Welcome to our latest series here at Last Word on Hockey. The Puck Drop Preview series takes you through each team as the season is fast approaching. The preview will focus on the narratives surrounding the team ending last year, during the offseason, and heading into the 2021-22 season. Puck Drop Preview also focuses on what the season has in store for each team from a roster and expectations perspective. Join us, as we look at all 32 teams before the season starts. Today, we take a look at the 2021-22 Calgary Flames.
2021-22 Calgary Flames
The All-Canadian Division
The Flames did not achieve their goal. They did not make the playoffs. Calgary did not have to play the Vegas Golden Knights or the California teams. Instead, they went toe-to-toe with some less familiar Canadian teams in the Winnipeg Jets, Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, and Montreal Canadiens. Though each of these teams had questions about their rosters, the California teams were worse (all with losing records and worse than the Senators).
Defence and Goaltending Suffered
For a playoff hopeful team with talent, this team suffered through a trying defensive season. The loss of T.J. Brodie to the Leafs hurt them. Christopher Tanev is a good player, but Brodie’s steadiness was missed. Jacob Markstrom was the big prize of the 2020 off-season. He brought the pedigree of strong play and carrying a large workload. He was a good replacement for Cam Talbot and played well (one of the Alberta teams fixed their goaltending woes). Markstrom’s numbers did not look great with a 22-19-2 record with goals-against-average of 2.66 and save percentage of .904. However, his body of work was good. He provided better goaltending. The team defence and many times the offence, let them down.
As expected, Johnny Gaudreau led the way with 49 points (19 goals, 30 assists). Elias Lindholm was just two assists behind. Matthew Tkachuk, the catalyst of the team, had 16 goals and 27 assists but looked frustrated and underwhelmed by his team. His name came up in some trade rumours over the off season as a result. Dillon Dube and Andrew Mangiapane showed more promise and dynamic play.
What Happened to Sean Monahan?
The greatest disappointment continues to the trajectory of Sean Monahan’s career. He had a career year in 2018-19 with 34 goals and 48 assists. The following season he had a serviceable but underwhelming 22 goals and 26 assists. Last year, he scored 10 goals in 50 games. He has been a first line player for the team. He is not a complete player, but he excelled in front of the net and had a nose for the goal. Unfortunately, he is being exposed as a liability when he does not produce goals.
It’s Darryl Sutter Time
It was a Thanos moment – “Fine, I’ll do it myself.” That is where the fun ends. The team showed some more fire on occasion, but little to inspire confidence from Sutter or fans. Darryl Sutter demands a certain kind of resolve, work ethic and play. Players like Dube and Mangiapane can benefit from this kind of coaching. They showed signs of a strong producer.
Loss of Mark Giordano
Over the last two seasons, the Flames have lost their top-pairing defenceman. T.J.Brodie left in free agency in the 2020 off season. Mark Giordano was picked by the Seattle Kraken. The 2021-22 Calgary Flames have lost their leader. This leaves behind a team where the veteran leaders are now Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Milan Lucic. This does not invite confidence.
Bringing Back Some Young Blood
The team retained the services of young roster players in Juuso Valimaki and Oliver Kylington. There is strong potential in these players, but they are unlikely to explode onto the scene and carry this team to new heights. Dube earned a good contract as well.
Blake Coleman Free Agency Splash
I think Sutter wanted and needed this. Blake Coleman has been a power player over the last two seasons. His arrival significantly helped the Tampa Bay Lightning to back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships. He brought an intangible quality, strength, and skill to the line-up. The 2021-22 Calgary Flames are hoping that he can do the same for them. He is the type of player Darryl Sutter can look towards to push the rest of the team. However, he was still a support player. Gaudreau does not equal Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Steven Stamkos. But he can provide some much-needed pedigree and leadership.
Other Depth Signings
In September, Calgary made a couple of low-risk veteran depth defence signings. They realized that their young and limited defensive pool could use some depth players who can come in and out of the line-up. They signed Michael Stone and Erik Gudbranson. Neither player will significantly change the fortunes of the team, but they give some depth and insurance in case of injuries. Brad Richardson offers a solid depth forward role and likely on the penalty kill as well. Trevor Lewis also brings his Stanley Cup pedigree to the depth of this team and has had success with Darryl Sutter before.
Line Up Projections
Reviewing the off-season changes, the roster will be much the same. The biggest changes: Giordano left, Coleman signed on, and a full season with Sutter at the helm.
Johnny Gaudreau – Elias Lindholm – Matthew Tkachuk
Andrew Mangiapane – Sean Monahan – Blake Coleman
Milan Lucic – Trevor Lewis – Brad Richardson
The first line is expected to produce and produce big. Last season, they were adequate but not dominant. Without dominance from Gaudreau and Tkachuk, this team will go nowhere fast. Dube and Mangiapane provide good left wing options on the second and third line. But they will need to have Monahan and Backlund to help create. Coleman will offer grit and skill and tough match-up against the opponent’s forward and defensive matchups. However, if Monahan cannot find his grinding and goal-scoring touch with this line, Sutter may not give him much of leash (especially if also becomes a defensive liability).
