With the Calgary Flames making important roster decisions over the past week, the opening night roster looks like it’s coming together.
Entering the preseason, the Flames had several question marks, and on the eve of the NHL season, it appears that most of those questions have been answered.
Who will be the starting goaltender?
Goaltending has been cited as the Flames biggest question mark across most media outlets. However, most seemed to either miss or forget the fact that incumbent netminder David Rittich suffered a lingering knee injury just as the calendar switched from 2018 to 2019. Not surprisingly, his quality of play took a bit of a dip after the injury, allowing Mike Smith to secure the crease for much of the second half and all through the first round in the playoffs.
It’s important not to discount Rittich’s play in the first half. He was among the best goaltenders in the NHL, posting well above average numbers and even entered the Vezina conversation. This year, backed up by an outstanding preseason that saw him stop 57 of 60 shots, Rittich is clearly the number one goaltender on this team.
Conversely, Cam Talbot, acquired via free agency this offseason, arguably has a better NHL resume than Rittich does. Talbot was superb during his time with the New York Rangers, and with the Edmonton Oilers save for last season (including some time with the Philadelphia Flyers). Talbot was brought in to be a reliable second option for the Flames and to push Rittich for the starting job. Talbot didn’t have as good of a preseason as Rittich, but bounced back in a big way in his final game.
Talbot looks to be a serviceable backup, but it’s Rittich’s crease to lose at this point.
will the top-six stay intact?
Throughout the offseason, there were significant rumblings that the top-six could have a new look this season. Bill Peters mentioned a move to center for Elias Lindholm on more than one occasion, and flirted with moving Matthew Tkachuk to the top line last season as well. Could there be a significant shift in the top-six arrangement this year?
At this point, it looks as though the Flames will keep the top line and 3M line intact. With Tkachuk signing his new contract midway through the preseason, the opportunity to experiment with Lindholm and Tkachuk didn’t materialize, and Peters will probably roll with his tried and true top-six from last season.
Backlund did leave the Flames’ preseason finale for “precautionary reasons”, but should be back in time for opening night.
Will any PTO players earn contracts?
The Flames have a penchant for bringing in players on PTOs. This season, they welcomed Tobias Rieder, Devante Smith-Pelly, Zac Rinaldo, and Alexander Grenier up front, plus Andrew MacDonald and Eric Gryba on the blueline.
With the preseason all wrapped up, Smith-Pelly, Grenier, and Gryba have all been released from their PTOs. None had great camps and never really proved they deserved an NHL contract.
Rieder, who had an excellent preseason and capped it off with a two goal performance against the Oilers, signed a two-way deal with the Flames for league minimum. He’s been a standout so far and looks to be penciled into a roster spot on opening night.
Rinaldo also signed a contract, but cleared waivers and will start the season playing for Stockton in the AHL. He provides a level of gritty depth the Flames seem to love, and is probably this year’s Anthony Peluso. He might never play a regular season game with the Flames.
MacDonald is the lone remaining PTO. Due to Juuso Valimaki‘s injury, the Flames may opt to sign him for additional defensive depth. He hasn’t had a great preseason despite playing a ton of minutes for the team, and would be an option only as an extra defensemen or on the third pairing at the very most.
Edit: MacDonald was officially released from his PTO.
Will any prospects make the team?
Dillon Dube was a clear standout in last year’s training camp, so much so that he made the team out of camp. It was a bit of a different story this year, however. Dube, along with fellow youngster Oilver Kylington, were harshly criticized by Peters after a couple underwhelming performances, and were challenged to be better and not take a roster spot for granted.
Because the Flames are so close to the cap, they will only be able to submit an opening day roster with one extra forward and one extra defensemen. With the the signing or Rieder and the exclusion of Austin Czarnik from the waiver wire yesterday, it looks like one of those two players will serve as the extra man up front, meaning Dube will start the season in Stockton.
It’s a bit of a disappointment for one of the team’s most promising prospects, but Dube will undoubtedly be the team’s first callup with more roster flexibility as the season goes on, or if an injury occurs.
Kylington has had a lacklustre preseason on a whole, but might just be a benefactor of a thinner blueline this season. If MacDonald doesn’t sign, the Flames will probably start the year with both Kylington and Michael Stone on the team, one of whom will be the seventh defensemen.
That means that at most, just one Flames prospect will make the team out of camp.
Who will be Giordano’s copilot?
Fans have been salivating at the thought of Rasmus Andersson jumping into top-pairing duties in just his second full NHL season, but that might be a little bit premature.
Andersson proved he could hold his own with Giordano last season, as Peters used that pairing late in games when the team needed offense. It looks like Andersson would be fine in that role for a full season, but let’s not forget how dominant the Giordano/T.J. Brodie pairing was last year.
It was legitimately one of the best in the NHL, and that’s the pairing the Flames look to be using on opening night. There’s no guarantee it will stay like that for 82 games however, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Andersson take over that spot by Christmastime.
Will there be any changes on the power play?
Despite having one of the league’s most potent offenses last season that scored the second most goals overall, their power play was ranked at a mediocre 18th. It looks like the Flames have their first power play unit set with Gaudreau, Monahan, Lindholm, Tkachuk, and Mark Giordano, but the second unit will see some change this season.
New addition Milan Lucic, who was the net-front player on the first unit before Tkachuk signed, looks to have assumed that role on the second unit. It remains to be seen whether Lucic is still capable of performing in a highly offensive role, but he did manage to score a power play marker against the Oilers in the final preseason game. Maybe there’s still some gas left in the tank.
In addition to Lucic, the Flames will probably go with two defensemen on the second unit, one of whom will be Andersson. Andersson proved to be a handy power play option last season and was instrumental in powering the Flames to a few late game comebacks, most notably against the Philadelphia Flyers.
What about the penalty kill?
On a similar note, the Flames were one of the stingiest defensive teams last year allowing the ninth fewest goals in the league, but had a penalty kill ranked at a dismal 21st.
Special teams was not a strong suit for the team last season, and with the departure of key penalty killer Garnet Hathaway, there are definitely openings on the four man unit.
The answer here lies in a usual suspect: Rieder. Peters has not only referred to Rieder as an elite skater, but also an elite penalty killer. It’s probably one of the biggest reasons Rieder was offered a contract by the Flames, and could point to Rieder starting the season not just on the roster, but also on a penalty kill with Mark Jankowski.
Our predictions for opening night are:
Gaudreau – Monahan – Lindholm
Tkachuk – Backlund – Frolik
Bennett – Ryan – Lucic
Mangiapane – Jankowski – Rieder
Giordano – Brodie
Hanifin – Hamonic
Kylington – Andersson
Overall, it looks like the changes and shuffles we’ll see on opening night compared to the roster that finished last season are positive. With progress from younger players like Andrew Mangiapane, Andersson, Sam Bennett, Czarnik, and Noah Hanifin, steadier campaigns from new veterans like Derek Ryan, and new blood in Lucic, Rieder, and Talbot, the Flames look poised to challenge once again for a division crown and an extended playoff run.