The award for the fastest and arguably most explosive off-season rearmament should go to the Calgary Flames. Defeated in the Battle of Alberta, Brad Treliving managed to turn Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk into Jonathan Huberdeau, Mackenzie Vigar and Nazem Kadri. This is a significant change from the core that the team fielded a few years ago.
Since Vegas odds put Calgary back in the driver’s seat of the Pacific, here’s how they stack up and how the Canucks stack up.
Both Calgary and Vancouver have good bands in the top 9. However, it’s fair to say that the Flames are edging out the Canucks here.
Top 6 is where the Flames really shine. Replacing Gaudreau with Huberdeau is a side step at worst, as the former Panther is a great player who can also convert chances. It should be able to continue production in Calgary, at least for the foreseeable future. As for the rest of the wingers, they can afford to mix and match Blake Coleman, Andrew Mangiapain and Tyler Toffoli. This allows the Flames to distribute speed, skill, and courage across the top two lanes.
With center players like Kadri and Elias Lindholm, this promises a formidable attacking game. While Kadri likely won’t perform as well as he did with the Avalanche last season, he’s still looking to pick up points, especially alongside the Flames’ wingers. Lindholm is a player who doesn’t get as much respect in the league as he should be. In charge of defense and scoring his first points per game of the season, Lindolm was and should remain one of Calgary’s most reliable options. Also, if they ever want to fold one line, it can be moved to the wing for maximum use.
Hitting the bottom six gets a little hazy. Mikael Backlund and Dillon Dube are very good middle six players who can move up or down the roster, so it’s not a problem. What looks a bit like a question mark is who will complete that third line and complete the fourth. AHL rookie Jacob Pelletier burned the Pacific Ocean with the Stockton Heat, scoring 62 points in 66 games. He brings a creative offensive punch that is probably more suited to the top 6, but his persistent forechecking should keep him in third on the Flames. That being said, it’s hard to say whether Pelletier will be able to transfer his success from the AHL to the NHL. Many players have not been able to bridge this gap (see: Hunter Shinkaruk). Others that could be in the mix include Cole Schwindt, Connor Zary and Matthew Phillips.
The elephant in the room will be in the form of the fourth line. With Calgary giving $5.25 million to the aging and limited Milan Lucic, it will be interesting to see who they choose to complete their roster. The Flames could add a little more depth to the bottom line, and they’ll want to do it early in the season.
A hallmark of Darryl Sutter’s team is a strong defense. This is one that Calgary has in abundance and is absolutely the best in the division. There is no question that the Flames are ahead of the Canucks 1-6 in this category.
The pairing of Vigar and Chris Tanev should strike fear into the hearts of the opposing forwards. Canuck fans are well aware of Tanev’s excellent defensive performance as one of the best defensive players in the league. Combine this with two sided physical strength like Wigar and this combination will not allow you to do anything in the offensive zone. Teams would have to counter the shot suppression and possession that these two would bring to the table.
Further in the composition, Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson are high-class defenders of the second pair. Both are capable of scoring points from the blue line, leading a hard physical game in their favor. What sets them apart from the average two-sided defender is their good rolling skills, allowing the Flames to move from offense to defense in a few steps. Hanifin and Andersson teamed up last season and they should bring more of the same to improve the Flames’ defense.
The third pair is a little more like a game of chance, but it brings a lot of rewards. Nikita Zadorov can play with Oliver Kylington in different styles. Zadorov could play the physical role of stay-at-home, allowing Kylington to jump in a hurry whenever he wants to. While it sounds great on paper, these two defenders also tend to switch off occasionally, making costly losses leading to momentum. But the benefits of this pair may ultimately outweigh the risks.
With these six capable defensive options, Sutter’s coaching style naturally highlights their strengths, playing a tight-fisted defensive game that nullifies the souls of the opposing teams. The key would be to stick with that and not play the run and shoot style that they had no chance of winning against a team like Edmonton.
If there’s one thing Calgary should be wary of, it’s the net. Sounds a bit dramatic considering Jacob Markstrom was the No. 2 Vezina last season, but there’s more to it than meets the eye.
Markstrom had excellent results during his two seasons in Calgary. Last year was his best to date, with 2.22 GAA at 0.922 SV%. When enabled, Markstrom is capable of stealing games himself, stopping anything and everything that gets in his way. Long gone are the days when you could give up on a grueling early goal.
However, Flames fans have come to see what happens when Markstrom rides for an extended period of time. The Swede made 63 regular season and 12 playoff appearances, more work than any other season in his career. As such, Markstrom’s injury problems began to surface, along with his tendency to climb and react when fatigued. In the second round of the Oilers’ series, things got a bit rough when Markstrom came under fire against his team of archenemies.
Markstrom’s management and rest during the regular season is key to the Flames’ playoff success. This could happen given the appearance of Dustin Wolfe with Stockton, but seems unlikely. Markstrom is likely to face the same workload and it remains to be seen if he can handle that stretch of the game, especially since he turns 33 in January. His playoff performance against the Oilers could be a harbinger of things to come.
It’s hard to say anything other than that the Flames are the best team, at least on paper. The Canucks have a good forward who can take on most teams in the league. But Calgary isn’t the most teams in the league. While players like Elias Pettersson or Brock Boser may have more potential than some Flames players, it remains potential until it is realized. Right now, the Canucks have one scorer with 99 points and the next highest scorer with 68 points. The Flames had 115 points, followed by 87 and 82 points.
Going down the forward lineup, the talents begin to level off. Niels Höglander and Vassily Podkolzin are better mid-six wingers than Dillon Dube or Jakob Pelletier. Andrey Kuzmenko is likely to have the same, if not better impact than Mangiapane. But right now, the Flames have a higher-level top six, and that will allow them to pair well however they choose to use them.
As far as defense goes, it’s really not a competition. While the Calgary may have five of the best defensemen, the Canucks have two, maybe three. Quinn Hughes and Oliver Ekman-Larsson aren’t bad by any means, but most of the load will be on their shoulders at the back, where the Flames can distribute it evenly between the strong body at the back.
The only aspect of the Canucks that can really be better than the Calgary’s is goaltending. Yes, Markstrom is a Vezina finalist and has had a season for the ages, but Thatcher Demko is getting closer to that echelon of goalkeeping. In his first full season as the starting goaltender for the Canucks, he proved he had the same ability to make saving throws. As it develops further, there is no reason to think that Demko will regress. The same cannot be said for Markstrom, who is in his 30s and has had a season unlike any other in his career.
Perhaps the only consolation in all of this, as the name suggests, is that the Flame is in a supernova phase. They burn bright and strong, but not for long. Treliving put all his chips into the middle for a 2-3 year cup window. Most of the key members of the list are over 30 years old, with contracts that don’t seem to age. This list is all about timing.
But there is nothing wrong with this approach. It is clear that waiting would not do this team any good. If the opponent wants to be satisfied, you have to make sacrifices. The Calgary Flames are Pacific class right now and should stay there for the foreseeable future. Vancouver needs to target Calgary’s decline to kick off its own competitive phase and looks better for it with a younger core.
However, this is a preview for next season. The Calgary Flames are on paper the clear favorites for the Pacific Division crown. It’s a position the Canucks aren’t ready to fight for just yet. In terms of rosters, Vancouver is simply inferior to the well-balanced Calgary team. Demko, unfortunately, cannot win them alone. It will not be an easy fight between the two teams, but be prepared for several Flames victories.