Did the Calgary Flames improve their roster during the 2022 offseason? With their newest additions, it’s easy to look and see that they’ve bolstered their roster right to Stanley Cup contention. However, it was just over a month ago that this roster lost Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk. Were the recent moves enough to improve the team, were they lateral changes, or did the Flames actually get worse? We asked, you answered.
A new look Flames roster
To say the Flames will enter the 2022–23 season looking different is a huge understatement. No other team in the recent years has undergone as much change to their top-end talent as the Flames have in one offseason. If we go back to even just the season prior, the era of Mark Giordano as their captain feels like a lifetime ago.
Now, the Flames are introducing brand new stars to their club, headlined by Jonathan Huberdeau. Of course, there’s also Nazem Kadri and MacKenzie Weegar. On top of that, there’s a higher likelihood of new AHL graduates coming into the fray this season.
So with all things considered, how might the new-look Flames compare to the Pacific Division winners from last season?
The best the Flames have looked in years
Most people have the Flames as being an even better team now than they were last season. The general discussion around how this works out is that the addition of Huberdeau and Kadri up front could be considered slightly worse than Gaudreau and Tkachuk, whereas the addition of Weegar is a definitive upgrade.
Options on offence
The Flames’ entire group of forwards will look different, but it’s definitely going to be improved if Mikael Backlund is the third line centre. While they can definitely still add to their forwards—read: a right shot right winger—the fact of the matter is that there is flexibility in their lineup that’s going to really help them.
For example, Andrew Mangiapane is a bona fide top-six option—his days of being a middle-six player are long over. He’s going to get big minutes, and if the situation calls for him to be on a shutdown line with Backlund and Blake Coleman, then he can play that role to a tee. Otherwise, he’s going to be an offensive dynamo whether he plays alongside Lindholm or Kadri as his centreman.
A new prospect in town
Further, there’s a good chance the Jakob Pelletier will make the lineup and he brings a huge element of tenacity to his line. Relying on a prospect with an upper limit in 2022–23 as a middle-six option at best isn’t going to save any team’s lineup. However, that’s not what the Flames need or expect from Pelletier. The Flames already have a competitive lineup. Graduating Pelletier into the NHL will just make them even better.
Huberdeau is the x-factor
And of course the biggest improvement is how Huberdeau compares to Gaudreau. Most have considered Huberdeau to be as one-for-one of a replacement for Gaudreau as the Flames could have possibly gotten. While their play styles are definitely different, they fill very similar roles of being the go-to playmaker.
Huberdeau racks up more assists while Gaudreau has a better scoring touch. However, Huberdeau has possibly a 40-goal scorer in Mangiapane and an actual 40-goal scorer in Lindholm. Is it too bullish to say Mangiapane might get 40 goals this coming season? Sure, we can temper our expectations. But it’s pretty clear that Huberdeau has ample opportunities to pass to scoring linemates.
Further, there’s also Huberdeau’s size. A frequent—and in my opinion, moot—criticism of Gaudreau was his size and how he isn’t built for the playoffs. Again, it’s not a fair criticism cause it’s a scapegoat argument for when things go wrong, but rarely credited for when things go right. However, the fact of the matter is that this criticism can not exist for Huberdeau. He’s listed at 6’1″ and 201 lbs which makes this a non-issue.
The Flames didn’t do enough
The flip side of this entire discussion is that the Flames won’t be good enough to compete for the Cup. They’re not a team like the Colorado Avalanche or Tampa Bay Lightning as clear-cut annual contenders for the Cup. There’s always a back-of-mind thought the Flames might not be good enough to be in the same echelon of the two teams above, but then again, which other teams are?
What it takes to be a contender
Calgary was a strong favourite for the Cup by statistical models entering the playoffs last season, notably from MoneyPuck.com. They were one of the best 5v5 teams in terms of offence generation and defensive suppressing of their opponents’ offence. While special teams definitely play a big role in the playoffs, the majority of a hockey game is played at 5v5. The best team at 5v5 will always be favourites to win a game—and the Flames were often the best team at 5v5.
The issue now is that can they replicate their 5v5 success from last season with their new players? Tkachuk was one of the best two-way forwards and Gaudreau was a Hart finalist who was outstandingly good at backchecking under Darryl Sutter.
Huberdeau and Kadri don’t replace Gaudreau and Tkachuk
Kadri is no Tkachuk, but he’s got that pesty flair to him that the Flames will appreciate. So the x-factor here is whether Huberdeau’s lack of defence come back to bite them. He’s entirely an offence-first kind of player, which has its merits. The question then becomes whether he fits into the Sutter system. This topic will be a big thing to watch for this coming season.
Not many people expected Gaudreau to check as well as he did last season, and it was clearly a result of Sutter’s system. I would expect that Huberdeau won’t quite show the same boost in defensive metrics as Gaudreau did, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Huberdeau gains a defensive skillset in this coming season—Sutter will make it so.
Give Calgary time to work it out
In either case, whether the Flames are better or worse, only time will answer. It might take some time for the Flames to gel with new teammates. After all, they have to work out their new line combinations and pairings. There will likely be a lot of experimentation that extends into the regular season.
The Flames had the benefit of seeing Gaudreau, Lindholm, and Tkachuk play together during the tail-end of the shortened 2020–21 season. While they weren’t mathematically eliminated, those games realistically did not matter and it was the first taste the Flames had of their elite top line of yesteryear.
A new look team
Now heading into the new season, they’ll only have training camp to tinker with arguably a lot more combinations than they had to tend to last season. There’s simply no way for the Flames to truly figure out what lineup is optimal with so much turnover in their roster and so little time before games start to matter.
So if we remove line combinations and defensie pairings and look at the roster at a whole, it’s pretty clear how different things are. Before training camp started last season, the Flames looked to be in a worse spot. Expectations of the team were nearly at zero after their free agent acquisitions. Most had pegged the Flames as destined for another season as a bubble team with no certainty of making the playoffs.
This season, the expectations are much higher with Calgary being labelled as contenders. Now we’ll have to see if they can live up to them.
How are you feeling about the Flames roster? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter @wincolumnCGY.
Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire
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