The Calgary Flames had an up and down year last season. They were never the dominant team in the Pacific they hoped to be. However, they did qualify for the playoffs via the play-in round. They then lost to the Dallas Stars 4-2, who would go all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. The Flames played them hard, but a mix of injuries and lack of production ultimately led to their downfall. One of their biggest underperformers was star player Johnny Gaudreau, who had a miserable season. This led to lots of trade talk but ultimately, Calgary had decided to keep him. This is probably a smart move as Gaudreau bouncing back to f0rm could be the key to success for the 2020-21 Calgary Flames.
2020-21 Calgary Flames Need Gaudreau
There is no doubt that Gaudreau is thankful 2020 is almost gone and the 2020-21 Calgary Flames season can get underway. Last year, he had a disastrous season for his standards, which led to lots of chatter. Gaudreau put up just 58 points in 70 games, which is his lowest total since entering the league full-time in 2014-15. 58 points for the second-highest paid forward on the team at 6.75 million per season just won’t cut it. He needs to be more productive than that and everyone knows it.
However, it wasn’t just the point department that saw Gaudreau take a massive step back. His underlying numbers took a big hit too, which is the most concerning part. Sometimes, players can just simply be unlucky for a full season at a time. Bad breaks here and there can lead to much fewer points than expected. Yet, Gaudreau really didn’t help produce much this season from an analytical standpoint either. Evolving Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement model had him producing 1.2 GAR at 5v5 last season offensively. Compare that to 11.1 and 13.1 of the past two seasons, and you can understand the massive downswing.
On top of that, we can see where some of that production fall off came from. In 2019-20, his CorsiFor per 60, Expected Goals For per 60, and High Danger CorsiFor per 60 all decreased dramatically from previous seasons. He put up a 58.02/60, 2.35/60, and 9.58/60 in the respective categories. In 2018-19 he had a 61.87, 2.63, and 12.75. Better yet, 2017-18 he had a 66.22, 2.76, and 14.24. Now, this may not seem like a crazy difference. However, when we’re talking about playing in hundreds of minutes a year, this is a giant gap in performance.
Reasons to be Optimistic
Some people may look at the numbers above and identify that he has declined for a couple of years in a row now. So, why is this not just a natural decline? For starters, Gaudreau is still at his peak. And while the peak is probably closer to 24-29 vs the previously thought 27-31, 27 is not old in the NHL by any means. A player absolutely dropping off a cliff at that age like Gaudreau did in his performance last season usually doesn’t stick. Especially since Gaudreau relies on his skill and speed, which doesn’t tend to go at 27.
If he played more of a power game, maybe there’d be some worry. However, given how much raw talent he has, it’s hard to believe he won’t return to form. As well, if it was a more natural decline, it’s likely we wouldn’t see such a drop from one year to the next yet. If a true slow decline were to occur, he’d go from one of the league’s best wingers to a first-line guy, to a second, and so on. While that doesn’t always happen, going from an elite level winger, which Gaudreau has been for the past few years, to a guy who is slightly above replacement in his underlying value, rarely happens either. Especially for a player of his age and skill.
Finally, we have years of data to suggest Gaudreau is an insanely good hockey player and one year that suggests he’s not that great. Often, it is safe to take the many years of data and suggest that one bad year was more of an outlier. Expecting a bounce-back season seems like a safe bet.
2020-21 Calgary Flames Roster
So, why does the 2020-21 Calgary Flames season revolve around Gaudreau? Obviously, it isn’t solely on him. However, looking at the pieces in play, they will struggle to go anywhere if he isn’t back to his old self. Goaltending was a massive question mark for all of the 2019-20 season. While their elimination wasn’t purely based on it, they felt they needed an upgrade over Cam Talbot. So, they went out and gave a massive contract to Jacob Markstrom, who had a career year last season. While the back of that contract could look scary, Markstrom should be a massive upgrade for the Flames this season. Meaning they can have a lot more confidence in net.
They lost T.J. Brodie to free agency and replaced him with Chris Tanev. Ultimately, this is a downgrade when looked at as a one-for-one trade. But, the Flames are that one of Noah Hanifin, Rasmus Andersson, Juuso Valimaki, or Oliver Kylington to step up and play a big role. All of these guys are between 22-24 and can improve a lot still. If one, or even two, show a decent step up and Mark Giordano stays the number one man he’s known to be, this defence core still doesn’t look too bad.
They also shored up the depth upfront by bringing in names like Dominik Simon, Josh Leivo, and bringing back Andrew Mangiapane. The Leivo and Mangiapane signings were both extremely undervalued, as they have the potential to bring more value than expected, at least from an underlying numbers perspective. However, the one big thing the 2020-21 Calgary Flames roster missed last year was a big horse upfront.
Obviously, whatever line Matthew Tkachuk is on will cause tons of trouble and give opposing teams hell. However, they need that second line to really bring the danger for the Flames to be a threat. It’s really all they could be missing and we’ve seen Gaudreau bring that exact threat. Sean Monahan isn’t a guy who can drive his own line, but if he has Gaudreau playing well beside him, he can look great too.
If the Flames can find balance this season with the depth they have brought in to help with secondary scoring, along with seeing the top-six flourish, they will be a legit threat in a potential Canadian division. Even in the normal Pacific, they’d need to be near the top. However, it all lies on Gaudreau. If he can return to form, this team can roll four lines deep and have a decent defence core with one of the league’s best goalies. Obviously, everyone else needs to play up to their standards too. But without a successful Gaudreau, this team could be doomed from the start. He will be the key to the 2020-21 Calgary Flames season.