The Calgary Flames are legit. After a 9–5 drubbing of the Edmonton Oilers, they find themselves sitting alone atop the Pacific Division. They’re also Canada’s winningest team in the NHL right now, recently pulling ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the standings and are now fourth overall in the league.
As they close out their regular season and look to the playoffs, they’ll have to start being more mindful of their goaltending workload. What should the Flames focus on goaltending-wise from now until season’s end? We asked, you answered.
Calgary’s goaltending scenarios
There are a few things that the Flames will be looking at for their goaltenders. Jacob Markstrom has started 51 of the Flames’ 65 games so far this season, even taking both games of their most back-to-back set. It’s a lofty total that’s making Markstrom their workhorse.
In the 51 games, he’s won 31 times and has put up nine shutouts—one away from tying the Flames franchise record of 10, set by Miikka Kiprusoff back in 2005–06. Surely, Markstrom and the Flames are quietly keeping their eyes on this stat to see whether Markstrom can tie or set a new record before the season is over.
The flip side of this is that to get shutouts, you have to play. And with Markstrom starting most games, fatigue will start becoming a factor and eventually a concern. His 51 starts are fourth in the league, behind Connor Hellebuyck‘s 55 starts, Juuse Saros‘ 54, and Thatcher Demko‘s 52.
If the Flames are hoping for a deep playoff run, managing Markstrom’s starts for the rest of the season will have positive benefits come the playoffs.
The inverse of Markstrom playing is that Daniel Vladar is not. If the Flames have to suddenly rely on Vladar in case of injury or something else, then he’s coming into play virtually ice cold. His starts this season have come infrequently and at times even seemingly questionable (i.e. starting both games against the Colorado Avalanche so far).
And then of course, there’s the Flames’ chances at winning the William M. Jennings Trophy. A month back, they were on pace to win the Jennings, but after a few high-scoring games that went against the Flames’ favour, they’re now chasing the Carolina Hurricanes for the regular season award.
Darryl Sutter has said that the Jennings is the only regular season award that he cares about, and the Flames are tantalisingly close to winning it. As it was seen how a couple of games easily allowed the Hurricanes to catch the Flames, the opposite can happen too and the Flames are far from out of the race.
So what do all of these factors mean for Flames fans?
Load management above all else
The most popular option was to give Markstrom rest. This makes sense of course, as this is highly correlated with playoff success, and keeping your starting goaltender fresh is often paramount. We’ll keep an eye on what the Flames do once they officially clinch a playoff spot.
The team’s mentality is that they aren’t yet in the playoffs despite being near-certain locks months ago. Their pace is getting them closer and closer to clinching with each passing game, but the team isn’t calling it a given just yet.
As such, they might keep starting Markstrom when they see fit until they get to that point. If they then start playing Vladar a bit more, then the reasoning will be clear.
So far this season, the Flames tied three franchise records in their overall win streak, home win streak, and Elias Lindholm with his goal scoring streak, but none were broken. While these records were all streaks, Markstrom’s shutout record has more of a slow and steady approach. Markstrom’s shutout pace to open the year was torrid, but since then he’s settled down and has maintained his league lead.
Should he get one more shutout, he’d tie Kiprusoff, but he needs two more to set the franchise record. It’s always nice to see individual successes, but a shutout record—while being awarded to the goalie—is indicative of team success too.
We’ll see if Markstrom is able to tie or set the mark by season’s end soon enough. Could this be another reason the Flames play Markstrom over Vladar more frequently? Will Markstrom continue to play once/if the Flames clinch? We’ll see.
Even then, this record is hardly on a matter of concern for voters, as only 20.6% voted for the shutout record chase despite being the second place option.
Keeping Vladar warm
Vladar has been a dream scenario in terms of adding a relatively unknown backup goaltender and having him perform above expectations. The Flames’ scouts did their job when they identified him as a target worth trading for, and were able to pry him from the Boston Bruins who instead saw Jeremy Swayman being their future long-term starter.
As a definitive backup, Vladar has done his job and has been a big part of the Flames’ success when he has played. In fact, he also has two shutouts of his own this year to add to the team’s total.
Should the Flames need to play him in the near future, getting him playing less meaningful or even meaningless regular season games would be the exact thing to keep him game-ready at any given time.
The Jennings Trophy
And lastly, the least important aspect as voted by fans, the Jennings Trophy. This is a trophy that’s nice to win, but ultimately has little impact on the bigger picture. It’s a trophy that speaks to a team’s success at suppressing goals against.
While it would only be Markstrom’s trophy to win—barring a string of starts by Vladar to make him eligible—winning it at all, like the shutout record, is indicative of a team-level of success. The Flames are good at preventing chances against and their goaltenders are good at stopping said chances.
It’s exactly the type of trophy that shows that the Darryl Sutter system is in full effect. Calgary’s game is focused on checking at all times, and they have one of, if not the best 5v5 defensive structure right now. Winning the Jennings would be a regular season award that rewards their hard work and their complete buy-in.
It’s all about the playoffs
At the end of the day, every single decision the Flames make should be in their best interest and how well it aligns to the ultimate goal of winning the Stanley Cup. As it seems to be, ensuring that Markstrom gets the rest he needs to be in tip-top shape for the playoffs is the biggest area of concern for fans.
That said, Sutter has no issues starting his number one goaltender well above league average, as he started Jonathan Quick in 69 games back in the 2011–12 regular season en route to the Kings’ first Cup victory, and this likely would have been the same in 2013–14 had Quick not missed time due to a groin injury.
It wouldn’t be surprising of Markstrom continued to take the lion’s share of the workload despite clamouring and hollering from the fans to give him rest before the playoffs. And even if Sutter starts Markstrom for the majority of the remaining games, how can you criticise the decision of a head coach who clearly knows what he’s doing?
What would you like to see from Calgary’s goaltenders before the regular season concludes? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter @wincolumnCGY.
Photo by Terence Leung/2022 NHLI
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