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Photo Credit: © Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Pacific Division Preview: Calgary Flames

We’ve seen a lot of different versions of this Calgary Flames team over the past few years. Which one will we get this season?

Since Johnny Gaudreau broke into the league in 2014-15, we saw a very bad Flames team overachieve on a PDO bender and win a playoff series only to fall flat and find up towards the league’s basement the following season. We also saw the Flames put up the best record in the Western Conference only to lose in the first round.

Most recently, the Flames were the definition of average in 2021, finishing fifth in the Canadian Division. With Gaudreau set to hit free agency next summer and Sean Monahan one year behind him, this season might be Calgary’s last go-around with this enigmatic core.

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Last season…

Record: 26-27-3 (5th in North Division) / Goals For: 156 (20th of 31), Goals Against: 161 (16th of 31).

The Flames came into the 2021 season as a team with aspirations to make the playoffs and possibly go on a playoff run.

They were in the mix for a playoff spot when the 2019-20 season was paused due to COVID-19 and they won their play-in round series in the summer bubble over the Winnipeg Jets before losing to the Dallas Stars in six games. In the off-season, Calgary made a big splash, adding Jacob Markstrom, who had previously been a Vezina-calibre goaltender with the Vancouver Canucks.

An optimistic Flames fan would have told you the team could be a serious contender with a high-quality goaltender between the pipes and an offence that could bounce back to where it was in 2018-19 when it finished second in the league in scoring. None of that happened.

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The Flames’ offence didn’t bounce back as Monahan had one of the worst showings of his career and the Flames struggled to find scoring outside of the top-six. Markstrom also wasn’t the elite goaltender Calgary expected, as he posted a .904 save percentage, well below the .918 figure he had in his final season in Vancouver that earned him his large contract.

As I mentioned earlier, the Flames were the definition of average in 2021. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t good. Calgary never put together a winning streak longer than three games and their playoff aspirations ultimately came undone during a stretch in late March and early April when they dropped eight of nine games in regulation.

Hiring Darryl Sutter for a second tenure as the team’s head coach also didn’t move the needle. The Flames were 11-11-2 under Geoff Ward, they went 0-1-1 with interim coach Ryan Huska, and then they finished off with a 15-15-0 record with Sutter behind the bench.

Next season…

Notable Additions: Blake Coleman, Erik Gudbranson, Nikita Zadorov, Tyler Pitlick, Brad Richardson, Dan Vladar. 

Notable Subtractions: Mark Giordano, Derek Ryan, Josh Leivo, Joakim Nordstrom, Nikita Nesterov. 

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The Flames were one of the few teams to suffer a big loss due to the Seattle Kraken’s strange Expansion Draft (the Oilers were another).

Calgary opted not to protect captain and top defenceman Mark Giordano, instead prioritizing younger defenders in Chris Tanev, Rasmus Andersson, and Noah Hanifin along with their quality forwards. Given Giordano’s age and the fact he’s one season from free agency, it wasn’t an overly surprising move, but many figured the Flames would try to make a side deal with the Kraken to keep their captain around.

The Flames added a pair of big, tough defenders in Erik Gudbranson and Nikita Zadorov, but neither will be able to fill the hole left by Giordano. Calgary’s best bet to replace Giordano is internal. Noah Hanifin did well last season playing alongside Tanev, as the duo had a 22-to-18 goal differential over 617 even-strength minutes.

The former No. 5 overall pick having a breakout season would certainly ease the loss of Giordano on the blueline, but the Flames will also need another defender to step up and play the quality minutes on the second pair that Hanifin did last season. Former first-round pick Juuso Valimaki hasn’t yet proved he can fill such a role, so Zadorov, who’s ideal for a third pair, might have to punch above his level.

Calgary made their forward group deeper this summer with a big splash in free agency, signing back-to-back Stanley Cup winner Blake Coleman to a six-year deal. Assuming Monahan has a bounce-back season from the 10 goals and 28 points he produced last season, the Flames should have three lines that can all score goals.

And then there’s the goaltending, which will rely heavily on Markstrom having a season more like his days in Vancouver than what he did last season in Calgary. With Sutter behind the bench, we can expect a tighter defensive scheme that’ll make life easier on Markstrom.

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All told, there are quite a few ifs for the Flames. If Monahan bounces back, if Markstrom does better, if Hanifin can adequately replace Giordano, and so on, the Flames will be a good team. If not, we’re going to start talking about the possibility of Gaudreau and Monahan getting moved ahead of the trade deadline and the Flames moving in a new direction.

Previously…