This is the year. It’s got to be.
The 2020-21 (really just 2021) season looks to be lining up as the season where we finally find out for good whether or not this core of Calgary Flames players can lead the team to a championship, or if it’s time to consider starting fresh. Granted even if the Flames don’t find success this year, many faces would return but this really feels like the Flames best chance to make a significant run.
In the Canadian Division the Flames face a slate of good to very-good teams, but I think you could argue that no single team is the division can be classified as elite along the lines of a Tampa Bay, Boston, or Colorado. One team will emerge from this North Division into the Final Four no matter what, and when that happens, really anything could happen.
This really feels like it will be Calgary’s best chance to make a significant playoff run and get a crack to go all the way. The roster has been meticulously constructed over a number of years, and now all the pieces look to be perfectly in place, if things break well.
Looking at this team, you can’t really see a blatantly obvious weak spot. The forward core looks like it will be able to roll three very strong lines this year, with Matthew Tkachuk and Elias Lindholm forming an elite two-way top line duo. Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan will get better opportunities in a secondary role with less pressure to be “the guys” on the team. On a third line with some combination of Mikael Backlund and Andrew Mangiapane or Dillon Dube or Josh Leivo, there will be ample opportunities to use them as a structured shut down line taking a heavy defensive role which Backlund has excelled at for so much fo his career. Even the fourth line with some mix of Sam Bennett, Milan Lucic, Derek Ryan, or others should provide grit and energy, but also has a bit of a scoring punch to it as well.
Looking at those four lines, you can make out defined roles for each of them, but they also provide the team a great deal of flexibility and spread out different types of scoring and defensive talent to create a balanced team. In my opinion, that is a forward core of a team that can be a Stanley Cup contender if the team can get strong performances from new guys like Josh Leivo and Dominik Simon, along with increased contributions from youngsters like Dillon Dube and Andrew Mangiapane. I don’t think any of that happening can be considered a big stretch based on past experiences.
Moving to the defensive core, the Flames are also looking extremely deep there as well, evidenced by them waiving Oliver Kylington a few days ago. Mark Giordano, while perhaps has slowed a step since his Norris season can still provide reliable top four minutes. Rasmus Andersson looks ready to take on even bigger roles with the team, likely starting the season on the top powerplay unit and top pairing. Chris Tanev can provide a defensive defenceman role for the team which should be valuable. Juuso Valimaki and Nikita Nesterov have the potentially to be an extremely good bottom pairing, perhaps even on par with a lot of Top 4 pairings from around the league. By most accounts, Nesterov has looked extremely good in camp and the scrimmage games, meaning he could be a real diamond in the rough find by the scouting crew as he returns from Russia. Valimaki looked very good in Finland as we all know and may have a distinct advantage off the hop after playing 19 games over there.
The core as a whole is very solid, and for me the biggest question mark is what kind of performance Noah Hanifin will bring, but if that’s the biggest question mark, you could say it’s an elite core.
Moving to goaltending, the Flames will have TWO all-stars from last season between the pipes in big name free agent signing Jacob Markstrom and returning David Rittich. Markstrom at the very least should significantly raise the floor of expectations for Flames goaltending, and the team is talented enough at other positions that consistently solid goaltending could push them over the top. If Markstrom provides elite netminding, the Flames should have no problem winning this division in my opinion. Rittich also provides a very good backup option and he will be relied upon with the condensed schedule. He has played his best hockey while in a 1A/1B type role compared to frequent starts, so this kind of schedule could work very well for him. For once, I think goaltending should be Calgary’s area of LEAST concern. That felt weird to say.
In my opinion, this team COULD win the Stanley Cup if things go right. Now time for reality.
Of course everything I just said in the previous ~800 words is lovely, but this season could just as easily go off the rails in the other direction as we are so often accustomed to when cheering for this franchise.
Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan could suffer another poor season and the new top pairing of Matthew Tkachuk and Elias Lindholm could struggle to gel.
The defensive core could also struggle to find chemistry with a mish-mash of new pairings, or we could see Mark Giordano take a step back while younger defenceman struggle to take a step forward.
Markstrom could struggle out of the gate with his new team which could lead to a goaltending controversy as David Rittich always seems to have good starts to his season.
Just as easily as I said the Flames could make the playoffs and do very well, I could see the whole thing go off the rails as we’ve been accustomed to, and maybe it goes as far as missing. If that were to happen, I think you would see the house cleaned in terms of the core players, coaching staff, and management.
As much as I had optimism in the above sections, it’s very possible nothing goes particularly right in a shorter season, or the Flames start slow out of the gate which has become a pretty frequent thing for this team and it’s a slog to get to the top four.
On paper, this is a team that should contend for a top 2 spot in the division, and there looks to be significant potential for them to have even higher aspirations, but just as much potential for things to go the other way.
With the contract situations of players like Johnny Gaudreau or the age of Mark Giordano, it really could be the ultimate boom or bust season for this core of the Calgary Flames.
by Michael MacGillivray