With the second round of the playoffs in full swing, it’s given Calgary Flames fans a chance to watch what a top-end contending team looks like in the playoffs. Having won just one playoff series since their improbable Stanley Cup run all the way back in 2004, the Flames haven’t been a cup contender in a very long time outside of the 2018–19 season which ended in the first round because the team couldn’t match the elite talent the Avalanche had to offer.
Meanwhile there are certain teams in the league like the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Pittsburgh Penguins for example who have seemingly been contenders for the better part of the last decade. Then there are newcomers like the Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche who have been contenders for a couple years but look like they will continue competing for the cup for many years to come.
Watching the Golden Knights and Avalanche play each other in their second round series really makes one realize just how far off the Flames are from competing with these types of teams in the playoffs. How far though?
Well thanks to Dom Luszczyszyn (@domluszczyszyn) and The Athletic we have a good understanding of a few key aspects any true contending roster should possess with his systematic checklist. It’s worth noting that no team will check off all 10, but most top teams fill out around eight or nine. The checklist is as follows:
- Elite first-line centre among the best in the world
- Elite first-line winger
- Two top line-wingers
- Top-line centre on line two
- Two top-six forwards in middle six
- Elite number one D
- Second number one D
- Top pairing defenceman on second pair
- Top pairing defenceman on third pair
- Top-10 calibre starting goaltender
So how many of these items do the Flames tick off? Let’s take a look.
All numbers used throughout the article are 5v5, score-and-venue adjusted courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com.
Elite first-line centre: No
Perhaps the most important aspect to any cup contending team, the Flames are already behind the 8-ball here. If you want to challenge for a cup you almost always need a truly elite first line centre to lead the way and the Flames haven’t had one of those in decades.
Just look at the recent cup champs and who they had down the middle. The Lightning had Brayden Point, the Blues had Ryan O’Reilly, the Capitals had Evgeny Kuznetsov and Niklas Backstrom, the Penguins had Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Blackhawks had Johnathan Toews, and the Kings had Anze Kopitar. The list goes on. The Flames don’t have a centre who can match up to those guys.
The last truly elite centre the team had was Joe Nieuwendyk and he was traded in 1995. No disrespect to Elias Lindholm but he isn’t elite just yet. Lindholm established himself as the team’s top centre this year—even winning the Flames’ inaugural Harley N. Hotchkiss Award as the team’s MVP—but his overall numbers don’t put him in the upper echelon of centres in the league.
In terms of just points, his 47 points in 56 games ranked 18th in the league among centres. His 19 goals and 28 assists were both 16th. It’s his underlying numbers that really show he can’t compete with the top dogs just yet though. His 52.78 CF% was 37th among centres league-wide with at least 600 minutes at 5v5. His 52.25 xGF% was 41st and his HDCF% of 51.53 was 42nd.
Over the past three seasons his CF% ranks 36th among centres, his xGF% ranks 51st and his HDCF% ranks 52nd. Lindholm is a very good centre, but he can’t compete with the best of the best in the NHL. Jack Eichel on the other hand, dot, dot, dot…
Elite first-line winger: Yes – Johnny Gaudreau
While missing out on an elite cetnre, the Flames do have an elite winger, in fact you could argue they have two. Both Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk have shown that they can be an elite first line winger in the NHL.
Let’s go with Gaudreau here though because of his elite point production since entering the league. Gaudreau’s ability to create offense make him an elite winger in the NHL and there’s no doubt he’s one of the most purely skilled wingers in the entire league.
If we look at his WAR% and impacts at both ends of the ice over the past three seasons courtesy of @JFresh, Gaudreau is without question an elite winger. His finishing, quality of competition, and even strength offence are all in the 90th percentile in the league.
Gaudreau has also been one of the highest scoring wingers in the NHL since entering the league in 2014. Since the 2014–15 season, Gaudreau’s 493 points sits sixth league-wide among all wingers behind only Patrick Kane, Nikita Kucherov, Blake Wheeler, Alex Ovechkin, and Brad Marchand. Elite company to say the least. His 324 assists in that time frame ranks fourth among wingers. His GF at 5v5 of 143.37 sits seventh among left wingers in the NHL over the past three seasons.
