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Up in Flames: Offseason Dive into Defence

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Calgary Flames Chris Tanev

Still unsure exactly how the Calgary Flames would put it. Is the best defence a good offence, or is the best offence a good defence?

Maybe it doesn’t really matter how you frame it – the Flames really got both this season.

Not only did they have a stellar checking structure that led to the lowest number of even-strength goals against in the NHL (139) and earned them the sixth-best penalty kill percentage in the regular season (83.2).

And offensively, the Calgary Flames got plenty of pop from the back end.

Among the NHL’s top 10 offensive juggernauts this year, the Flames finished third in point contributions from the defence with 205 coming from nine different blueliners.

Rasmus Andersson led the way with 50 points (four goals, 46 assists), and his partner Noah Hanifin was right behind with 48 (10g, 38a). The other regulars in the rotation all had career highs, too.

What will the offseason look like for this group? Only half of them are virtually certain to return but there are question marks even among the locks.

Top pairing – Rasmus Andersson

As a 50-point defenceman, Andersson has arguably become the biggest bang-for-buck player on the Calgary Flames roster right now. Signed for another four seasons with a cap hit of $4.55 million, the 25-year-old product of Sweden has emerged as a legitimate two-way threat.

No longer sheltered by former captain Mark Giordano, Andersson teamed with Hanifin to take on massive minutes against the league’s best forwards on a nightly basis.

He and Hanifin both would be the first to admit they struggled in the final series against the Edmonton Oilers, but that can be applied to the entire Flames squad.

They’ll grow from the experience and Andersson has yet to peak as a player.

Top pairing – Noah Hanifin

Hanifin scored 20 goals and was two points shy of joining blueline partner Andersson with his own first 50-point campaign. Despite being only 25, Hanifin already has seven years of experience in the NHL and took another step toward becoming a dominant top-pairing player in 2021-22. He struggled in the playoffs – especially in contrast to the defensive-zone progress he made during the regular season – but is a critical piece of the team’s young core that Calgary Flames head coach Darryl Sutter suggested will continue to grow next year.

“That’s a pretty good group. They all had outstanding seasons in terms of their growth if you look at it,” Sutter said in his end-of-season wrap, mentioning a handful of guys in the 23-27 age range that are under contract. “They’ve sort of set their own bar now.”

Top four – Chris Tanev

Chris Tanev is a trick one. His offseason took a turn when he suffered a dislocated shoulder and torn labrum in Game 6 against the Dallas Stars in the first round of the NHL playoffs. He’s had surgery and will spend a number of months rehabilitating and preparing for another physical marathon next season. He’s signed up at a $4.5M cap hit for two more seasons but the big question mark is how long his return to form will take following surgery. The estimated timeline ranges from four to six months, which puts him on track for training camp if all goes perfectly.

The defensive stalwart made others around him better and nowhere was that more obvious than in the playoffs against Connor McDavid and company as the Flames fell in five games after starting the series 1-2 without their defensive leader Sutter called their “security blanket.”

“I think he was very effective,” Sutter said after Tanev gutted out a return in Game 4. When we’re playing four young defenceman, those guys need a little bit of a security blanket. And Chris Tanev is that, for sure. Not just on the ice. That’s in the locker-room (too).”

Top four – Oliver Kylington

Exhibit A in the Tanev security blanket case is the emergent Oliver Kylington. The 25-year-old went from a part-time role player to a top-four defenceman this season thanks to a strong camp and a chemistry with Tanev that led to a career breakout.

With nine goals and 31 points in 73 games, Kylington became a full-time NHLer just in time to cash in as a restricted free agent with arbitration rights. He’s leads the half of the Calgary Flames defenders who have very uncertain futures.

In the Swedish product’s specific situation, he’ll land a big raise either via the Flames, arbitration, or as a trade chip.

Sutter complimented Kylington’s rise to prominence at the end of their season, and connected that importance to the next group of players with that same opportunity in AHL Stockton right now.

“He did it the way you’re supposed to do it. Instead of being given a job, he came and earned his job,” Sutter said of Kylington. “That’s what the guys are doing in Stockton now. Is there one player there, or is there two or is there three – I don’t even know – that are going to push to play on the Flames next year? That’s what that’s about.”

Five/Six spot – Nikita Zadorov

Looking for more size at the position, the Flames brought in Nikita Zadorov via trade with the Chicago Blackhawks. But despite a strong connection with Erik Gudbranson on one of the better bottom pairings in the league, Zadorov’s salary expectations after a one-year deal  that paid him $3.75M last season likely price him out of the Calgary Flames market barring a significant loss in salary (like the departure of Johnny Gaudreau).

As a 27-year-old unrestricted free agent coming off his best offensive season (4-18-22), Zadorov likely will not have to wait around for his next deal somewhere else.

Five/Six spot – Erik Gudbranson

Journeyman defenceman Erik Gudbranson might have found his best fit of a long NHL career right here in Calgary. But Gudbranson won’t be a top priority. The Flames have so much top-end talent to sign (Gaudreau, potentially RFA Matthew Tkachuk, Andrew Mangiapane and a few bottom-six forwards. If a bang-for-buck decision is made at the same salary as last season, it’s likely Gudbranson would be the choice over Zadorov.

Again, though, Gudbranson may be in the driver’s seat here as a UFA who opened up more options and possibly a higher salary thanks to a career season offensively in addition to the impact he had penalty killing and with his physical presence.

Depth defenders – Michael Stone; Juuso Valimaki; Connor Mackey

Michael Stone made a mark in the playoffs when Tanev was injured and continues to prove himself as a ridiculously loyal veteran. Will he re-sign with the team on another one-year deal as he has for the past three?

Depending on how things shake out with Kylington, Zadorov and Gudbranson, Stone may find more playing time this season.

That may also depend on the development path of guys like Juuso Valimaki and Connor Mackey, who are now battling for a spot in the AHL championship with the Stockton Heat. Valimaki hasn’t been able to stick around in Calgary during the Darryl Sutter era, but he and Mackey were around as Black Aces in the playoffs and are the most NHL ready of the prospects on the back end.

“I think it’s really important,” Sutter said of having the prospects playing important playoff games. “You have to be realistic with those players, first off. In order for your team to get better – because of salary cap and because of development and because of schedule, for younger players – you need one or two or three guys to push to make teams.”

Up in Flames: Goaltending

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