Making bold predictions can be a risky business. There’s a fine line between chickening out with relatively safe bets and completely going off the deep end with fantastical forecasts. Now that the Calgary Flames have reached the halfway point of their 2021-22 campaign, it’s time to take stock of how my preseason prognostications are actually holding up.
When I made my bold predictions in late September, the Flames were coming off a disappointing 2020-21 season that featured a shocking mid-season coaching change, dismal efforts by much of the team’s core, and another failed attempt at making the postseason. I’ll admit, for a lot of these players, there really was nowhere to go but up. However, I’m still quite happy to report that my crystal ball has been fairly accurate in conjuring up these three projections.
Bold Prediction #1: Matthew Tkachuk Will Have a Bounceback Season, Sign a Long-Term Extension and Be Named the Flames’ Next Captain
Last season, Matthew Tkachuk was the Flames’ highest paid player, but he certainly didn’t play like it. During the 2020-21 campaign, the 24-year-old winger only scored 16 goals in 56 games (his lowest total since his rookie year) and took a big step back as a team leader. 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. There were a lot of doubts about the super-pest’s game heading into this season, but was I worried? Nah.
Not only has Tkachuk regained his leadership role, he’s also recaptured that smarmy swagger and elite scoring touch he lost last year. With 20 goals and 44 points at the halfway point, he’s already passed his totals from last season in 16 fewer games. That puts ‘Chucky’ on pace for career highs in goals (41) and points (90), so I’d say that definitely qualifies as having a “bounceback season”. But, what about the second half of my bold prediction? That’s a different story.
While it is possible Tkachuk signs a long-term extension before the 2021-22 season is up, I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. The 2016 sixth overall draft pick could strong-arm the Flames to sign him to his one-year qualifying offer, which would then take him to unrestricted free agency in 2023. If that happens, Calgary could lose their star winger for nothing, or be forced to trade him. My best guess? The two sides get an extension done in the summer and name ‘Chucky’ the next captain. This guy is a cornerstone piece of the franchise and they won’t let him walk. I’d say I got this bold prediction only half right – but I’ll take it.
Bold Prediction #2: Jacob Markstrom Will Return to Elite Form, Become a Top 5 NHL Goaltender
When the Flames signed the 6-foot-6 Swede to a six-year, $36 million deal during the 2020 offseason, a lot of fans in the C of Red let out a huge sigh of relief, as it appeared Calgary finally put an end to their goaltending woes. Instead, Jacob Markstrom‘s first season in Cowtown was rather disappointing, as he posted a 2.68 goals-against average (GAA), a .904 save percentage (SV%) and three shutouts in 43 games played.
The Flames were paying Markstrom big money to be an elite goaltender, but those were definitely not elite numbers. How does 38th in SV% and 26th in GAA sound? Not great. However, I had a feeling the big guy was due for a major rebound, and I boldly predicted the team’s number one puckstopper would rise to the Top 5 in the NHL in 2021-22. Let’s see how I did.
Markstrom has seven shutouts on the year, which not only leads the league by three, it nearly matches the eight career goose eggs he had over 12 NHL seasons before the 2021-22 campaign began. The 32-year-old is currently fourth in GAA (2.20) and tied for eight in SV% (.923). I’m no math whiz, but I’m pretty sure if you average those three categories together, it equals Top five. While the big Swede did experience a dip in his performance coming out of COVID-19 protocol in late December, he has bounced back quite nicely since then, and has two shutouts in his last four starts. I’m taking the win on this prediction.
Bold Prediction #3: Noah Hanifin Will Take on the Mantle of Flames’ Number One Defenceman
Heading into the 2021-22 season, Calgary’s D-core had a massive hole to fill, and no obvious successor to take on the vacant role of ‘number one defenceman’. Former captain Mark Giordano was an absolute workhorse for the Flames, logging over 24 minutes of icetime per game. So, one of the big questions I had this past offseason was: who would step up in his absence? I boldly predicted that fourth-year Flame Noah Hanifin was primed and ready to take his game to the next level and lead the back end in the post-Giordano era. Before we look at how accurate this prediction was, remember this – you can’t win ’em all!
Heading into the 2021-22 campaign, the Boston native was coming off his strongest year as a Flame, and a lot of it had to do with the amazing chemistry he found with veteran blueliner Chris Tanev. This season has seen Hanifin paired up with Rasmus Andersson in a top pairing role and while the duo has been solid, I wouldn’t say they’ve been spectacular. In fact, head coach Darryl Sutter called out both of them a few weeks ago after they struggled on the team’s Eastern road trip. “Noah (Hanifin) and Razz (Rasmus Andersson) have had a tough time lately,” Sutter said after the Flames’ fourth straight loss on Jan. 13. “They have to help each other more.”
While Hanifin’s performance in 2021-22 hasn’t been bad by any stretch of the imagination, he hasn’t been trusted with the coveted extra minutes Giordano used to log. The 25-year-old is third in total ice time behind Andersson and Tanev, and while he’s on pace for the best offensive output of his career, another young D-man has stepped up to put up the points the former captain used to provide. Oliver Kylington leads all Flames defencmen in goals and points and has been the surprise breakout star on the back end. So, I’d say this particular bold prediction has fallen completely flat.
Bonus Bold Prediction: Johnny Gaudreau Will Be a Hart Trophy Finalist
Now that the season has hit the halfway point, it would be pretty easy to make more bold predictions. With 42 games played, I certainly wouldn’t be considered crazy, or even all that bold, to forecast a 30-goal season for Andrew Mangiapane or a 20-goal campaign for newcomer Blake Coleman. Those are too obvious. However, I think I have a pretty good bonus bold prediction for the second half: Johnny Gaudreau will be a finalist for league MVP.
With 54 points in 42 games, Gaudreau currently sits in seventh place in NHL scoring, but it’s how he completely drives the Flames’ offence that makes him an excellent candidate for the Hart Trophy. The 5-foot-9 dynamo leads the league in five-on-five primary points and has become one of the most consistent offensive players in the NHL. He’s not only on pace for a career year, but the gifted winger has also developed a terrific 200-foot game under Sutter’s tutelage.
At this moment, Gaudreau is the complete package. This is his time. He was recently named the NHL’s third star of the week, he’s off to his sixth NHL All-Star game this weekend, and if he keeps up his torrid scoring pace in the back half of the 2021-22 season, I think he should be a shoo-in for a Hart Trophy nomination. Now we must wait and see if my crystal ball remains a reliable source.
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.