The Calgary Flames have had an immensely successful 2021–22 season thus far—there is no denying that. Although most of the success will be measured on what this team can do in the postseason, what this team has been able to accomplish this season will not be soon forgotten.
What stems mainly from this success is based solely on the shoulders of preseason expectation. Entering this year, after a disappointing 2020–21 season and a few major losses in the offseason, this team just was not expected to be contending for the Stanley Cup.
A few months later and that view has completely changed. Johnny Gaudreau is a Hart Trophy candidate, Jacob Markstrom is a Vezina Trophy contender, and various other players have led this team to a phenomenal campaign.
A huge reason for the team’s success comes from their blueline. After losing Mark Giordano to the expansion draft, the team was able to bring in Nikita Zadorov and Erik Gudbranson, while also promoting Oliver Kylington.
The result? All six main defenders are on pace for career seasons.
What is even crazier about this is just how unlikely their success has been for a number of reasons. Take the recent uncovering of Gudbranson’s signing announcement tweet. No one thought that it would work, but look at him now.
Let’s take a look at the winding road of unlikely success of the Flames’ six defencemen:
Although applauded for his fight and defensive style of play, Chris Tanev was consistently criticized in Vancouver for never being able to stay healthy. His most games played in a single season during his time in Vancouver was 70 back in 2014–15. Although he played all 69 games in the shortened 2019–20 season, the signing of Tanev that offseason raised some eyebrows for the Flames.
A four-year deal worth $4.5M a season was immediately questioned due to how Tanev would be able to hold up over the course of the deal. Almost two seasons in, and Tanev has yet to miss a game for the Flames (knock on wood).
To go from injury prone to personal iron man streak was something no one saw coming. Add in just how valuable Tanev has been to the backend from a defensive point of view, and he may go down as GMBT’s best free agent signing.
Drafted in the second round back in 2015, up until this season Kylington was a fringe NHL player. Since first appearing in the 2015–16 season, Kylington played a combined 95 games. That includes not suiting up at all during the 2016–17 campaign, and only eight times last year. During that time he amassed five goals and nineteen points.
Kylington was even freely available on waivers last season. Let that sink in.
This season, he’s among the Flames’ best defencemen and is just outside the top 50 in league scoring among all defenders. Playing in 64 games, and piling up eight goals and 27 points, Kylington’s impact has been immense this season. Slotting into Giordano’s spot on the left hand side, he has not only replaced the former captain, but possibly even improved upon the position.
That opportunity would never have happened if the Flames tried to keep Giordano last summer.
Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson
Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson have the least exciting story here, but the quiet consistency is noteworthy.
Based solely on the fact that his success was bound to come at some point based on his draft pedigree, Hanifin has been under some heat over the last few seasons. When Hanifin first arrived in Calgary his performance was far off from what most expected. Flipping between partners and roles on the team, it looked like he may never reach the potential the Flames hoped to get.
Over time, Hanifin has completely bucked that trend and evolved into one of the Flames’ top pairing defencemen with Andersson, who himself has overcome being an out of shape prospect camp attendee to the Flames’ first power play unit quarterback.
Andersson, on the other hand, has gone from an abysmal year to one of the biggest rebounds seen in any player across the league. While he can still improve his 5v5 play, he’s taken his new responsibilities as a top defender and converted them into tangible results on the scoresheet.
The kids are alright.
Acquired last summer, Zadorov was coming off of a season where he was simply not very good. His acquisition initially was looked at as Giordano’s replacement, and that was a decision that was not met with a lot of love among the Flames’ fanbase.
His first few games also did not inspire a lot of faith, especially when Juuso Valimaki was playing far better over the same time period.
Darryl Sutter stuck to his guns and kept Zadorov in the lineup and it has paid dividends. Although he has kept to his reputation of taking lots of penalties, Zadorov’s play has significantly improved into the season.
He has been able to become far more than a “poor man’s defensive defenceman” and contributed significantly on the offensive end. His partnership with Gudbranson has given the bottom pairing some well needed stability.
Quite the 180 turnaround for him.
If Zadorov’s impression was a quick turn, then Gudbranson’s turnaround would induce whiplashes.
Last season, Gudbranson was labeled as and quantifiably was one of the worst defencemen in the NHL. All of his underlying numbers pointed towards that narrative and it was not surprising to see him not get an NHL job during the summer.
Of course, that was until the Flames gave him a one-year, $1.95M contract right before training camp and sent the fanbase into scramble mode. The deal did not make any sense at the time and surely wouldn’t work.
Well a few months later, Gudbranson has looked like a completely different player. It’s almost as if his entire career was a long play to allow him to come to Calgary to finally shine. He has fit perfectly in Sutter’s system and been a complete revelation for the team. He’s reached a career-high in goals and assists, and is +15 on the season despite being -87 in his career.
The stars all aligned for the Flames
Things are simply going right for Calgary right now, and a lot of that is credited to Sutter’s coaching. The team didn’t even see the need to bolster the blueline at the trade deadline and instead were confident enough to stick to the group. But to see a defence corps as solid and reliable as the Flames currently have? There is a 0% chance anyone had that on their BINGO card.
Photo by: Sergei Belski-USA Today Sports
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