Calgary Flames versus Toronto Maple Leafs season preview: Goaltending will be key for the Flames

Tonight the Calgary Flames take on the Toronto Maple Leafs for the first time in 2021 for the first of nine meetings between the two teams this season. With many analysts expecting the Leafs to win the North division, it will be an extra challenging series for the Flames, and very important given the nature of this season’s schedule, featuring only games within each division.

Although games against the Leafs don’t generally inspire the same passion in fans as rivalry games like those against the western Canadian teams, with so many matchups this year, and former Flame T.J. Brodie now in the blue and white, this series could become must-watch, especially if the two teams are battling for top spot in the division.

Flames VS Leafs Game Days

LocationDateTime (Mountain)
CalgaryJanuary 242:00 p.m.
CalgaryJanuary 267:00 p.m.
TorontoFebruary 225:00 p.m.
TorontoFebruary 245:00 p.m.
TorontoMarch 195:00 p.m.
TorontoMarch 205:00 p.m.
CalgaryApril 47:00 p.m.
CalgaryApril 57:30 p.m.
TorontoApril 135:30 p.m.

In a typical season, the Flames and Leafs meet twice, once in either team’s home rink. This year, they meet for more than four times that number, with four games at the Saddledome and five at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. There is definitely a lot of travel up ahead for Canadian teams travelling east and west.

Perhaps the most notable part of this schedule is towards the end, when the teams play two sets of games on back to back nights late in the season. With the North Division looking to be an extremely tight battle for playoff spots, lining up against what projects to be the division’s best offense on back to back nights late in the condensed schedule will be a difficult task for the team.

Not only that but due to the condensed nature of the season, after tonight there is only one other time the Flames play the Leafs with more than one rest day, and it’s not until their final meeting of the year. That means that heading in to those back to backs, the Flames will have only had a one day break after their prior game.

Roster comparison

The Leafs are known as a high flying offensive team that struggles defensively. Here is a look at the lines the Leafs iced most recently:

While this was the most recently used Leafs roster, keep in mind the team was without Auston Matthews, Joe Thornton, and Nick Robertson in the forward group. Usually Thornton and Matthews make up two thirds of the teams top line with Mitch Marner.

The Leafs boast a deep offense and a defensive core solidified by the addition of Brodie. In goal too, they are strong with Frederik Andersen and Jack Campbell. Let’s take a look at how the Flames stack up against them at each position.

Goalies

Both teams have starting goalies who have been excellent over the last few seasons. While there were initially some questions about how Markstrom would perform on a new team, the early returns have been good for the Flames, with Markstrom performing well against Winnipeg and Vancouver to start the year. Anderson also has started the year well, as has Campbell in the one game he has played so far.

These visuals from hockeyviz.com can help us compare the two teams’ starters:

Both had strong seasons overall, but also had obvious weak spots. The darker red areas around the net and lower parts of the circles around Andersen’s net indicate that he struggles with shots from in tight. The Flames might look to exploit this. Considering the grueling nature of the schedule these two teams are set to play, the backups will also play a significant role in this series.

Campbell and David Rittich will be leaned on along with the starters to give their team a chance every night. Rittich has not played a game yet this season, but will hope to find his form from early last season when he does.

Campbell has played once this year, picking up a win. Over the last few seasons he has established himself as a capable NHL backup, playing 26 games in 2019-20 and 31 in 2018-19. Both Rittich and Campbell are quality backups and have the potential to even be 1B guys in a tandem.

The Flames and the Leafs should expect solid goaltending this season, making it tough to give one an edge. However, if an edge must be given, it goes to the Flames. Markstrom and Andersen have both been consistent over the last few years, but Andersen’s stats took a dip last year while Markstrom thrived.

Defense

Taking a look at how each team played last season can help us lay out some expectations for the coming season. Below are a series of defensive metrics taken at 5v5 and score and venue adjusted for both teams from the 2019-20 season, courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.