Gaudreau doesn’t have sparkling underlying numbers, in part due to his linemates, but his raw skill and point production is unmatched by almost every winger in the league.
Despite what some media members and fans will tell you, Gaudreau is absolutely still among the best in the league at his position when he’s on his game. Had he had the chance to play with elite line mates throughout his career like some of the other top wingers in the league, his point totals would be even higher. He is an elite first line winger, through and through.
Two top line-wingers: Yes – Matthew Tkachuk, Andrew Mangiapane
The Flames have no problem filling this category either. Both Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane qualify as top line wingers. For Tkachuk, it’s the point production, and strong two-way play that make him a first line talent. For Mangiapane it’s his elite underlying numbers and even strength production.
Tkachuk had a down year points-wise due to his lowest shooting percentage since his rookie year, finishing 17th among left wingers with 43 points in 56 games. However, last season he led the Flames in points with 61 points in 69 games finishing ninth among left wingers. The year before that he had 77 points in 80 games, sitting sixth among left wingers.
It’s usually his underlying numbers that truly shine though. Tkachuk had arguably the worst season of his career this year but still ended up seventh among left wingers for CF% at 55.29, 14th for xGF% at 54.7, and 17th for HDCF% at 54.27. Not his best work but still impressive for a down year.
Since entering the league in 2016–17, his CF% is 55.6 which ranks near the top of the league for all left wingers. His ixG of 36.43 over the past three seasons ranks seventh among left wingers. His 278 points rank sixth among left wingers since entering the league behind only Johnathan Huberdeau, teammate Gaudreau, Ovechkin, Artemi Panarin, and Marchand. Some very solid company.
Mangiapane, meanwhile, is a truly elite two-way player at even strength. His underlying numbers rank among the best in the league for wingers since 2017 despite spending the early portion of his career playing in the team’s bottom-six. His CF% of 54.07 since the 2018–19 season ranks 10th among left wingers with at least 2000 minutes at 5v5, while his xGF% of 56.32 ranks sixth. His HDCF% since 2018–19 is even better sitting third at 57.71. Some seriously elite numbers.
He hasn’t been a big point producer in his career, but he broke out this season with a career best 0.57 points per game including 18 goals in just 56 games. His 15 goals at even strength ranked 14th among all forwards last year ahead of players like Tyler Toffoli, Mark Stone, and David Pastrnak. It’s fair to assume he will continue to build on those numbers next year as he continues to get even better.
Both Tkachuk and Mangiapane can hang with the best wingers in the league and should be considered bona fide top line wingers.
Top-line centre on line two: No
The team only has one top line centre on it’s roster right now in Lindholm so this one is an easy no. Mikael Backlund has been a very solid two-way centre for the past decade, however his lack of offensive production prevents him from being considered a true top line centre. He’s only surpassed the 50 point mark once in his career, and has never scored more than 22 goals. Backlund is a great second line centre, but not a top line one.
Sean Monahan meanwhile has really fallen off the last two seasons, as his offensive production has completely dried up. Monahan scored just 10 goals in 50 games this year, a 16 goal pace in a regular 82 game season. That would be the lowest total of his entire career.
His underlying numbers have also been weak for most of his career, and definitely not strong enough to be considered a top line centre. He’s posted a CF% over 50 just three times in his career, and not since 2018-19. Meanwhile his xGF% has also surpassed 50 in just three of his eight seasons in the league.
Both Backlund and Monahan are solid second line centres when healthy, but neither can be considered top line centres.
Two top six forwards in middle six: Yes* – Mikael Backlund, Sean Monahan
This is an interesting one. Whether or not the Flames can check this off depends on if Monahan can bounce back next season. First off let’s take a look at Backlund though. As mentioned above Backlund has been one of the better two-way centers in the league over the past decade, and is certainly a top-six forward.
This most recent season Backlund finished 27th among centres with at least 600 minutes at 5v5 for CF% at 57.10, 16th for xGF% at 57.26, and 25th for HDCF% at 55.33. This while playing mainly on the teams third line stapled to Milan Lucic. He’s never been a big point producer, but his 23 even strength points did rank 33rd among centres last year. He’s a top-six forward, no arguments there.
