While the Calgary Flames may have been struck by two major losses on the front line in Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau, their blueline already looks to be among the best in the entire league. With Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson likely staying as the team’s top pairing and Chris Tanev likely slotting in with newcomer MacKenzie Weegar and combining all of this with a Darryl Sutter team, teams are going to have a tough time getting quality looks on the Flames’ net.
The makeup of the Flames’ defensive depth
There is still a big question mark for the Flames’ blueline: Who will slot in next to Nikita Zadorov on the team’s third pairing? The Flames have four players who could all fill that spot: Oliver Kylington, Juuso Valimaki, Connor Mackey, and newly signed Nicolas Meloche. Here’s how it all breaks down.
Kylingotn played 73 games with the Flames last season, earning a role after a terrific training camp. After being mostly a tweener to that point in his career, Kylington burst onto the Flames, forming an excellent pairing with defensive stalwart Tanev on the team’s second pairing. He even earned time on the team’s power play and played heavy minutes night-in and night-out.
The one thing he had going for him was his ability to breakout of the zone, utilizing his strong skating and great hands to create numerous zone entries.
The trouble was that the first half of his season was excellent while the back half was generally just fine. It was not that he was particularly bad, but he was not nearly as good either with or without the puck in the second half of the season, and looked a bit more frazzled as the season wore on.
This may have been a result of the injuries that were hampering him throughout the season. However playing alongside Tanev gave him a bit more latitude to make those mistakes knowing he had a strong partner beside him should he run into issues.
Of the group, he is probably most likely to slot into the sixth defence slot, but will more likely be playing alongside Zadorov than Tanev. The Flames will want to give Weegar heavier minutes than the third pairing, so it’s hard to see Sutter going with a Tanev-Kylington pairing again unless they elevate Zadorov to the second pairing. With how much this team leaned on Tanev, and missed him when he was injured in the playoffs, this seems exceedingly unlikely.
A Zadorov-Kylington pairing could be incredibly effective. In a very small sample size of 22 minutes last season at 5v5, the duo put up a 68.2% CF% (via NaturalStatTrick.com) and were on the ice for three goals for and just one against. Remarkably good numbers even in a small sample.
The problem is that both are left handed shots who are more adept at playing the right side. While both can technically switch and play either side—and have through their careers—it will be interesting to see if the Flames try this pairing out. It may work just as well if not better than the Tanev-Kylington pairing with Zadorov taking more of a defensive role and allowing Kylington to go up on the rush.
The Flames’ first-round pick from 2017 has really not panned out to expectations. While he did start the season in Calgary last year, he was relegated down to Stockton quite early on and did not earn a shot back in the lineup for the rest of the season.
While down in Stockton, he should have been able to absolutely dominate—the Flames’ AHL squad did not have much in the way of elite defensive talent last season—and it should have been very easy for the Finn to earn the big minutes. And while he did play heavy minutes, he was far from the team’s most effective blueliner, stuck behind a number of AHL veterans and Connor Mackey on the team’s third pairing. Not great.
However, it is clear that Valimaki possesses really high skill and the compete level to turn it around next season, and if he comes into camp determined to win a spot on this team, that sixth spot could be his. Unlike Kylington, Valimaki brings more balance to the blueline, is able to drive offence and play on the power play like Kylington, but is typically more defensively responsible in his own end. Valimaki, at least in theory, probably also has a higher ceiling than Kylington, although that may be crashing down if he doesn’t show that he can reach it this season.
Like Kylington, Valimaki is a left shot defenceman who plays on the left side. While Zadorov can play both sides, the Flames would again be with a pair of left shot blueliners on their third pair, but having two big European defencemen on their third pair who can play a big bruising style like the Zadorov-Gudbranson pairing did last year could be very effective.
Mackey went into training camp two seasons back with a ton of buzz, and earned himself a role on the Flames’ blueline as a college signee. Unfortunately he was unable to maintain that role and was sent down to Stockton where he languished for the rest of that year and all of last season.
In his time there, he has developed into a very good blueliner, and was far and away the team’s best defenceman last year—putting himself ahead of Valimaki in the depth chart. He also finished fourth in TWC’s 2022 Calgary Flames’ Prospect Rankings and was the team’s top defensive prospect last year.
A jack-of-all-trades defenceman, Mackey is very good offensively, able to put the puck in the back of the net on his own while also being able to create chances for his teammates. He is stalwart defensively—no Tanev or Weegar but able to hold his own in the defensive zone and limit opposing chances. He does not really standout as elite in any part of his game, but is very good generally across the board, similar to an Andersson-type defenceman.
This balanced-style of game may be exactly what the Flames need on their third pairing. With a good offensive pairing in Andersson and Hanifin, then three defensive defencemen behind that, Mackey would bring a balanced style to the third pairing. He can play nearly anywhere you put him in, and has the speed and strength to limit opponents from cutting inside generally well. While he does not bring the speed of Kylington or the pedigree of Valimaki, his well-rounded nature may be a good fit for the Flames.
A free agent signing this summer, Meloche spent last season in San Jose, playing 50 games for the NHL team and just ten in the AHL. In that time, the mostly defensive defenceman had seven points and 39 penalty minutes on a weaker Sharks’ team.
His analytics in that time did not jump off the page at all, not adding a ton of offence or a ton of defence but there weren’t many red flags. The one big thing that he added: a strong force on the penalty kill. The Sharks’ PK was substantially better with him on the ice than when he was on the bench, which is exactly the role that the Flames had Gudbranson slotted in for, and one he performed exceedingly well.
If Meloche can round out his game and be as effective at 5v5 as he was on the PK last season, there is a chance he ends up beating out the prospects and taking that sixth spot, but for an organization that likes the idea of drafting and developing, it is hard to see them passing over their prospects for Meloche.
It’s more likely that Meloche takes the seventh spot if the Flames elect to move on from Michael Stone this summer (although Stone has been such a good fit on the team in that role). If not that seventh spot for Meloche, then he is likely additional depth in the AHL.
Could the Flames make a trade?
The Flames have an embarrassment of riches on their blueline for the first time in a long time, and this extends even down to their farm team with the addition of Yan Kuznetsov and Jeremie Poirier full-time next year. However, what the team needs desperately is more offence. If the Flames mentally pencil Jonathan Huberdeau into the Gaudreau spot, they still need to add a winger to complement the top line.
If that is an internal replacement like a Tyler Toffoli, they will need another body down the lineup. That player would need to add more offence as the team will be trying to replace the 100+ points they lost from Tkachuk, which is no small feat. If the Flames don’t end up getting Nazem Kadri, they may explore moving a defenceman or more to get some help up front.
With this many strong defence options, the Flames would almost be wasting their young prospects’ potential by not playing one or two in the NHL. Kylington has shown he is at worst a serviceable NHL defenceman, even if he is not a second-pairing guy at this point. Mackey has shown he deserves a look and Valimaki has the potential and pedigree to be an NHLer in the right environment. Add in Meloche and likely AHLer Dennis Gilbert and the Flames may look to move one of these guys as a package to acquire some help up front.
Whether a trade happens or not, the battle for the sixth spot is going to be hotly contested for the Flames this year. Any of these players could earn that role, and even a guy like Poirier or Kuznetsov could come into this season to really make it interesting. Both players are coming off a Memorial Cup Championship, and Poirier was the Flames’ best player at the development camp scrimmage by a country mile. No matter what happens, this is a big story to watch for as the summer unfolds and going into training camp.
Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire