The 2021 NHL season is set to kick off on January 13th after a short training camp. For this season, the Oilers will compete in an all-Canadian North Division. I’ve asked our sibling SB Nation websites to give us a preview about their upcoming season. Today, we conclude our six pack series with a preview of the Calgary Flames. Editor Mark Parkinson of SB Nation’s Matchsticks and Gasoline is here to help us out.
Let’s jump right in.
- Copper and Blue: The Flames took care of the Winnipeg Jets before bowing out to the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference quarter-finals of the 2019-20 playoffs. What is the most glaring reason the Flames could not advance further?
Mark Parkinson: It’s hard to pinpoint exactly one reason why the Flames didn’t get past the Stars as it seemed to be a combination of issues, but the biggest (yet again) has to be the disappearance of the top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Elias Lindholm in the series. They had a combined two goals and seven assists in six games, which isn’t nearly enough for a team’s supposed top line. The Flames actually managed to get some good depth contributions in the playoffs along with solid goaltending, but for the second year in a row their big guns didn’t show up and it cost them. It should also be noted that losing Matthew Tkachuk in Game 2 for the rest of the series was also a major factor in the series as he is arguably the most impactful player right now on the roster.
The Flames were just 12 seconds away from going up 3-1 against the eventual Conference Champions in Game 4, but a tying goal and eventual overtime loss evened the series and Calgary never really got momentum back.
- Copper and Blue: Calgary loaded up in net with free agent signing Jacob Markstrom. Markstrom is a Flame for six years at six million a year. Are Flames fans happy with this signing? How much more confident are you with Markstrom as the outright number one goaltender over Big Save Dave?
Mark Parkinson: Overall I think this signing ultimately made a lot of sense for the direction this franchise is looking to go. Rittich, while solid in some games, has also been extremely inconsistent over his time with the club, having stretches where he looks like a Vezina candidate and others where he looks like he should be in the AHL. If there’s one constant, it’s that he seemed to do well when he was in a tandem, as in the last two years when his start loads increased, his performance dipped and he wound up being replaced as the starter for the last two playoffs. For me, Markstrom symbolizes that the franchise is looking to finally have a steady #1 that plays a guaranteed 55-60 games, and it doesn’t become a “who’s starting tonight?” question on a nightly basis. The Flames really haven’t had consistent goaltending during the Gaudreau-Monahan era, so by loading up for hopefully 3-4 elite years of Markstrom, it adds a lot of stability to the team and puts the pressure squarely on the big guns up front to perform. Having Markstrom and Rittich as the tandem heading into an unusual season does add confidence because both are solid starting quality goaltenders (and All-Stars from 2019-20) which could give the Flames an advantage over other teams in a condensed schedule.
- Copper and Blue: The Flames dipped from second overall in goals scored in 2018-19 to twentieth in 2019-20. How do the Flames get back towards the top of the league in 2021?
Mark Parkinson: Again I hate harping on the top guys but they all experienced pretty significant regressions in their point totals from 2018-19 to 2019-20, especially in the goal department with exception of Elias Lindholm who was the only Flame to be on a 30+ goal pace for 82 games. A lot of guys were coming off of career years in 2018-19 and a regression was to be expected. I also think the Flames likely had a bigger target on their backs coming into the season after finishing 1st in the Western Conference and tied for 2nd overall in the 2018-19 regular season. Teams weren’t taking them nearly as lightly as they did the previous season. 2018-19 was also strange in that the Flames had unusual contributions such as 18 shorthanded goals which was the highest total by any team since 2006. In short, there were a lot of things that weren’t really sustainable in 2018-19, and I think the Flames are much closer to a middle of the pack offensive team than the top. In my opinion, the only way the Flames get back there is if they get big seasons from younger players like Dillon Dube and Andrew Mangiapane or some of the cheap new guys like Josh Leivo add some depth scoring.
- Copper and Blue: Tell us about a breakout Flame in 2020-21.
Mark Parkinson: While there are a few up-and-coming players that I’m really excited about for this season, I think I would have to go with Dillon Dube. After being called up to the Flames early in the season, he stuck with the team the rest of the year and gradually got better as the season progressed. However it was his playoff performance that has a lot of fanas really excited about his potential for this year. Dube had a strong playoffs with four goals and formed a really strong third line with Sam Bennett and your old pal Milan Lucic. It is entirely possible that if the Flames try Elias Lindholm at center this year, there will be significant line juggling and Dube could find his way into the top six. He seems to have a wide range of skills that allowed him to be successful on a grinding line, but also showed well in limited action with more skilled players. The big question will be where Geoff Ward sees Dube fitting in the lineup and the ice time that is allocated to him as a result. There is the sense that he turned some heads in the organization during the playoffs as he saw an ice-time bump from 11-13 minutes in the regular season to 14-16 minutes in the playoffs.
- Copper and Blue: How will the Flames defence absorb the loss of TJ Brodie?
Mark Parkinson: To be honest, I’m not entirely sure at this point. Prior to last season I wasn’t a huge fan of Brodie as I found his play average at best and he was extremely turnover prone in previous years. However I thought he had a strong 2019-20 campaign and was arguably the team’s 2nd most steady defenceman. Signing Chris Tanev as a replacement seems like an obvious answer but my hopes more so lie on young Finnish defender Juuso Valimaki getting a big role this season. Valimaki was the Flames 2017 1st round pick, and made the team out of camp in 2018-19 before an ankle injury had him finish his year in the AHL. He tore his ACL in the summer of 2019 and as a result didn’t play at all in 2019-20. Valimaki started this season with Tampere in the Finnish league and had an impressive 19 points in 19 games as a defenceman. I think a role for him along with continued improvement from Rasmus Andersson should offset the loss of Brodie. It is also worth noting that the potential defensive pairings are very up in the air heading into the season as well. Brodie was typically paired with Mark Giordano last year, but the Flames may also look to reduce Gio’s workload a bit to keep him fresher for the powerplay and keep him more rested in a condensed season.
- Copper and Blue: Finally, where do the Flames finish in this year’s North division?
Mark Parkinson: That’s a very tough question to answer as it seems like many of these teams in the North Division are poised for boom-or-bust type seasons where things could either go very well or very poorly. I think we ultimately see some combination of the Oilers, Flames, and Leafs in the Top 3, with Vancouver and Montreal battling for the fourth spot. That’s about as exact as I’m willing to go at this point.