Pacific Peeks: Calgary Flames
Expect Calgary to cool down, if only a little.
There’s no love lost between the San Jose Sharks and the Calgary Flames. While the fires of competition may not burn with the same intensity they do between the Sharks and the Vegas Golden Knights, or the Flames and the Edmonton Oilers, the two teams have an ugly history all their own. The most recent chapter was written on New Years Eve 2018, when Calgary’s Sam Bennett laid a nasty, unnecessary hit to the head of Radim Simek in the waning moments of an already decided game.
While San Jose exacted their revenge with a win in the next game, there’s undoubtedly still animosity between the two, built largely on the back of years of regular, meaningful confrontation that’s sure to be apparent in their 2019-20 matchups.
The two Pacific Division clubs will meet four times in the coming season: Sunday October 13 and Monday February 10 in San Jose’s SAP Center, and Tuesday, February 4 and Monday, March 23 in Calgary’s Saddledome.
Where we left off
Having missed out on their primary trade deadline target, Ottawa Senators (now Golden Knights), winger Mark Stone, Calgary made a minor move to shore up their defensive depth, acquiring defenseman Oscar Fantenberg from the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for a fourth round pick in the 2020 NHL draft. It was a depth move made with the grind of the postseason in mind, and they had good reason to be thinking that way, as they continued rolling and had a fantastic regular season, finishing first in the Western Conference with 107 points — a dramatic improvement from the previous year’s 84. They were second in goals-for per game, and ninth in goals-against per game.
Defenseman Mark Giordano had a career season, resulting in being honored with his first Norris Trophy, and their young core improved, led by left-wing Johnny Gaudreau, whose 99 points were good for seventh most in the NHL. First-line center Sean Monahan visibly progressed, going from 64 points (31 goals, 33 assists) in 74 games in 2017-18 to 82 points (34 goals, 48 assists) in 78 games, while left-wing Matthew Tkachuk had a break-out year, and at only 21 years old, looks poised to be a force in the NHL for a long time, tallying 77 points (34 goals, 43 assists) in 80 games.
However, goaltender David Rittich, who had been great for Calgary over the first half of the season, struggled to close out the campaign (it would later be revealed he was dealing with a nagging knee issue), and veteran Mike Smith took over in the crease. Smith posted a .898 save percentage en route to winning only 23 of the 42 games he played in, and it was clear that Calgary had downgraded in net.
Despite having the second-best regular season in the history of their franchise, winning 50 games, the Flames won only a single playoff game before being eliminated at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche, despite being heavily favored. Contrary to what many may assume, Mike Smith was actually one of the best players on the ice for Calgary in the post-season, posting a significantly improved save percentage (.917), and shouldn’t be saddled with the blame for their loss to a talented Avalanche team that came only a game away from the Western Conference Final.
2019 Entry Draft
Calgary went heavy on forwards at the 2019 NHL Draft, investing all but one of their five picks in centers and wingers. At 26th overall, the Flames selected left-wing Jakob Pelletier of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). The general consensus regarding Pelletier seems to be that his smaller stature, standing at 5-foot-9, 165 pounds, led to his availability later in the first round despite possessing an excellent offensive skillset. Leading up to the draft, scouts praised his playmaking and vision, dynamic skating, and soft hands, which were all on display in his last QMJHL season, as he tallied 89 points (39 goals, 50 assists) in 65 games. That being said, Pelletier’s skill at the other end of the ice didn’t go unnoticed, as he racked up noteworthy penalty-killing minutes and impressed scouts with his tenacity on the forecheck and dedication to the backcheck.
The Flames selected center Ilya Nikolaev in the third round, left-wing Lucas Feuk in the fourth and center Josh Nodler in the fifth. It wasn’t until the seventh round that the Flames deviated from this pattern, eventually selecting goaltender Dustin Wolf of the Western Hockey League (WHL). Wolf was an all-star in the WHL, putting up incredible numbers for the Everett Silvertips (41 wins, 7 shutouts, a 1.69 goals against average, and a .936 save percentage in 60 games) where he succeeded Philadelphia Flyers phenom Carter Hart. Like first-round pick Jakob Pelletier, he fell in the draft due to his size, as he stands at 5-foot-11, 160 pounds. Wolf is a boom-or-bust type prospect, and is already being talked about as potentially one of the steals of the draft.
In spite of his admirable playoff showing, Mike Smith wasn’t retained by Calgary, who instead opted to sign Cam Talbot to complete their goaltending tandem. Depth defenseman Brandon Davidson was signed to a one-year deal, and struggling forward James Neal was sent to the Oilers in exchange for premiere agitator Milan Lucic.
Right-wing Garnet Hathaway and recently acquired Oscar Fantenberg departed in free agency, while forwards Alexandre Genier, Tobias Reider, Zac Rinaldo, and Devante Smith-Pelly, as well as defender Andrew MacDonald, were invited to professional try-outs (PTOs).
Young star Matthew Tkachuk is currently a restricted free agent, and has yet to sign a new deal with Calgary. As such, he’ll be excluded from CapFriendly’s projected lineup (below), although it’s likely he’s playing for the Flames alongside Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik when the season begins.
Johnny Gaudreau — Sean Monahan — Elias Lindholm
Sam Bennett — Mikael Backlund — Michael Frolik
Milan Lucic — Derek Ryan — Austin Czarnik
Andrew Mangiapane — Dillon Dube — Mark Jankowski
Mark Giordano — T.J. Brodie
Noah Hanifin — Travis Hamonic
Oliver Kylington — Rasmus Andersson
What can we expect in 2020?
The Flames are packed with talent at forward and depth at defense. They didn’t lose any significant pieces, have a near-ideal mixture of young players and veteran presences on the team, and will ice the reigning Norris Trophy winner — theoretically, they should be a lock to compete for a top two seed in the Pacific Division.
However, goaltending remains a significant question mark in Calgary, with Talbot, and to a certain extent Rittich, uncertain commodities at this point in their respective careers. If Talbot re-captures the level of ability he displayed in Edmonton, or Rittich seamlessly returns to his early 2018-19 season form, winning the division isn’t a stretch, but it’s not unlikely that neither goalie ends up being the answer the Flames are looking for. Regardless, I can’t see Calgary missing the playoffs (barring unexpected injury) with the level of competition they’ll be facing in one of the NHL’s weakest divisions.
The Sharks will need to keep their emotions in check when playing Calgary, and not let themselves get goaded into taking unnecessary, retaliatory penalties by hard-hitting agitators like Matthew Tkachuk, Sam Bennett and Milan Lucic.
The first matchup between the two is on Sunday, October 13 at 7 p.m. PST in San Jose.