The Calgary Flames have had a pretty busy offseason so far, signing two of the bigger names in free agency in Jacob Markstrom and Chris Tanev, but also saw multiple players leave, like T.J. Brodie and Travis Hamonic. Brad Treliving has been a busy man, which was expected after another disappointing first round playoff exit, but after all the changes and players in and out, the Flames are definitely a better team heading into 2020-21 than they were last year.
There are some real reasons to be optimistic about the team this year and their chances of finally getting over the hump and winning a playoff round. Here are the three biggest reasons why the Flames will be better this year.
There’s no question the biggest area of the improvement for the Flames this off season has been goaltending. The crease has been a weakness for the team every year since Miikaa Kiprusoff retired eight years ago.
Brad Treliving has seen his fair share of goalies come and go during his time with the team, with 11 different goalies suiting up for a game since he was hired. Typically filling the need with stop gaps like Brian Elliot, Mike Smith, and Cam Talbot among others, Treliving finally pulled the trigger on a long-term fix in net this offseason signing Jacob Markstrom to a huge six-year, $36 million dollar deal.
David Rittich and Talbot provided the Flames with decent goaltending last year but getting Markstrom is without a doubt a huge upgrade for the Flames that could bring them to the next level. Markstrom finished the year with a .918 save percentage which placed him 11th among goalies with at least 30 GP.
For comparison Rittich ended the year with a .907 save percentage placing him 30th. Rittich also had a negative save percentage above expected while Markstrom had a very respectable 0.089 save percentage above expected (per MoneyPuck.com).
It’s fair to say Markstrom was one of the better starters in the league last year so adding him to the Flames roster is immediately a major upgrade. Markstrom will also provide the Flames with some much-needed consistency in net which is something they have been lacking for awhile.
Last season the Flames just went with the hot hand in net instead of having a set starter, flipping between Talbot and Rittich throughout the season. Having a consistent, dependable starter behind the team will hopefully allow the Flames’ lineup to play looser, and not as afraid to make mistakes knowing they have Markstrom behind them.
The Flames have run with a 1A/1B setup for a couple seasons now with no one taking the starting job full time, but Markstrom will no doubt be the go-to starter this year with Rittich moving into a more traditional backup role. This duo on paper is the best one the team has had in a very long time and should hopefully provide them with solid goaltending on a nightly basis, which is something they have lacked for years.
And the best part of this tandem is that Rittich is capable of holding the net for consecutive games in the event Markstrom falters or suffers an injury. Having two goalies who suited up for the All-star Game the previous season is not something many teams have ever had the luxury of boasting.
The addition of Juuso Valimaki
Flames fans have been long awaiting the full season debut from 2017 first round pick Jusso Valimaki and barring an injury, this year they may finally get it. The last time we saw Valimaki suit up in a Flames jersey was in Game 5 of the first round against Colorado all the way back in 2019.
The young Finnish defender didn’t look out of place at all during that two-game stint and the team and fans alike had high expectations going into the 2019-20 season. Unfortunately, a torn ACL during summer training derailed those plans and held him out for the entire year.
Now fully rehabbed and healthy, Valimaki appears more than ready to take the next step which could be a big boost to the Flames lineup. On loan in Finland until NHL camps start, he currently sits sixth overall in Liiga scoring with 10 points in 10 games while playing almost 23 minutes a game.
There were some doubts on how he would respond following his major surgery, but he has been far and away the best defender in that league and is in the conversation as the best player in Finnish hockey right now.
I wouldn’t expect Valimaki to jump into the Flames’ top four to start the season though. When the season eventually starts (the expectation right now is around January), he won’t have played an NHL game in almost two years.
However, there is no doubt he will push for a top four spot at some point during the season. He is a very well-rounded defenceman who is a strong skater and has the ability to break up plays with ease. Adding his skillset to the defence corps would improve it without question; players like Noah Hanifin and Chris Tanev simply don’t possess the skills he does.
If Valimaki can continue to improve and push for Tanev’s or even Hanifin’s spot to slot into the top two pairings, it would be a big improvement for the Flames. Valimaki has a much higher ceiling than both of those players and could bring some much-needed skill and speed into the Flames lineup.
