After the events of the last few weeks, the Calgary Flames’ core is in absolute tatters. With two thirds of the dominant top line from the 2021–22 season out the door, or at least Tkachuk is reported to be on his way out the door, it’s time for the team to adjust course, and fast.
How they adjust will determine how the team fares for the foreseeable future. The core that once existed, led by Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau, and even Mark Giordano before that, is a thing of the past, with each player either already gone, or in the process of forcing their way off the team.
But, what’s the right direction to take? Who should lead the Flames next season and into the future? Assuming a full-blown rebuild is off the table, the team will have to seriously consider who on the roster is worth keeping, and who to move on from to help return the team to contender status.
Most teams, especially successful ones, have three to four players you can clearly pick out as the core. Pittsburgh has Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. Boston has Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, and Charlie McAvoy. Colorado has Nathan MacKinnon , Cale Makar, and Mikko Rantanen. The list goes on and on.
Until recently, Calgary could point to at least two absolute locks in their core. Today, its time to reevaluate, to say the least.
July 22 Tkachuk trade update: The options evaluated were prior to the Flames’ acquisition of Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar. While both players are on the team for 2022–23, their contracts expire after the season and they both become unrestricted free agents. They won’t be considered core player just yet unless extensions with the Flames are signed.
Building from within
If there are no major offseason additions, the team will have to look inward. While it might not feel like it after the emotional departure of two star players, there are still great players on the Flames. From long-tenured veterans like Mikael Backlund to impressive young defencemen like Rasmus Andersson and Noah Hanifin, the team has to decide who to build around, and who to move on from.
As it stands today, there are only a few sure-things. One is Elias Lindholm. If the team intends to remain competitive, Lindholm will be a key part of it. The last remnant of the top line, and a true top-end goal scorer in the league, Lindholm is a star, and any team would be glad to have him as part of their core.
While his goal scoring received a major boost from playing with Gaudreau and Tkachuk, his quick release and impressive ability to find soft ice have nothing to do with those two. He will continue to perform at an elite level, regardless of line mates, solidifying his spot in the new core.
After all, he’s proven that for him, line mates are optional.
Even aside from that one clip, his advanced metrics have shown that he has always been a strong player in the league. Gaudreau may have ignited his scoring touch, but that doesn’t mean its going to disappear along with him. And even if it does, he will remain a reliable two-way centre.
Of course, all of those same attributes make him the team’s most desirable trade chip. Should the team elect for a rebuild, he could be the next one out the door. But for today, he is undoubtedly the centrepiece of the current core.
Similarly, Andrew Mangiapane has come into his own as a goal scorer with impressive defensive prowess. At 26 years old, he’s also just hitting his prime, and while he hasn’t had much time on the first line, there’s no doubt he has the talent for it. On a team without the elite winger talent Calgary used to have, he would be a first liner. Next year, he will get that chance for the first time. With the increased ice time, eclipsing the 40-goal mark is not out of the question.
Something that really stands out about Mangiapane given the Flames’ situation, is how much success he’s had with so little time playing with the two departed players. Beyond these two stars in Lindholm and Mangiapane, things are a bit less certain.
Backlund is a long-time alternate captain and steady presence, but given his age and production, is not someone the team needs to consider a part of the core, as difficult as it would be to see him go. At the end of the day, a 33-year-old with two years left on a contract over $5M a season is not a player the team would be wise to feel too attached to, espeically if the right offer comes for him.
Blake Coleman and Tyler Toffoli are also impactful players, but aren’t quite at the level required to be considered a core piece of a successful team. Up front, today’s core undeniably relies on Mangiapane and Lindholm.
Team defence remains unchanged
Perhaps more interesting—or at least less depressing—is the defensive side, which hasn’t changed much at all. Erik Gudbranson is a loss on the bottom-pair, but the previous top-four of Hanifin, Andersson, Oliver Kylington and Chris Tanev, all remain with the team.
Although forwards play an important role in team defence, the fact that the top-four and goalies remain the same despite everything else is encouraging. Only the Carolina Hurricanes allowed fewer goals than the Flames last season, so keeping defence in tact is a good thing. But which guys will be a part of the core going forward?
Tanev provides reliable shutdown defense better than almost anyone in the league. But like Backlund, is an aging player with term left on his deal. Kylington broke out in impressive fashion in 2021–22, but there are questions about his ability to carry his own pairing. According to the following data visualization from HockeyViz.com, his isolated results are nothing special. It’s possible his success relies on having Tanev next to him.
The only real options then, are Hanifin and Andersson. But here, things get complicated again. It could be paranoia from recent events, but it seems reasonable to expect the worst when Hanifin’s contract expires in two seasons.
An American from the east coast—a recipe for disaster come contract extension talks, given recent history. Will he buck the trend or would be make a trifecta of players leaving? By process of elimination, the third and final core piece of the Flames’ is Rasmus Andersson. Most successful teams don’t have to determine their core by process of elimination, but that’s where the franchise finds itself today.
All hope is not lost
Despite the undeniable negativity of the last few news cycles, it’s not all doom and gloom. A core of Lindholm, Mangiapane, and Andersson may not have the pedigree of the Penguins or Avalanche, but they are relatively young and in their prime. It won’t be easy, but a contender can be built around that group in time.
Its important to also remember the goaltending factor. While I have focused on skaters, because that’s where the turmoil has been, one last core piece is Jacob Markstrom. One of the top goalies in the league, most teams wish they had that steadying presence in the crease.
With strong defence and goaltending, you’re never really out of it. Yes, the offence has taken some serious hits. But the core is young, Darryl Sutter is a living legend, and that’s not a bad starting point.
Hopefully, Brad Treliving and company can find a way to make the most of this extremely difficult position they’ve found themselves in.
Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire