Erin Morgenstern’s character Tsukiko, in her novel The Night Circus, observed that “Love is fickle and fleeting. It is rarely a solid foundation for decisions to be made upon, in any game.”
NHL general managers know this. It’s why the Calgary Flames’ beloved former captain Mark Giordano was so callously given up in the NHL Expansion Draft last summer. So too do hockey fans, holders as they are of the most frivolous and fickle of hearts, demanding last year that Johnny Gaudreau be traded and this season writing odes of love to him as he soars among the league’s leading scorers.
As lovers marked Valentine’s Day this week, it’s fitting that we look at those wearing the Flaming C who have won Flames fans’ affections this year. They should bask in the warmth of that love since it may go as quickly as it came.
Italians have a reputation as the world’s hottest lovers, and fans in the Stampede City this year are completely besotted with their young Italian stallion Andrew Mangiapane. (of Italian descent, he’s from Bolton – the least sexy town in Ontario, but don’t let that ruin the imagery)
While he caught fan interest last season, this year has truly been his breakout year. After a hot start that has cooled lately, he is on track for 56 points – his best in his short NHL career.
With 25 goals at the time of writing, it’s Mangiapane and not Gaudreau, who’s the Flames’ leading goals-getter. He’s a pure sniper with the Flames’ best shooting percentage, racking up a goal on every four shots he takes.
For now at least, Calgary fans are smitten with him. In a recent poll of fans, almost one in five of them voted him as the team’s best player. That’s several points ahead of Gaudreau.
You could almost see the love go out of the eyes of Calgary fans for Markstrom midway through last year’s COVID-19 shortened season. With a save percentage (SV%) of .904 and goals-against average (GAA) of 2.66 in 2020-21-, he was far from one of the league’s top-ten netminders that fans had hoped he’d be.
This season is a different story, with pundits discussing him as a potential finalist for the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the best goalie in the NHL. With a current GAA of 2.12 and a SV% of .927, he ranks fourth among NHL goaltenders.
For now, Calgary hearts are aflutter with his stellar performance between the pipes. The Flames have the fourth-best goal differential (+52) in the NHL, and that’s not because they are a scoring machine. Rather, they, along with the Carolina Hurricanes, have allowed the fewest goals-against (112). That has everything to do with Markstrom.
This season, Flames fans have fallen in love with their dreamy Swedish goaltender all over again.
My colleague Brett Krauss on The Hockey Writers’ Flames Faceoff Show said he poured himself a stiff scotch on hearing the news last fall that Gudbranson was coming to Cowtown to skate on the blue line. He wasn’t the only pundit in the Stampede City who needed the demon rum to come to terms with the $1.95 million, one-year contract the Flames gave the lumbering rearguard.
The signing, at the time, was regarded as a head-scratcher, with Gudbranson written off as being slow with horrible underlying defensive statistics. Not only that, but Calgary hockey gurus said he took too many penalties. While he added muscle to the blue line, Flames general manager Brad Treliving already had that when he signed Nikita Zadorov earlier in the fall. Many said Treliving had overpaid for him.
This year, at just over the midpoint of the season, Gudbranson is being lauded as part of the backbone of the Flames’ much-improved penalty kill of late (from, ‘How Chris Tanev and Erik Gudbranson became the backbone of the Flames’ improved PK’, The Athletic, 08/02/2022). Gudbranson and Tanev rank 14th and 15th in the NHL in the percentage of team shorthanded time played (SH TOI%).
With two goals and eight assists so far this season, he is on track for his best year ever in the NHL. While his plus-minus of plus one is one of the worst among the Flames’ D-Corps, it’s important to consider the time he spends on the penalty kill.
With 70 hits, he ranks second to Zadorov (90) and is third among defensemen when it comes to blocked shots. His possession numbers are strong, and he brings a much-needed nastiness to the Flames’ blue line. He has seen a remarkable change in the way Calgary fans feel about him since he first donned the Flaming C. They gaze lovingly upon him – for now.
The relationship between Calgary fans and Gaudreau is tempestuous, as perhaps love affairs with Frenchmen can often be. (I know, he’s from New Jersey, but his name betrays his ancestors’ French Canadian roots).
After a stellar 99-point 2018-19 season, fans raged that he simply didn’t show up in the playoffs that year, registering just one assist as his team was eliminated in the first round by the Colorado Avalanche in just five games. The next year, he notched only 61 points.
While Treliving has faced demands from assorted journalists and social media trolls that he trade Gaudreau over the last few years, nobody is saying that in Cowtown now. Johnny Hockey is everybody’s darling as the league’s fourth highest points-getter, potting them at a furious rate of 1.3 per game.
Even hard-hearted head coach Darryl Sutter is making googly eyes at the pint-sized left-winger, saying in January that “Johnny is one of the best 200-foot players in the league right now, and that says a lot about him and just the way he’s approached the season.”
Hockey experts say Gaudreau should be thinking about renting a tuxedo for this year’s NHL Awards show because he’s a shoo-in for the Hart Memorial Trophy as the league’s most valuable player. A lot can happen between now and the end of the season to derail those hopes, but for now, Gaudreau is basking in the warmth of his fans’ adoration in a cold February on the prairies.
The smooth-skating defenceman has swept Cowtown fans off their feet this season, emerging as one of the team’s top D-men playing on the second pairing with Tanev. For most, this was a complete surprise this season.
Anchoring the blue line on the second power-play unit, the 24-year old Swede plays the third-highest minutes among the Flames’ D-Corps, has the most goals among Flames defencemen (6) and sits second only to Rasmus Andersson among the rearguard for points (24).
This is a remarkable turnaround from previous years when Kylington bounced back and forth between the farm team in Stockton and the big club in Calgary. It’s hard to believe that just last year, he was put on waivers and cleared them. He’d get claimed in a New York minute if he were exposed this year.
It’s said that there’s no love like an old flame (pun intended), and nothing truer could be written of fan favourite Milan Lucic. While far from being the best player on the team, the rugged left winger is its heart and soul. Every time he lays a hit on an opposing player or drops the gloves to defend Calgary’s honour, impassioned cries of “Loooch, Loooch” rain down from the rafters in the Saddledome.
While practiced in the pugilistic arts, he’s much more than that, and Flames fans know it. With nine goals and 18 points, he rivals Blake Coleman and Mikael Backlund for a spot among the team’s top-10 points producers. That is even though he toils on the fourth line and sees on average of fewer than 13 minutes on the ice per game. Love may ebb and flow for other players in Cowtown, but it’s constant for Lucic.
Calgary Flames Heart Throbs Will Come and Go
Love is a fickle mistress. The players who command the affection of Flames fans today will surely one day be cast aside for others, and new love stories will be written. That’s why players should live in the moment and enjoy the adoration of their fans. It rarely lasts long.
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