The Calgary Flames have been one of the more maddening teams in hockey over the past decade. When they’re expected to do poorly, they seem to pull a playoff bid out of thin air.
Conversely, when they have high expectations they always seem to fall flat, like in 2019 when they won the Pacific division title in the regular season, but got bounced out of the playoffs in five games (or in 2022, when they again won the division title, but got chased from the playoffs in the second round by the Edmonton Oilers, who had finished behind them in the Pacific rankings at No. 2).
Perhaps most painful was last season, when the Flames were penciled in as a Stanley Cup contender before the season started, but ultimately failed to even make the playoffs, falling two points short of the final wild card spot.
It seems like an impossible task, then, to forecast what they will do this year, but I’m going to give it my best effort.
What the Experts Think
Right now, the Flames are listed around +4000 at betMGM sportsbook, and that seems about right. You don’t want to count them entirely out of things, as there’s a decent chance they’re going to end up in the mix, but being too bullish on a team that never seems to win when it counts isn’t going to draw many bettors either.
Hockey betting experts at BetMGM Ontario say that the Flames’ journey is one that is being closely followed by those who recognize the potential for a remarkable performance this season: everyone loves a chance to pick the upsets before they happen, and the Flames seem like the type of team to pull a deep run out of nowhere like the 2019 St. Louis Blues did.
What Could Go Right?
The Flames moved on from head coach Darryl Sutter this offseason, opting to get a new voice in the room in the form of first-time NHL head coach Ryan Huska.
Sutter has a pair of Stanley Cup championships to his name behind the bench, guiding the Los Angeles Kings to a mini dynasty in the early 2010s, but he’s also well-known for being an old school guy, notorious for his aggressive coaching style, demanding and disciplined as he asks for the absolute most out of each of his players. That can go a long way toward getting the best out of them, but it can also fall flat and suck the love for the game out of a player’s heart.
The Flames still have most of the roster in place that was anointed as one of the best in the league last offseason (even after moving on from general manager Brad Treliving), so it seems like their ownership thinks that Sutter was a big part of the problem last season.
Huska, in contrast, spent years coaching in the minor leagues before the Flames added him as an assistant coach in 2018: if he’s used to reaching out to the next generation of hockey players, that could help him succeed in a way that Sutter couldn’t.
What Could Go Wrong?
Basically, take everything I just said and flip it on its head. Bringing in a first-time head coach at the highest level of the sport is always going to be a wild card. Huska could galvanize the locker room, or he could fail to get things off the ground in his first year as the head man.
Similarly, a lot of the expectations for the Flames this season center around players who suffered uncharacteristic down years returning to form.
Jonathan Huberdeau signed a massive deal with the Flames last offseason after tallying 115 points during the 2021-22 campaign: he managed just 55 last season.
If he’s able to return to that previous pace, the Flames will have an excellent injection of offense… if he can’t, he could go down as one of the worst free agent signings in the history of the league.
Goaltender Jacob Markström, similarly, had one of the worst seasons of his career last year, posting a .892 save percentage and allowing nearly three goals per game.
What’s the Verdict
For a team that was a stone’s throw from the playoffs last season, either one of those players returning to form could be enough to push them over the hump and into the playoffs.
If their hiccups in 2022-23 turn out to be the start of a downward career spiral, though, they’ll end up saddled to a lot of money for a lot of years, with nothing but middling play to show for it.
At the end of the day, coaching matters in hockey more than it does in just about any other sport—the aforementioned Blues went from one of the worst teams in the middle of the 2019 season to Stanley Cup champions after a coaching change, as did the 2015-16 Penguins.
If Huska can be the breath of fresh air Calgary needs—or even if they just get a couple favorable bounces their way—I think they have an excellent chance of making it back to the playoffs this year.