teams’ offences but won’t contribute a ton of their own offence. Players like Lewis and Pitlick are mostly defence and not offensive kinds of players, which is good to have. But when the Flames need secondary scoring, they may become somewhat of a problem. Mikael Backlund has long been the team’s champion two-way player and has been excellent in the past at bogging down other team’s top players. The addition of Pitlick will help with the workload of being an eraser-type of line.

Outside of the top line, the Flames look as though they may have trouble scoring. Coleman and Andrew Mangiapane seem like fits for the second line, and while both are good players who will contribute, the question remains, who is this team’s second-line center? Does Backlund move up? Or can Sean Monahan find his former self and become a solid contributor for the team again? Backlund could cap off a very good two-way line with the wingers, which could play teams’ top lines. That then leaves the question can Monahan’s linemates help him regain form in a more limited role.

Heavy Hockey on the Flames’ Back End

The Flames have nine defencemen who will be battling for jobs at training camp; the biggest battle is mostly for the third pairing. The addition of Nikita Zadorov adds to the team’s direction as he was a good defensive defenceman for the Chicago Blackhawks during the 2020-21 season. He’s big, plays a nasty style of hockey, and is not afraid to back down, as noted in his fight with Milan Lucic while he was a member of the Colorado Avalanche. The downside usually to an aggressive style is racking up a lot of penalty minutes, which Zadorov has struggled with in the past.

Nikita Zadorov Chicago Blackhawks
Nikita Zadorov, formerly with the Chicago Blackhawks (Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The recent signings of Stone and Gudbranson were a bit of a blow to some of the younger guys in the lineup. It’s quite likely that Sutter will opt to go with more veterans in the lineup, as was apparent in 2020-21 when he often played Stone and had some choice words for the rookies in post-game pressers. Guys like Connor Mackey and Oliver Kylington had an opportunity to help on defence this season, but now their jobs are in contention when training camp opens next week. Stone played some good hockey under Sutter to finish 2020-21, and the hope is now that Gudbranson can have the same rejuvenation as he had an abysmal season split between Ottawa and Nashville.

Can Sutter Finish His Business in Calgary?

The Flames have a good shot at making the playoffs in 2021-22 with the relative weakness of the Pacific Division. Going back to 2012, the Los Angeles Kings were able to squeak into the eighth and final playoff spot, and eventually win the Cup under Sutter. The team was led by Anze Kopitar, who posted 76 points in 82 regular-season games, and 20 points in 20 playoff games. The team only had three players who scored over 50 points during the regular season, but Jonathan Quick held up the team with a 0.929 save percentage (SV%) in the regular season and an eye-popping 0.949 SV% in 20 playoff games.

Darryl Sutter
Head coach Darryl Sutter (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

Calgary currently has a somewhat comparable roster in that the trio on the top line will all hit 50 points, the second line could get around 35-50, and the bottom six will be anywhere from 0-30 points. The major factor will also be on defence after losing Giordano and can this roster get it done on the back end. Only time will tell what Sutter will be able to do with the team in front of him. It may work in his favour, but after the offseason, it looks like more of the same middling franchise that fans have become accustomed to.

The signings made this offseason have made it clear that the Flames want to be good in their own end first. If it works in their favour it should help Markstrom have a bounceback season. A full year with ample practice times and back to a regular schedule should give the team enough time to really dig into the type of game that Sutter wants to play. The hope now is that the roster, which seems will be filled with veterans, can help to get the team into the playoffs and beyond the first round. Their ages will be a factor, but if Sutter can work his magic the team may have a strong bottom-six to suppress their opponents when the top line isn’t on the ice.