Both teams seemed to struggle a bit defensively last season, falling in the middle or lower end of the league ranks last season.

TeamxGAGACAHDCA
Toronto132.3 (19)156.4 (28)3158.9 (18)631.5 (24)
Calgary130.7 (18)146.7 (23)3250.7 (21)562.4 (23)

With the addition of Brodie in Toronto and Chris Tanev in Calgary, both teams hope to improve defensively in 2021. The early returns are promising for both teams, who are off to better starts defensively this year.

This actually comes in spite of the new pairing of Morgan Rielly and Brodie struggling with chance creation for the Leafs, putting up a team worst xGF% among defense pairings of 43.4% at even strength. With players as talented as Brodie and Reilly, that is likely to improve as the season goes on.

For the most part the data shows that the Flames and Leafs were not too different last year defensively. Considering the Leafs added one of the Flames’ former top defensemen from last season to their own top pairing, their defense should not be underestimated. Morgan Reilly is just one season removed from a 72 point season and has a new, improved partner on the top pair. Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl fill out a solid top four.

The bottom pair is more of a work in progress, giving the Flames a bit of an edge, considering the early season success of Juuso Valimaki and Nikita Nesterov. So far Zach Bogosian and Travis Dermott have been the most common bottom pair, with Mikko Lehtonen just starting to push for minutes on the bottom pair.

The Leafs’ defense is pretty strong, but definitely not the best part of their lineup, and on the blueline, the Flames likely have the edge. The strongsuit of the Leafs is their forwards.

Forwards

The Leafs’s best strength is by far their offensive talent, and with good reason. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and John Tavares give the Leafs serious star power on offense, and the numbers back them up.

TeamxGFGFCFHDCFSH%
Toronto142.4 (3)158.1 (3)3457.7 (3)661.6 (3)8.6 (10)
Calgary132.1 (8)132.8 (20)3250.8 (6)586.3 (17)7.7 (22)

Toronto excelled at creating chances last season, placing third in all of the metrics except shooting percentage. Considering the team brought in Wayne Simmonds and Thornton to try and improve further, its fair to say the Leafs have the North division’s most formidable offense.

Part of what makes the Leaf’s offense so strong is the matchup challenges it poses for opponents. Matthews and Tavares are both elite centremen, something most teams are lucky to even have one of. Early on this season Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk have played tough minutes against other teams’ top offensive threats and performed well. As usual Mikael Backlund has also been tasked with a difficult shutdown role and managed it.

Both the Backlund and Lindholm lines will be key to the Flames success in this matchup going forward, as controlling the offensive threat posed by the Leafs will be key. If those two lines can fend off the big guns of the Leafs, the Flames could look to have an edge through depth.

The current deployment of Flames forwards has found success by having three strong lines, rather than stacking up a Monahan/Gaudreau/Lindholm line as in the past. If this system continues to work, the Flames could still have a depth advantage, even against a team like the Leafs who have a very strong top six group.

Looking forward

The Leafs are likely to be one of the strongest, if not the strongest, team in the division. Each game against the Leafs will be a challenge for the Flames, and good measuring sticks against the team with the highest expectations for the season.

With the Flames’ additions of Markstrom and Tanev, they seem to have prepared for the reality of playing such a strong offensive team so many times this year. Hopefully this can translate to on ice success.

Whether or not it does may come down to Markstrom. Against a team like the Leafs, you are sure to give up chances. Ideally, you give up as few as possible and make the chances as low quality as possible, but they will come. Strong goaltending is a necessity to find success against highly offensive teams.

For tonight specifically, the first matchup, it will be interesting to see how the Flames look after six days off, playing against their former teammate Brodie. The storyline of Brodie against the Flames develops could develop into a fun story going forward, if we ever get used to seeing him in blue and white.

While the Leafs and Flames don’t have a big rivalry, maybe this season in the battle for playoff spots in the North Division, one can be formed. It starts tonight.

Photo Credit: Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s