Monahan however is a tough player to judge. His production certainly wasn’t at the level of a top-six forward this most recent year, however it’s easy to forget that just two years ago he put up 82 points and 34 goals. Before this season he had scored at least 22 goals every year of his career, including at least 27 five times. He’s never had great underlying numbers, but his offensive production has been at the level of a top-six player for most of his career. Whether he can return to that form is the big question.
If, and that’s a big if, Monahan can stay healthy next year and rebound he would certainly be considered a top-six forward and fulfill this category for the Flames.
Elite number one defenceman: Yes – Chris Tanev
Never did I think Chris Tanev would be considered the Flames’ best defender, let alone an elite number one defenceman, yet here we are. Tanev’s play this past season was that of an elite number one defender. In fact, if we look at even strength wins above replacement courtesy of @JFresh, Tanev was the best defenceman in the entire NHL this season.
Tanev was coming off a very average season in Vancouver last season, but rediscovered his form with the Flames this year turning back the clock to when he was one of, if not the league’s best defensive defenceman. His underling numbers were best on the team among defenceman, as well as near the top of the league.
His CF% of 55.64 ranked 11th league wide among defenceman with at least 600 minutes at 5v5. His xGF% was even more impressive sitting fourth league wide at 60.88, trailing only the elite Avalanche trio of Devon Toews, Cale Makar, and Samuel Girard. His HDCF% was third league wide at 63.01 behind only Adam Pelech and Toews.
His GA/60 of 1.41 led the entire league for defenceman, as did his xGA/60 of 1.47. Simply put Tanev was the best defensive defenceman in the league last year. His numbers ranked at the top of the league along with other elite players playing on much better teams.
Whether or not he can continue his elite play next season is a huge question mark, but for now Tanev should be considered an elite number one defenceman.
Second number one defenceman: Yes – Mark Giordano
Is Mark Giordano still a number one defenceman? If we look at the first half of the season while he was paired with Rasmus Andersson, then no. If we look at the final month and a half of the season where he was paired with Tanev on the teams top pairing then yes.
If we look at Goals Above Replacement (GAR) courtesy of evolvinghockey.com, Giordano graded out as one of the best defenceman in the league last year.
There’s no doubt Giordano had some major struggles last season, but he really turned it around once split from Andersson and looked like his old self. Through the team’s final 16 games of the season, Giordano was among the best defenders in the entire league.
His underlying numbers from April 9th, his first game with Tanev, to the end of the season were very solid. Over that strecth his CF% of 59.98 ranked ninth league wide among defenceman with at least 200 minutes at 5v5. His xGF% of 67.94 and his HDCF% of 72.0 both ranked third in the league among defencemen, behind only Matt Grzelcyk and his partner Tanev.
His offensive game was still very strong this season as well, despite the Flames’ struggles to score for most of the year. His 26 points in 56 games was first on the team for defenceman, and put him on pace for 46 points in a full 82 game season. That total would’ve been his second highest point total since 2015-16.
Giordano will be 38 years old by the time next season starts, however he showed down the stretch he should still be considered a number one defenceman for the time being. If the Flames were to lose him in the expansion draft it would be a huge loss.
Top pairing defenceman on second pair: Yes – Noah Hanifin
Similar to Tanev, if we were asking this question last year there’s no way Noah Hanifin would qualify as a top pairing defender. However he finally broke out this year and had the most successful season of his career to date, finally showing the level of play many have hoped for from the 24-year-old.
Before he went down with a season-ending injury, he was playing alongside Andersson on the team’s second pair, so we’ll put him down for this category over Giordano.
Hanifin’s underlying numbers were by far the best of his career this season, and were also among the best in the league for defencemen. His CF% of 53.14 ranked 22nd league wide among defenceman with at least 800 minutes at 5v5. His xGF% of 55.04 was 16th, and his HDCF% of 57.23 was 14th. His xGA/60 of 1.82 ranked 10th in the league for defenceman ahead of the likes of Adam Fox, Miro Heiskanen, and Victor Hedman.
