The Calgary Flames (13-12-6, fifth Pacific) come to town for the first time this week to play a San Jose Sharks (10-16-6, seventh Pacific) team fresh off a disappointing shootout loss in Los Angeles. The Flames took Saturday night off following a loss to the St. Louis Blues on Friday — and three overtime losses in a row prior to that. This Flames team is pretty obviously not the same as last season’s.
Calgary had a huge off-season. Just before free agency began in July, the Flames were told that first-line winger Johnny Gaudreau would not be re-signing with the team. Instead, he took off for Columbus, signing a seven-year, $68.25 million contract ($9.75 million AAV) on July 13, the first day of free agency, with the Blue Jackets.
Shortly after, on July 17, general manager Brad Treliving completed the first-ever sign-and-trade deal to send forward Matthew Tkachuk and a fourth-round pick to the Florida Panthers in exchange for forward Jonathan Huberdeau, defenseman Mackenzie Weegar, and prospect Cole Schwindt along with a conditional first-round pick in 2025. The team also picked up former Sharks defender Nicolas Meloche after San Jose failed to issue a qualifying offer.
In August, the Flames signed Stanley Cup Champion Nazem Kadri to a seven-year, $49 million contract ($7 million AAV). Treliving also traded forward Sean Monahan and a conditional 2025 first-round pick to the Montreal Canadiens in the exchange for future considerations to free up salary cap space. Despite all these changes, the Flames still looked to be in a decent spot for the beginning of the season.
The season started well, as the team won five of the first six games, including games against the defending champion Colorado Avalanche, rival Edmonton Oilers and Pacific Division-leading Vegas Golden Knights. The only loss of that span was to the Buffalo Sabres.
Unfortunately for the Flames, that success did not continue. The team proceeded to go on a seven-game losing streak, and despite some close games, it doesn’t seem like Calgary is on a path toward improvement. The Flames haven’t won since Dec. 7 against the Minnesota Wild, the final game of a late November/early December homestand. That five-game homestand saw just one loss for Calgary, against Montreal, but they’ve only managed to gain points in overtime since.
The Sharks may be struggling, but fans knew they wouldn’t be great. The Flames, on the other hand, seem to be riding a completely different type of struggle bus.
Can San Jose capitalize on shaky goaltending?
Last season, Flames netminder Jacob Markstrom was good, really good. This season, he’s been struggling a fair amount, posting a record of 8-8-6 in 21 games. Markstrom’s numbers are not the worst in the league — with a .892 save percentage (SV%) and 2.92 goals against average (GAA), he’s near the middle of the pack among goaltenders with a similar number of games played.
Markstrom has been known to be aggressive in the past, but with the team in a slump, every move seems to be the wrong one. “I just suck at hockey right now,” Markstrom said after a brutal mistake led to a goal just 13 seconds into the game against Montreal.
The Flames’ other goaltender, Dan Vladar, has fared somewhat better. Vladar has a 5-4-2 record with a 2.81 GAA and a .905 SV%. Of course, he’s had less playing time than Markstrom, with just 11 games this season. According to MoneyPuck, at 5-on-5, Markstrom has posted -3.8 goals saved above expected (GSAx), while Vladar sits at a -0.5. At all strengths, Vladar has post -2.5 GSAx and Markstrom is at 3.4.
Depending on who starts Sunday’s game in San Jose, the scoring chances during 5-on-5 will be very important. If Markstrom is in, capitalizing on his struggles during even-strength play is key.
Can Labanc keep it rolling?
Kevin Labanc seems to be on a tear as of late. Not only did he score the Sharks’ only even-strength goal last night in LA, he also was the only Sharks player to score during the shootout. He might not be putting up a volume of shots, but he does seem to be in the right places at the right time, notching six points in the last seven games on just nine shots on goal during that time.
According to Hockey-Reference, Labanc leads the team with a 57.4 Corsi-for percentage at even-strength — the next highest player is Timo Meier at 55.2 percent. While Labanc is on the ice, the team is creating more unblocked shots and attempts than the opponents, a mark few players on the team have reached on the season so far.
At 5-on-5, Labanc’s 3.03 expected goals-for ranks fifth on the team. He continues to be that guy at the moment, popping up where he needs to be. Considering how much time Labanc missed last season, and the struggles of the season prior, it’s nice to see him succeed. Now if only that success was contagious.
How will the Sharks’ goaltending fare?
It’s no secret that Kaapo Kahkonen is struggling this season. In 12 games, he has posted a 3-6-2 record, 3.71 GAA and .877 SV%. Kahkonen’s -11.8 GSAx in all situations isn’t necessarily promising, but he’s made some stellar saves this year. Given the back-to-back games, it’s reasonable that he will start against Calgary.
It’s also no secret that the Flames are a dangerous team. Despite the less-than-ideal record, Calgary shoots the puck, a lot. The team’s 34.3 shots per game ranks fifth in the league, as well as top-five in the league in shot-share. It’s expected that this team will put shots on goal.
This means Kahkonen will need to be sharp to keep San Jose in the game. It will be essential to keep an eye on the Andrew Mangiapane, Nazem Kadri and Dillon Dube line, as they have tallied twice as many goals as the next-most productive line. If the defense can slow these key players down, Kaapo may have a chance to prove why he was the one to stick around.
Bold Prediction: Nico Sturm will score the first goal of the night, and despite being outshot by more than 10, the Sharks will come out on top in overtime.