Our Calgary Flames 2019-20 Preview is a part of our series covering the entire NHL. Check them out here in the lead up to another exciting season!
The 2018-2019 season appears to have been the breakout year for the Calgary Flames. Everything seemed to come together perfectly, especially for their first forward and defensive line. Led by a 99 point campaign by Johnny Gaudreau, the Flames boasted five 70-point scorers, including Norris Trophy winner and captain Mark Giordano.
The 23 point jump in the standings gave the Flames their first division title since the 2005-2006 season. Much credit is due to GM Brad Treliving and his roster moves and coaching hire, Bill Peters, from the previous summer. Treliving’s offseason acquisitions were key parts of the ultimate turnaround for the Flames. Elias Lindholm posted a 79 point season. Although Noah Hanifin is not the defensive phenom he was once touted to be, his 20-minute + average time on ice per game, respectable Corsi and Fenwick numbers, and 33 points show he was a steady and heavily relied on defenseman. Finally, Derek Ryan provided the team with some much needed, experienced centre depth.
One impressive and noteworthy aspect of the Flames’ play through the 2018-2019 season is their ‘never say die’ mentality. This is something that seems to have been instilled by Coach Peters. He was able to find a way to continually motivate players to turn games around when the going got tough. Normally, most teams struggle to come back into games when behind in the latter stages. Under Bill Peters, however, the Flames led the NHL in goals in the third period with 118 (compared to 83 in the first and second periods). Calgary was near the top in the league in comeback wins (when trailing after the first and after the second period).
The comeback kids reputation was capped off by the multiple games in which they came back and won by scoring five goals in the third period. Impressive, right? Also it would be frightening for the opponents when you apparently need a more than five goal lead to be comfortable.
The resiliency of this Flames team will one of their keys to success moving forward. So long as the players continue to buy into whatever Bill Peters is selling, they should have nothing to worry about.
A big story for the team last season and into this offseason was with James Neal. Historically, he was a 20-goal scorer and was brought in to provide some depth scoring and leadership to a young team. However, from the beginning he did not win any favours with the new head coach and found himself playing in a reduced role, something he was not used to. This led to a dismal campaign for the winger, which ended up in regular healthy scratches and an eventual trade to the Oilers. The return, Milan Lucic, will provide much the same as Neal was supposed to. The difference is that Lucic may be more suited to the smaller, bottom-six forward role that Neal just couldn’t adjust to.
Last season, the Flames primarily employed five players at centre: Mikael Backlund, Elias Lindholm, Sean Monahan, Mark Jankowski, and Derek Ryan. All five had over 30 points, with Jankowski bringing up the rear at 32. The lowest FOW% of any of them was Backlund with 49.6%. Everyone else was over 50%. Safe to say that the Flames’ centre depth is excellent and they will not be needing to add anyone else through the season, barring any major injuries.
Nevertheless, with the amount of centre-capable prospects the Flames have coming through their system right now, there will be heavy competition the seasons to come. Dillon Dubé, Martin Pospisil, Milos Roman, and Adam Ruzicka are all able to play at/listed as centres. Dubé is very close to making the NHL as a regular, if he can earn a spot with the appropriate amount of ice time for a player of his calibre. The rest are likely a season or two away, but all may find themselves on the wing due to the current centre situation on the Flames’ roster.
The Flames are a bit top-heavy on the wings. Led by Johnny Gaudreau, pseudo-centre Elias Lindholm, and Matthew Tkachuk (all recording over 70 points), the scoring falls off dramatically after those three. This is assuming that the Flames and Tkachuk agree to a contract before the season starts, as there are a handful of high profile RFA’s all trying to wait each other out before signing.
Michael Frolik, the next highest scoring winger, had 34 points and is currently slotted in as a second line winger. They will need to see improvement from this point on to help improve the offensive threat posed by the team.
As we saw in the playoff upset to the Colorado Avalanche, if the top line is not producing (which they did not and were visibly beaten up/fatigued), there is very little danger through the rest of the lineup. The aforementioned centre prospects, if they show offensive promise, will have opportunity to jump into the NHL at wing if they have strong showings this September.
