The start of the season is just days away, and honestly, it couldn’t come sooner. After a very long offseason, the Calgary Flames are entering this season with a lot to prove. With just one major departure (the loss of Captain Mark Giordano) and a number of small to medium-sized changes, the Flames’ main core will be staying together for the start of this season.
Will they be able to get back into the playoffs this season? Here’s what our writers had to say about their thoughts going into the 2021–22 season.
1: Where do you think the Flames will finish in the Pacific Division? If they make the playoffs, how far will they go?
On the one hand, the Flames had a terrible offseason and essentially got worse on paper after already missing the playoffs last season. On the other hand the Pacific division is a dumpster fire. Vegas are the clear front runners for the top spot in the division, but after that it’s a muddled group of average teams in Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and maybe Los Angeles fighting for the final two spots. Then there’s the big wild card in Seattle. If they can put together a solid first year which they most likely will, the Flames playoff hopes are in big trouble as the Central division will most likely claim both wild card spots.
As much as I have faith in Darryl Sutter, the Flames’ offseason moves were just so bad that I think it keeps them out of the playoffs. A team deploying both Zadorov in the top-four and Gudbranson anywhere is not a playoff team. The Flames will finish the season in classic Flames fashion—most likely fourth in the division and just outside the playoffs.
More so than any other year before, the Flames feel like they’re a coin toss team. With their return to the Pacific Division, it’s hard to tell how they’ll stack up at a first glance. While California has its trio of bottom feeders right now, it seems like the Flames would have to crumble to finish worse than fifth in the division.
However, with the exception of the Golden Knights taking the top spot, the other spots are wide open. Could the Flames outperform any of the Oilers, Canucks, or Kraken? Yes, absolutely. Could they be outperformed by any of the three? There’d be no surprise there either. We’re returning to intradivisional play now, and that might actually end up being the difference maker as poor performances against opponents outside of the Pacific could turn the tides for any of these four teams. I think the Flames will realistically be good enough to not finish fifth, but perhaps not good enough to finish anywhere better than fourth in the division.
If they do make the playoffs, however, it’d be on the coattails of a defence-first system working exactly as Sutter plans, and I reckon that’d it’d get them past the first round if it proves strategic enough to get them into the playoffs in the first place.
The Pacific division looks on paper like the weakest in the NHL this season, giving the Flames a great chance to make the playoffs despite the loss of Giordano in the offseason. Outside of Vegas, no team in the division is a true cup contender, leaving some playoff bubble teams like Calgary, Seattle, Vancouver, and Edmonton, and even the longshots in the California teams, to battle it out.
With Sutter at the helm for a full 82 games this season, I think the Flames will manage to be one of the teams to grab a playoff spot. I predict they will finish third in the division, and once again lose in the first round. I just can’t see the team’s current defensive group as being strong enough for a deep playoff run.
The Flames are in arguably the weakest division in the entire league, but have not added much in the way of high-end talent to their roster. They will be playing with the hope that Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm, and Matthew Tkachuk will have up years up front.
On the back end, they need Chris Tanev and Noah Hanifin to both play as well as they did last season and have either a bounceback from Rasmus Andersson or a big year from Juuso Valimaki in order to be successful on the back end.
This is all contingent on both Jacob Markstrom and Dan Vladar having big years.
That is a lot of asks.
Is it possible? Anything is possible in this life, but I struggle to see how the Flames will be better than three of the LA Kings, Edmonton Oilers, Seattle Kraken, or Vancouver Canucks, or how they could top the expected champions Vegas Golden Knights. However, if they do sneak into the playoffs, it is anyone’s game.
2: Which player does the Flames’ season most hinge on?
For me it has to be Andersson. After losing Mark Giordano for nothing, Brad Treliving replaced him with two replacement level players in Nikita Zadorov and Erik Gudbranson leaving the Flames defence group extremely thin. Given those moves, this team desperately needs Andersson to bounce back from his horrendous 2020–21 season and perform as a locked in top-four defenceman in 2021–22.
If he continues his struggles from last season the Flames are in huge trouble. On paper, this team essentially has just two surefire top-four defencemen in Tanev and Hanifin, both of whom come with their own question marks. If Andersson looks more like his 2020–21 version than his 2019–20 version this year then the Flames already weak defence group looks even weaker.
Initially, I would have suggested Markstrom, but as the preseason wore on, Daniel Vladar has shown he’s a fairly reliable backup goaltender. Though Markstrom will get the bulk of the starts, the Flames aren’t completely out of it with Vladar in net in other circumstances.
