Can New Look Flames Finally Fulfill Their Potential? 2021 NHL Previews
Everyone will be paying attention to the Toronto Maple Leafs this year. Granted, that’s not exactly a shocking revelation, but it’s the reason that’s so intriguing. After five straight years of coming up short in the playoffs, including an 0-7 record in potential series-clinching games, the Maple Leafs are one more series winless year away from potentially dismantling their core. It would be a shocking development for a team once thought to have massive success in their future, but instead has underachieved in their most important moments.
Yet they aren’t the only NHL team staring down this situation this year. In fact, they’re not even the only ones in Canada doing so. Even though they have one more series victory than the Leafs since 2004 (the last time Toronto reached the second round), the Calgary Flames haven’t even found the consistent regular-season success the Leafs have more or less gotten down in recent years. What seemed like a breakout 2014-15 season anchored by an exciting young core instead was just the first ride on a seesaw of frustration. The Flames have been stuck in neutral for the last six seasons, merely shifting gears between mediocre regular seasons and disappointing first-round exits.
Many thought that Calgary would choose to pull the plug this summer and begin a full-scale makeover of their roster. Instead, the Flames are largely keeping the band together for (potentially) one last ride, with only one very notable piece missing. The Flames’ biggest prerogative this offseason was clearly adding grit and physicality. Whether that’s supposed to forge a new identity or balance out the returning skill is unclear.
What is clear is what will happen if the Flames disappoint once again this year. Franchise face Johnny Gaudreau will be an unrestricted free agent at the season’s end. Matthew Tkachuk will be an arbitration-eligible RFA at the same point. Sean Monahan reaches UFA status one year later. Unless they finally take a step forward this year, there’s a good chance these players, GM Brad Treliving, and head coach Darryl Sutter could be out the door before next summer. Can the Flames stave off a breakup and finally reach another level? Or is this year set to be the final chapter for a group defined by being merely good, and management finally recognizing that isn’t good enough?
Forwards (New Players In Bold)
The problem with the Flames isn’t a lack of good players. On paper, they look like a pretty talented team with a nice mix of scoring, chippiness, and two-way responsibility. But in reality, there’s a very important area the Flames have clearly lacked in: finishing. Over the last four seasons, the Flames have ranked 8th, 13th, 8th, and 4th in expected goals per 60 at 5v5 (from most to least recent). In all situations, they place 9th, 12th, 5th, 4th. Creating chances isn’t a problem for them. Converting on them is; the Flames are just 20th, 20th, 2nd, 27th in goals per game in those seasons. Except for 2018-19, which is looking more and more like a mere outlier, the Flames just don’t score enough. Their high-end players haven’t become as high-end as once thought.
The poster child for this phenomenon is Gaudreau. Over the first five years of his career, Gaudreau looked to be developing into one of the game’s premier scorers. He scored 64 points in a Calder winning 2014-15 campaign, then jumped to 78. After a brief dip to 61 in 2016-17 (though he did win the Lady Byng that year), Gaudreau’s production skyrocketed to 84 points in 2017-18 and a 36-goal, 99-point 2018-19 season that saw him finish fourth in Hart voting. Since then, Gaudreau has scored just 37 goals in 126 games over the last two seasons. Yes, his underlying numbers were much better this year than last. But Gaudreau isn’t really thought of as one of the game’s premier players these days. He’s still good, but it’s fair to wish he produced just a bit more.
The same goes for Sean Monahan, the former first-line center of the future who’s been largely overtaken from that role by Elias Lindholm. After scoring 82 points in that explosive 2018-19 season, Monahan has tallied just 84 over the last two seasons in 120 games. He’s a good defensive player, but definitely not the first-line center of a contending team. Lindholm is a super underrated player, however; he also benefited from that offensive boon two years ago (his first year in Calgary). But his production has basically stabilized as he finished second on the team this year with 47 points. Lindholm isn’t an elite 1C by any means. But he’s a pretty productive player who can play center or the wing and allows the defensively conscious Monahan and Mikael Backlund to slide down the lineup.
The big new addition for the Flames upfront is Blake Coleman, who won’t exactly solve that lack of high-end scorers problem. That’s not to say Coleman isn’t a bad player; he’s scored at roughly a 45-point pace the last two years, can play up and down the lineup, and is very effective on the forecheck and the penalty kill. This is where the James Neal mistake really comes back to haunt the Flames, though. Imagine if they could’ve invested the $10.125 million they’re paying Coleman and Milan Lucic into a high-end offensive talent. That’s easier said than done, of course; having the cap space doesn’t mean guarantee you that type of player. But it gives you the chance, and while Coleman should be solid for the Flames, I’m not sure he’s what they need.
That’s not to say there’s nobody to be optimistic about here. Andrew Mangiapane has consistently improved over the last two years. He’s establishing himself as a nice little second-line scorer who produced at a 26-goal rate last year; he could push 30 in the right role (3LW isn’t it). Dillon Dubé is just twenty-three and has some nice skills that have already made him a decent middle-sixer with the potential to be something more.
Like Coleman, Tyler Pitlick is a great forechecker and can kill penalties; he doesn’t have the same offensive upside and won’t play in the top-six, but does have a bit of an underrated shot. And the club brought in a solid defensive 4C in Brad Richardson earlier this week; he’s a suitable Derek Ryan replacement. The depth does get thin pretty fast; I’m not super high on the likes of Lucic, Brett Ritchie, Trevor Lewis, Byron Froese, Glenn Gawdin, and other depth options.
For the first time since 2007, the Flames are set to feature a blue-line that doesn’t include Mark Giordano. His departure isn’t quite Iginla-esque, but it’s no doubt a tough pill to swallow for Flames fans. Giordano has played all of his 949 regular-season games in a Flames sweater (plus 23 more in the playoffs), racking up over 500 points and bringing home the Norris Trophy in 2018-19.
