The start of the NHL season is just two days away. The long summer is finally ending and hockey is officially back.
Some fans have been eagerly awaiting the start of the regular season; others have been dreading it. Whether you’re ready or not, the puck will drop on Wednesday night in Rogers Arena, as the Canucks face the next team in our series of Pacific Division previews: the Calgary Flames.
How do the Canucks stack up against the Flames? Well, there’s a reason I called this series the Pacific Division Preview of Pain.
OFFENCE The Flames struggled to score just as much as the Canucks did last season, so you might expect this category to be a wash, but the Flames made some moves in the off-season to address their lack of goal-scoring.
Signing James Neal and acquiring Elias Lindholm in the Dougie Hamilton trade provides a big boost to the Flames’ top-six. Lindholm can be relied upon for 40 points, while Neal consistently puts up 20+ goals every year.
They join a group that was already impressive, with Johnny Gaudreau leading the way. Sean Monahan should be good for 30 goals and Matthew Tkachuk might reach 30 goals as well. Mikael Backlund is a solid second-line centre and the Flames can expect to get plenty of offence from defencemen like Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie, and the newly-acquired Noah Hanifin.
The issue for the Flames has been lack off offence outside the top-six, but the addition of Neal and Lindholm will help, as players like Michael Frolik, Sam Bennett, and Mark Jankowski will more regularly play in the bottom-six.
DEFENCE What was once the Flames’ foremost strength looks a lot more questionable heading into this season. That said, they still have top-end talent on the backend.
Mark Giordano is a legitimate number one defenceman that has scored 10+ goals in five straight seasons. He played the left side of one of the best pairings in the NHL over the past couple seasons. The issue for the Flames is that they traded away the right side of that pairing.
Trading away Dougie Hamilton, even while getting Noah Hanifin in return, takes the Flames’ defence down a few notches. T.J. Brodie should be able to step onto the right side in Hamilton’s place and produce, but Hamilton’s loss will be felt.
Hanifin will likely partner with Travis Hamonic on the second pairing, which will require both players to fulfill their potential in order to be truly effective. And the third pairing is a disaster.
Still, compared to the Canucks, it’s hard to ignore the impact of a true number one like Giordano. There are certainly question marks after the top pairing, but no more than the Canucks have on all three of their pairings.
GOALTENDING The Flames took a gamble on Mike Smith last season and it paid off, as he provided solid goaltending across 55 starts. His .916 save percentage was several ticks above league average and his absence was felt when he missed a month with an injury as the Flames’ backup goaltenders struggled.
The issue for Smith is that he’s already 36 years old. Age has to catch up to him at some point and you have to wonder if more injuries are incoming. If Smith misses time, the Flames might be in trouble, as their goaltending depth doesn’t look pretty.
David Rittich and Jon Gillies are in their mid-20’s and at a point where they’re not really considered prospects any more. Neither gave much cause for optimism with how they performed last season. The Flames are high on 21-year-old Tyler Parsons, but he played most of last season in the ECHL and should spend at least one full season in the AHL.
It’s interesting when you compare the Flames to the Canucks. Honestly, Jacob Markstrom wasn’t that much worse than Smith last season. There’s just a lot of uncertainty around whether Markstrom can repeat that performance, just like there’s uncertainty whether Smith can keep putting up an above-average save percentage at 36. If the Canucks had a better backup than Anders Nilsson, this category might be a wash.
Advantage: Flames (but it’s closer than you might think)
SPECIAL TEAMS The Flames’ power play was dreadful last season, finishing 29th in the NHL with a 16.0% success rate. Then they traded away the two players who were tied for third on the team in power play goals, Dougie Hamilton and Micheal Ferland.
Neal might help, but it’s been a while since he’s been a big-time producer on the power play: he hasn’t scored more than five power play goals in a season since 2014.
Tkachuk is a legitimate power play threat, with 10 power play goals last season, and Gaudreau is a fantastic playmaker, so it seems like they should have a more dangerous power play. It just didn’t work out that way.
The Flames’ penalty kill, on the other hand, shouldn’t be an issue for them. They finished 7th in the NHL last season, killing 81.8% of their penalties.
Between the Canucks’ excellent power play and mediocre penalty killing last season, they have the edge. That could could change if the Canucks’ new, Sedin-less power play doesn’t click and the Flames find their groove.
OVERALL The Flames took a step backward last season after it really seemed like they had turned a corner in their rebuild. Some regression to the mean should get them back to the playoff bubble, but it’s anyone’s guess if they actually eke their way back into playoff position.
Frankly, there’s also a chance the Flames get worse. If an aging Smith can’t stay healthy, Brodie can’t adequately replace Hamilton on the top pairing, or the power play still struggles, the Flames could fizzle.
Still, with elite talent like Gaudreau and Giordano in the lineup, the Flames shouldn’t be discounted.