The current projected third line of Milan Lucic – Mark Jankowski – Sam Bennett will be the punishing, grinding, gritty line that can wear down the opponents. Although Sam Bennett has not developed into the offensive player he was once projected to be, there is no questioning his determination and work ethic. As is the case with many prospects, there is always hope that they will unlock the potential they once had and have an offensive breakout year, but as the seasons pass and Bennett has another ~25 point season, the chances start to dwindle away. What Bennett will provide Calgary is an affordable option as a middle-6 winger. We started to see a shift in Bennett’s game last season that utilized more physicality. If his offense never comes out in the NHL, at least he will be able to provide something to the team. A chance to play near Milan Lucic will also be beneficial to his development and physical game.
Another year, another excellent defense lineup for the Calgary Flames. Still led by Mark Giordano, he is joined by Noah Hanifin, Travis Hamonic, and T.J. Brodie to make a respectable top 4 that can rival the best of them. Although one of those four, likely Hamonic or Brodie, was in a serious consideration to be traded for cap space, the Flames have a few promising defensive prospects who are ready to take a step up into an expanded role. This plan may have to wait until next offeason, however, as Juuso Valimaki will miss significant time this regular season with an ACL injury sustained during training. The most notable of the prospects expected to gain an expanding role is Rasmus Andersson, who did jump up to take Brodie’s spot on the top pairing with Giordano.
Despite turning 36 at the beginning of the season, Giordano is showing no signs of slowing down and is coming off of what is undoubtedly his best season in the NHL. The question remains whether or not that will be an outlier season for him, especially offensively, as his 74 points beat his previous career high by 18 points. Defensively, he should be just fine as long as he can keep his speed up to keep pace with the speed of the NHL game.
T.J. Brodie is quite often a polarizing player for Flames fans. He is prone to crucial defensive lapses and giveaways, especially when he is not playing with Mark Giordano. But, he also is a consistent offensive producer from the back end and regularly puts up favourable advanced stats. The team knows exactly what they will get when they play Brodie. If he has a reliable defender on his side to provide a safeguard, T.J. can be a difference maker from the back end on both sides of the puck.
The loss of Valimaki has likely led to the brief buyout of Michael Stone. The defender was bought out at the beginning of August, before Valimaki’s injury, and re-signed on September 11th, right before the start of training camp. Although Stone is not a high quality defenseman, the team is familiar with his play and he will be available to provide some flexibility with roster moves at a significantly reduced price.
As previously mentioned, the Flames have a handful of defensive prospects surging and ready to take a jump into bigger roles in the NHL. Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington are currently the most likely to do so. Juuso Valimaki would be in this list, but with his recent ACL injury, he is not being factored into the lineup and will be out indefinitely while recovering from that. Andersson has jumped out as an excellent all-around defenseman who is good with and without the puck, is tenacious on the backcheck and can win puck battles with the best of them. And he can also do this. He is the leading candidate to jump into the top-four more regularly next season, based on him already doing so in certain situations, provided a full-time spot opens up for him.
Goaltending is the Flames’ weak link right now. Despite starting the season on fire and taking the starting role from Mike Smith, David Rittich quieted down in a major way through the latter half of the regular season. Recent free agent signing Cam Talbot will be hoping to have a bounce back season after a couple of rough years in Edmonton and, at the end of last season, Philadelphia. Rittich is likely the starter, but with both goalies being inconsistent or unproven over lengthy periods of time, it is more likely to end up a 1A/1B situation, with Peters riding the hot goalie.
The most essential thing that Cam Talbot needs to figure out is starting games better. He has a nasty habit of getting beat on the first shot he faces, or within the first five minutes of the game otherwise. I already discussed the Flames’ ability to come back and win games from behind, but that is not a strategy you want to rely on every game.
1st – 2nd Pacific Division
The Flames did not really get better this offseason, they mostly stayed the same. In their favour, none of their closest competitors in the Pacific Division got much better either. They are likely to remain favourites to secure a high seed playoff berth again this season. It is reasonable to figure they will perform roughly the same as last season, potentially with more depth scoring and less reliance on the top players as some offensive prospects crack the lineup.