With goaltending being set, I’d say it’s a good time to turn to their defence corps. Last season, the Flames saw an otherworldly performance from Tanev, and they’re relying on a similar output from him, despite the fact that he’s returning from injury and of course also fighting the age curve. Should his play take any significant step back—as many predicted would have been the case in 2020–21—it’d be bad news for the Flames.
More often than not, a team’s most important player is their goalie. I don’t think the Flames will be an exception to this rule, so Markstrom is my choice. The bottom line is that bad goaltending can sink the season of even the most complete team, and the Flames are not a complete team. Last year, when Markstrom struggled down the stretch after recovering from his injury, the Flames were not able to overcome it and make the playoffs.
On the other hand, Markstrom has in the past carried mediocre Canucks teams to playoff success. Without Giordano anchoring the defence anymore, Markstrom will likely be relied on heavily again this season, and will need to play better than he did in the second half of last season for the Flames to have any chance of making the playoffs.
I would love to say former player Darryl Sutter, but I’ll stick within the confines of the question and go with Tkachuk. The Flames have been talked about as a team that are not all pulling in the same direction- a ship without a rudder. What the team needs more than anything else is a player who can will them to win night in and night out. That player on this team is Tkachuk, and if he cannot step up this season and put the team on his back, you have to ask the question of whether this team is worth keeping together.
3: Which Flames prospect will push for a roster spot this season?
Honestly, none. Not because the Flames don’t have any prospects that can push for a roster spot, but because the team clearly doesn’t want any prospects in their lineup. Throughout his coaching career Darryl Sutter has notoriously strayed away from playing unproven rookies, and there’s no reason that won’t change this season. The team even went out and signed a trio of veteran depth forwards and brought back Brett Ritchie, all but ensuring no young players will even get a shot at cracking the lineup.
That said, if I had to pick one name, I’ll say Walker Duehr. Duehr has looked surprisingly solid in preseason and has stuck around longer than most people suspected. He’s also got two factors working for him. One is the fact he’s big, standing at 6’2″ and 209 lbs which is certainly a reason Sutter has kept him around over someone like Matthew Phillips. Two is that he plays right wing which is an extremely thin position for the Flames, and with Tyler Pitlick dealing with an injury, Duehr could find his way onto the roster at some point in the season.
Does Oliver Kylington count as a prospect still? If not, can he? Despite having a good number of NHL games under his belt, he only has just one season where he spent the majority of it in the NHL—back in 2019–20 with 48 games played. His NHL career so far has been stuck in purgatory of not being good enough for the NHL and being too good for the AHL.
So while he’s not a prospect, he’s my pick as a player to make it to the big leagues for good. It seems if there’s any season for him to make full-time as an NHL-calibre talent, this would be his year. The opportunities are all there for him. The defence seemed immediately logjammed with subpar signings, but this is only good news for Kylington. He can easily stand out against players both by the eye test and by possession metrics.
Although the handful of games he played in the NHL last year were unspectacular, I think Glenn Gawdin will make a push. He’s had a solid preseason, and his competition for the fourth line centre position, Brad Richardson, has struggled. Sutter likes to rely on veterans and players he knows, which points to Richardson starting the season in that role, but if he struggles, or the lineup is rearranged due to injury, Gawdin is likely the first player to fill that role instead. If he gets the chance, I think there’s a good chance he ends up keeping the job.
When I look at this Flames’ roster, I see a lot of really good two-way or defence-first players. This includes Gawdin, Richardson, Pitlick, Trevor Lewis and the list goes on. What the team lacks are reliable depth scorers. The players who have the touch in front of the net, but with the way this team is constructed, can also play reliable defence.
This screams for a Matthew Phillips type player. A reliable scorer who tore up the AHL last season and the season before is exactly what this Flames roster will crave down the stretch. Despite him having a bit of a rough camp, expect him to go into Stockton with a ton to prove, and work his tail off to earn a call-up to Calgary.
4: Will the Flames win their season opener?
It would be very Flames-like for the team to break their 11-year losing streak in home openers in a season in which they’re coming off one of their worst off seasons in recent memory, so I say they get the job done this time to end the curse. Just don’t expect many wins at home the rest of the season.
Let’s be real, everyone has been well-conditioned into knowing that they won’t win the opener. It’s not going to happen until 2025–26 when Tij Iginla makes his debut for the Flames.
I have faith this year, I think they’ll win. If we can break the Honda Center curse, we can beat the home opener curse.
11 losses in a row? Not a chance.