Objectively, it was the right call to expose the 37-year old to Seattle. A true Cup contender like Tampa Bay or Colorado probably could’ve justified the asking price for the Kraken not to poach him — reportedly a 1st and a 3rd round pick. But it would’ve made no sense for a mid-tier team like the Flames to pay such a hefty price for a player with one year left on his deal. Even one with a reasonable cap hit and a still very high level of play. Giordano will be missed on and off the ice in Calgary.
Perhaps you can try to offset Calgary’s disappointment of losing their captain with the increased optimism around Chris Tanev. I was among the skeptics of the four-year, $18 million deal the Flames signed Tanev to in free agency in 2020. Physical defenseman moving into their 30s usually isn’t a good mix. But Tanev proved to be an exception to that rule last year. He wasn’t just good; Tanev legitimately had one of the better seasons of any defenseman in the NHL last year, living up to the hype as a dependable shut-down defenseman.
Tanev probably won’t be as good this year. But it’s always best to decline from as high a ceiling as possible, and Tanev certainly raised the bar of his level of play with last year’s stellar performance. He and Noah Hanifin were very successful together, sporting 59% Expected Goals and 55% actual goals for marks. Maybe Hanifin isn’t 5th overall pick good, but he’s a solid top-half of the lineup two-way defender.
Apparently, the Flames thought they should double down on polarizing physical defensemen, as they shipped off a 3rd to Chicago for Nikita Zadorov. Unlike Tanev, the divide between old and new school fans with Zadorov is as wide as the Grand Canyon. He’s an extraordinary physical player with highlight-reel hits and will clear the crease around Jacob Markström. He’ll also spend a lot of time near Markström, though, as he’s simply not an effective possession player, clocking in around 45% in Corsi and Expected Goals last year. His overall track record isn’t much better.
Perhaps with the right partner, he can be effective; and 24-year old Connor Mackey, projected as the other member of Calgary’s third pair, was pretty productive offensively in the AHL and during a brief NHL stint. His underlying numbers in the show weren’t great either. But six games are too small a sample size to judge that harshly. Fellow 24-year old and formerly very hyped prospect Oliver Kylington will also be in the mix for that role. But it feels like Mackey is trending in the better direction. Hopefully, it doesn’t go to recent signing Erik Gudbranson, a worse version of Zadorov. His game would’ve been highly coveted fifteen years ago, but he isn’t very effective in today’s NHL. $1.95 million is a pretty significant overpay for someone who shouldn’t be a lineup regular. He won’t be a lineup regular, right?
If the Flames hope to have an above-average blue-line, they’ll need a big bounceback from both members of their second pair. Jüsso Valimaki and Rasmus Andersson were once regarded as future stars of Calgary’s backend, but both haven’t progressed as expected due to different reasons. Valiamki missed all of 2019-20 with a torn ACL but had a solid season in a sheltered role last year. We’ll never know what would’ve happened if he never got injured. But he’s still just 22, and it seems like he could still become a top-four defenseman, which would be a big boost for the Flames.
Andersson looked like a real up-and-comer a few years ago but hasn’t quite lived up to the 6-year, $27.3 million extension he inked in January 2020. He did score at a 30-point pace last year, but it came at the expense of a career-worst 47% Expected Goals rate. Andersson might be closer to a number four than a number two or even a three. That’s still a useful player, but not what the Flames were hoping for.
Jacob Markström had an underrated disappointing season after signing a 6-year, $36 million contract in free agency. In addition to finishing, the Flames’ netminding hasn’t been spectacular; the team’s .905% save percentage from 2017-18 to 2019-20 ranks 18th in the league, and they had four starting goalies from 2016-17 to 2019-20. You can understand their desire to spend big bucks if it meant stabilizing things. The problem is that Markström, coming off a career year in Vancouver, wasn’t very effective. His .904 save percentage ranked 37th among 58 goalies with at least 15 games played. He’ll need to be significantly better this year for the Flames to have a chance at making the playoffs.
Daniel Vladar is an intriguing backup option; he struggled in a brief NHL stint this year but has been above a .920 save percentage in the AHL the last two years. It cost a 3rd round pick to acquire the 24-year old from Boston, who didn’t want to go with two youngsters in the net but had a better rookie option in Jeremy Swayman. But this really comes down to the 31-year Maökstrom bouncing back.
The Flames strike me as a team merely content with kicking the can down the road. The one thing you don’t want to be as a sports franchise is directionless, which is where the Flames seem to be right now. Calgary is sort of acting like a contender; you don’t sign that Coleman contract if you plan to rebuild. But they also did very little to replace their number one defenseman, and overall are probably worse off than last year, when they finished 20th in the league. They also haven’t fully committed to the futures of Tkachuk and especially Gaudreau, who could walk for nothing in ten months if the Flames continue to avoid making a big decision.
The good news for Calgary is they are in a weak Pacific Division where there’s realistically only one playoff spot accounted for. There isn’t much of a gap between the Flames and Seattle, Vancouver, Edmonton, and Los Angeles. At least one of those teams will make the second round this year; Calgary very well could be that team. In which case they would likely be stomped by Vegas; just like they were by Anaheim in 2015, showing they’ve made no progress over the last six years. Remember, that’s the best-case scenario.
Calgary probably won’t bottom out this year, but you can debate whether that’s a good or bad thing. The Flames have been entranced by their successes and paralyzed by their failures for far too long. One way or another, this season should push the Flames in a clear-cut direction. Most of their recent history suggests they won’t like the one they go in. But they’ve shown just enough over the years to give hope that maybe they can find the right path. Which figures to make it all the more painful when they likely fail to do that.
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