The third line could be the defensive matchup, but it surely will not create fear in their opponents. Essentially, the forwards will have to achieve on committee to create positive puck movement. These lines will need to make sure they do not leave a young defence hanging and buried in their own zone. The fourth line is made of veterans with some mileage on them. They could be a surprising line or entirely underwhelming – only time will tell. There are no clear top-end young talent looking to break into the forward depths. However, there is Glenn Gawdin and Matthew Phillips who have shown some promise in the AHL and would require waivers to go down. They could draw into the line-up over the course of the season for fourth line duties. This could be due to injuries or bottom-line veterans falling out of favour.
Noah Hanifin – Christopher Tanev
Juuso Valimaki – Erik Gudbranson/Oliver Kylington
Extra: Michael Stone
With the exit of Giordano, Noah Hanifin will officially become the headliner. He is the present and future. Hanifin is an excellent young defender who has improved every year. This year will be about performing as a number-one defender. Still 24, he is a capable defender, good skater and has the ability to be a puck-moving defender. Pairing with Tanev will give him the veteran support he needs to excel. He will have to increase his offensive production to truly attain number-one defender status. The second pairing features a very good Andersson with strong puck movement ability. Zadorov has moved around the league and offers a serviceable number four. The success of this pairing will ride primarily on Andersson’s shoulder. Hanifin and Andersson will get the powerplay quarterback opportunities as well.
Valimaki is a promising young defender who should get a full season on the third pairing. Last year, in an offence packed Canadian Division, it was a rude introduction to the NHL. The bottom pair will need some sheltered minutes which makes the second pairing even more important. Kylington, Gudbranson and Stone will jockey for the last spot. Kylington offers the most upside, but having a bottom pairing of two developing players is likely not the way Sutter wants to go. So, expect Gudbranson and Kylington to share the role with Gudbranson bringing some veteran grit which Sutter is likely to want on the team.
Goaltending – The Hope
Jacob Markstrom – Dan Vladar
In his second season, not much will change. Markstrom will have to play lights out for this team to succeed. He will be the backbone of the team. The hope is that he gets some better team defensive support from a fully Darryl Sutter team. He will have to bring much better numbers and likely challenge for the Vezina in the process if the 2021-22 Calgary Flames are to make the playoffs. He has the skill to do this though it will be another difficult season for him. Vladar offers some serviceable minutes. However, he does not offer the 30 or so game backup tandem performance which is more and more popular in the NHL. If the Calgary Flames are to succeed, it will be the old-fashioned way – they will have to play Markstrom a lot. This of course will create wear and tear on the player and open him up for injuries which the team can ill afford. Markstrom did have some small injuries last season which threw off his rhythm and the team’s overall game as well.
Players to Watch
The 2021-22 Calgary Flames do not have any top-end talent coming up the ranks presently. The young players to look at will be Noah Hanifin (he is 24) as he takes on top-pair and number-one defender minutes. He has big shoes to fill as he takes the reigns from Mark Giordano. Juuso Valimaki (age 22) and Oliver Kylington (age 24) will get every opportunity to play and make a difference. To some degree the success of the defence as a whole relies on their growth this year and beyond. It will be exciting to see if they can answer the call.
He was the big addition this summer. Much like Markstrom and Tanev the prior off-season, he will be expected to help shift the atmosphere of the team to a more positive one. His presence will make the winger depth better and offer a better second line option. If he can develop chemistry with the like-minded gritty with skill persona of Mangiapane, they could help ignite a strong second line with Sean Monahan.
And so, he will be scrutinized thoroughly under the microscope this year. All the top forwards of this team will need to get back to elite production levels. None more than Sean Monahan. He will need to re-establish his game and play. With his decline, he has been exposed as an overextended first-line centre. He is better served as a good second line centre who can pack an offensive punch. The team will need him to improve his play overall and get his production back. Otherwise, the team will become susceptible and weak down the middle of the ice. This is especially true as they face off against other Pacific Division big time centres.
Predictions for the 2021-22 Season
The offence can perform but will rely heavily on the top line stars to perform at previous elite levels. The defence has some promising players but overall will need the support of a good back check and responsible team puck management. Jacob Markstrom is likely to have another busy and heavy load this season. Luckily, the 2021-22 Calgary Flames will return to the Pacific Division. The Vegas Golden Knights are the overwhelming leaders in the pack. Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks will be good teams with some questions on defence (and goal for the Oilers). But the last playoff spot will be up for grabs with rebuilding and retooling California teams to challenge. In the end, the Flames can sneak into the playoffs on the back of Markstrom’s play. One thing is for sure, there will be a cry for big changes if the team is unable to put an exciting product on the ice this year.