After struggling to find his footing as a top pairing guy for the first five seasons of his career, Hanifin was a revelation this year and showed that he has the potential to be a dependable top pairing defenceman. Whether or not he can continue that next season is the question as he’ll spend the offseason recovering from his shoulder surgery.
Top pairing defenceman on third pair: No
This one is pretty straight forward. After Tanev, Giordano and Hanifin. The Flames don’t have any other defenders who can be considered top pairing defenceman. Andersson looked like he was well on his way to being one for the team this season, but he struggled mightily this year and was one of the team’s worst defenders.
After that you’ve got Valimaki, Stone, and Nesterov. Valimaki has the potential to be a top pairing guy in the future, but he isn’t there yet and still has a lot of work to do before being trusted as one.
Nesterov and Stone don’t need any explanations. They’re fringe NHLers and certainly not top pairing defenceman, and their status with the Flames for next season is unknown given they’re both UFAs.
Top-10 calibre starting goaltender: Yes – Jacob Markstrom
Now before people jump to send me Jacob Markstrom’s stats from last season, let’s remember that this section mentions a top 10 “caliber” starting goaltender. Was Markstrom a top-10 goalie last season? No. Has he shown in the past he can be a top-10 goalie? Definitely.
Let’s not forget that Markstrom finished top-10 in Vezina voting the past two seasons before this one, including finishing fourth just last year. He may not have played up to those expectations this season, but he is certainly capable of playing at the level of a top-10 goalie.
In fact, over the past four years Markstrom ranks 10th in the league for wins with 96, 10th for overall save percentage at .912, and 10th for GAA at 2.73 among goalies with at least 150 starts. Stats courtesy of Evolving-Hockey.com, he also ranks 10th in that time frame for GSAA. Despite his struggles this past season, Markstrom still ranks as a top-10 goalie league-wide over the past four years.
This past season before going down with an injury near the end of February, Markstrom was living up to his pricey contract and once again looked to be a contender for the Vezina. Through the team’s first 12 games, he was sitting near the top of the league with a .919 save percentage and 2.33 GAA, while regularly keeping the Flames in games they didn’t deserve to be in.
Unfortunately his play fell off soon after as Geoff Ward arguably overworked him leading to his eventual upper-body injury. Markstrom struggled when he first returned from his injury, however he did find his game again near the end of the season, posting a .912 save percentage over the Flames’ final nine games.
Markstrom had his struggles in his first year with the Flames, however he still had some solid stretches where he played like a top-end starting goalie despite playing behind a weak Flames team. When Markstrom is at his best, he can certainly be considered a top-10 goalie.
Close, but still missing some key pieces
Overall the Flames actually grade out better than expected in this checklist, ticking off six of the 10 categories. However they still lack some key pieces that any contending team must have if they hope to challenge for the Stanley Cup. They also have some major question marks going forward.
Can Chris Tanev continue his strong play as a number one defenceman after a bounce back season? Will Hanifin regress to the form he’s shown for most of his career as an average second pairing defenceman? Can Giordano continue to defy father time and perform as a number one defenceman? And finally, can Monahan finally get healthy and reestablish himself as a top-six forward?
The team certainly needs some better depth in the bottom three of their defence group, however the hope is both Andersson and Valimaki can reach their potential next year and develop into top-four defenceman. A defence group of Tanev, Hanifin, Giordano, Andersson and Valimaki could be one of the best in the league if it pans out.
For me, the biggest need for this team to become a true contender is an elite number one centre—what else is new? Lindholm is a great player and looked very good flanked by Gaudreau and Tkachuk at the end of the season, however he isn’t good enough to match up with the likes of Sebastian Aho, Brayden Point, Nathan Mackinnon, Patrice Bergeron, etc.
If the Flames want to contend they need to add an elite centre, which won’t be easy to do, or build up the rest of their forward depth to make up for the lack of an elite centre like the Golden Knights have done. If they don’t, I don’t see how they will be able to compete with the best teams in the league come playoff time.