In the upcoming 2020-21 season, the Calgary Flames must show that they are on track to contend for a Stanley Cup in the next few years. That means making it out of the Canadian division playoffs (assuming one is established) and on to at least the equivalent of a conference final in whatever playoff format the league adopts. If that doesn’t happen, then Flames’ management must face up to a rebuild. They simply can’t win with the current core group.
On paper, the Flames should be a good team and at times in the last few seasons they have been. It’s just that they are good when it doesn’t count. Here’s a look at what the Flames need to work on to go deep into the 2021 Playoffs.
Get Off to a Good Start
The upcoming season looks like it will consist of four divisions, one of which will be an all-Canadian division, playing a 56-game schedule that starts in mid-January and wraps up with the awarding of the Stanley Cup in early July. With a shortened schedule, the season will be a sprint and no team can afford to dig themselves into a hole with a bad start.
The Flames are not noted for fast openings, having barely played .500 hockey in their first 10 games of both their last two seasons. As for losing streaks, their worst lasted six games in the 2019-20 season. This combined with a few three game losing stretches, meant the team was barely .500 on the season. A six-game losing streak in a compressed 56-game schedule would be enough to bury their chances of playing in the postseason.
Hockey pundits see teams in western Canada facing off against each other more often than they do against eastern teams. What’s more, games will be back to back. That will make the schedule more intense.
The Flames’ goal production in 2019-20 fell off from the previous season’s total by over 17% (pro-rated for the shortened season). Among Canadian teams, only the rebuilding Ottawa Senators scored fewer goals than the 204 that Calgary notched. Of five players in the 2018-19 season who produced at or near a point-per-game pace, only one – Matthew Tkachuk managed that last season.
Had the Flames kept pace with the point production that won them the Western Conference in the 2018-19 season, they would have finished the COVID-19-shortened 2019-20 season with 91 points instead of 79, making them the top Canadian team. Also worrying is their power-play percentage of 21%, ranking fourth among the seven Canadian teams in the 2019-20 season.
Most of the decline in point production can be blamed on the Flames’ top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm. What’s worse is that the leading line failed to show up for the playoffs, scoring just eight goals between them in the 10 postseason games the team played. Of the three big guns, Gaudreau was the only one to show up in the Flames’ Quarterfinal series against the Dallas Stars, but he scored just two goals.
If the top line is to get its mojo back, then Gaudreau needs to return to being the 100-point-per-season player that he had been prior to this year. Monahan, too, needs to get back to his previous point-per-game production level.
The Flames will also need more depth in their offense and there are signs that can happen. The projected second line of Tkachuck, Mikael Backlund and Andrew Mangiapane should be formidable if Tkachuk can continue as his team’s biggest offensive asset, Backlund can remain consistent and Mangiapane continues to grow into his role on the left wing. Mangiapane got more ice time this season and improved his point production significantly, becoming a half-a-point-per-game player. He also stepped up when bigger guns fell silent in the playoffs.
With two solid lines to roll in the upcoming season, the Flames may be able to add a third with clout in a projected line of Dillion Dube, Milan Lucic and Sam Bennett. That will depend on whether Dube, who lit the goal light more often this year and potted three goals in the Dallas series, can continue to improve. If Bennett can build on what fans saw in the playoffs — he was the Flames’ leading goal scorer — and Lucic continues to add a physical presence without taking stupid penalties, then this third line should cause trouble for opposing teams.
With newly acquired goalie Jacob Markstrom backed up by “Big Save Dave Rittich,” the Flames’ forwards should have the confidence to play a riskier, more aggressive style.
The Flames’ offence would put it in the middle of the pack in a Canadian division. It simply doesn’t compare to the Toronto Maple Leafs with Auston Matthews and John Taveres on their roster or with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl skating with the Edmonton Oilers. Calgary is going to need its front six firing on all cylinders.
The Blue Line
By any standard, the Flames have a sturdy defense corps, but there is no question that the departure of T.J. Brodie, Travis Hamonic and Eric Gustafsson will mean that new additions on the blue line need to hit the ice in full stride. There won’t be time for development.
Team captain Mark Giordano must recover his point production. In the 2018-19 season when he won the Norris Trophy he racked up 74 points in 78 games to land among the top five Flames’ point-getters. This season, he registered barely half that production rate.
Giordano attributes his low point total last season to bad luck, explaining that, “sometimes the puck is going to go in and sometimes it isn’t and you can’t change the way you play or get frustrated by that.” Others wonder whether his 12 seasons in the league are beginning to take their toll.
Newly acquired defensemen Chris Tanev needs to integrate into the team. He won’t be able to replace Brodie’s 30-point seasons, but his shot blocking will be the best the Flames have if he repeats what he did in Vancouver. He has the ability to move the puck and many observers expect he’ll play with Noah Hanifin.
Rasmus Andersson will need to continue to develop. He stepped up this summer scoring two goals in the Dallas series. He logged more ice time this season and his point production on the year increased substantially even considering the shorter 2019-20 season.
Juuso Valimaki needs to stay healthy and make the transition back into the Flames lineup. In 2020, on loan to his hometown Tampereen Ilves in the Finnish Liiga, he lit up the scoreboard and appeared to have taken any rust off that built up during almost two years away from NHL play due to injuries. But the NHL isn’t the Finnish Liiga and expectations of the young prospect are high with his name being bandied about as a Calder Trophy nominee in 2021. Valimaki will need to be able to deal with that pressure.
He is expected to be paired with Nikita Nesterov who is looking to use his one-year, one-way contract with the Flames as his return ticket to the NHL after playing in Russia where he captained their national team, won an Olympic gold medal and the KHL Championship — all in the past three years. (from ‘Flames sign defenseman Nikita Nesterov for his second NHL stint’, Calgary Sun, 24/10/2020) Nesterov may steady Valimaki should the pressure in Calgary get to him.
Coaching and Character
Geoff Ward took over as head coach from Bill Peters late last season and after that, the Flames registered a 27-15-3 record in the regular season. That’s .600 hockey and would have made them the best Canadian team in the 2019-20 season. Ward has certainly put his stamp on the Flames but he must continue to hold the dressing room.
He will need to address some of the team’s character flaws that came out in postseason play this summer, particularly in the Dallas series. Up two goals after the first period in Game 6, the Flames eased up and Dallas buried them with seven unanswered goals. The team’s leaders simply disappeared. When push back and defiance was needed, the Flames folded. Character wins Stanley Cups and that must come from more players than Tkachuk.
The team’s suspect character was revealed for me listening to Flames’ defenseman Hanifin explaining in a Sept. 21 interview on the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast that Dallas was a “really strong defensive team and shut down guys like Bennett.” Hanifin went on to explain that “we had a hard time establishing a physical presence against Dallas and they can move the puck so well.” He seemed to take solace in being beaten by Dallas, noting they went on to the Stanley Cup Final.
Hanifin’s comments sounded like excuse making and acquiescence in losing, something that Ward needs to purge. No team ever became a Stanley Cup champion without overcoming squads with a suffocating defense. The Flames must expect that other teams will try to neutralize their best players and those players must find a way around that.
In his interview, Hanifin called Ward a “teacher.” That style of coaching should bring out the best in the team’s younger players who must develop further.
Brad Treliving has doubled down on the current core of the Flames. He has also invested a great deal of owner N. Murray Edwards’ money in acquiring new talent in the offseason. The team has spent to the salary cap and addressed every weakness in the roster as best as it could. With Markstrom and Rittich, the team has arguably the best goaltending duo in the league.
Now it’s time for this group of Flames to show whether they have what it takes to contend for the Cup.
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