It may not happen right away as he will most likely be eased into more minutes, but he can provide a big boost to the Flames and be a game changer for them in ways other defencemen have not.
continued progression FROM Dillon Dube and Andrew Mangiapane
Perhaps the two brightest spots on the Flames’ roster at forward after a disappointing year were the surefire arrivals of Dillion Dube and Andrew Mangiapane. Both had very promising seasons and should only continue to get better this year. Both put up career highs in points last season, Mangiapane with 32 in 68 games and Dube with 16 in 45. They also both also had five points in 10 playoff games.
Both players also both made huge strides in ice time last year compared to where they started the season. Mangiapane started the year on the fourth line but eventually worked his way onto the second line and never looked back. Alongside Mikael Backlund and Matthew Tkachuk, the new-look 3M trio was undoubtedly the Flames’ best line in the regular season once they were put together.
In Dube’s case he started the year in the AHL but lasted just 13 games before being called up to the big club and never going back down. He quickly became a mainstay in the Flames lineup in his rookie season, and was a key cog in the bottom six. In the playoffs he was also part of the Flames’ most effective line with Milan Lucic and Sam Bennett, and scored one of the nicest goals of the year against the Stars.
Only 22 and 24 respectively, Dube and Mangiapane still have lots of room to improve. If they can continue to round out their games this season, it could bring a huge boost to the Flames forward group and provide reliable secondary scoring.
First let’s take a deeper look at Mangiapane. His point totals may not have been huge last season, but it’s his underlying numbers that should make Flames fans very excited.
Just take a look at Mangiapane’s analytics from the previous two years, courtesy of Bill Comeau (@billius27).
It’s not a stretch to say that his underlying numbers are elite. Playing with Backlund and Tkachuk obviously had an impact on his numbers being so good, but his minutes were also much more difficult once he made the jump to the second line.
His numbers in 2018-19 were already impressive but Mangiapane only continued to get better for the Flames this past year. He is a dominant player possession-wise and at this point and it is a matter of time before the points really start piling up for him.
A 50 to 55 point season is not out of the question if he gets regular minutes in the top six and time on the power play; he was on pace for a 20 goal season at the time of the pause. If he can start to put up the points to match his underlying numbers, it would present a big improvement to the Flames offence and also take some pressure off of the top line.
For Dube, his underlying numbers weren’t as impressive (playing with Lucic for most of the year will do that). But he is also two years younger than Mangiapane and this was still just his rookie year. It seems like Dube is on the fast track to being a legitimate impact player in the NHL. He also gained some attention from his coach during his impressive playoff run as head coach Geoff Ward had this to say about Dube during the playoffs:
“I think every game he plays, he’s gaining more and more confidence, so that allows him to play freely and get to his skill. So, now we’re seeing him make some really, really key plays. Maybe for some people that haven’t watched us a lot, he stands out as a surprise, but to his teammates and coaches, we’ve seen this building for a while now and he’s an important part of our lineup.”
To see that kind of praise from a coach in your rookie year is a great sign for Dube and shows that the team trusts him and has high hopes for him going forward.
Showing this much progression over one year is a very encouraging sign at just 22 years of age and should make the team very hopeful Dube can be a major contributor for them this upcoming season. I think he has a very good shot at putting up 35 to 40 points this year playing on the third line and the second power play unit.
The Flames have struggled with depth at forward the past couple seasons so having some more production in their bottom six would be a big improvement. Most of the offensive expectations were placed on the top line last year and they struggled mightily. If Dube can continue to progress and get better this year he could provide the team with some much-needed offence from their bottom six and give the Flames a legitimate scoring threat outside of the top two lines.
It’s up the the Flames now
The Flames had yet another disappointing year last season, once again getting bounced in the first round and failing to meet lofty expectations. Despite this, Brad Treliving opted to keep the core mostly intact to give them one more go at it. Although fans have heard this story before, there are some real reasons Flames fans can be cautiously optimistic going into this year.
Whether or not they put it all together and finally get over the hump will be up to the team now. They have the pieces needed to make a run thanks to Treliving’s work in free agency acquiring a true number one goalie and a veteran defensive defenceman to slot into the top four. That combined with the internal growth and development of three of the teams best young pieces in Dube, Mangiapane, and Valimaki could finally put them over the top. We will just have to wait and see how the season unfolds come January.
Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports