Few, if any teams have had better luck avoiding injuries this year than the Calgary Flames. The season is long, however, and there are bound to be bumps and bruises along the way. Such is the case now with defenseman Oliver Kylington, who is currently sidelined day-to-day with an upper-body injury. Unofficially, Kylington is not the only Flames d-man currently hurting. Head coach Darryl Sutter, in discussing his team’s 4-2 win over the San Jose Sharks, mentioned that 3 of the 4 players who didn’t dress for the game were either “sick or banged up”. Two of those four were defensemen (Erik Gudbranson and Nikita Zadorov). The time is right for someone to step up and seize an opportunity.
Enter Connor Mackey.
Connor Mackey Ready To Make an Impact
From Minnesota State University, Mackey was a highly sought-after college free agent in the spring of 2020. A mobile defender with good size (6’2″, 190lbs), Mackey enjoyed instant success last year when he scored a goal and added two assists in six games with Calgary. Cut in training camp this season due to a veteran group and the emerging Kylington, Mackey has gone on to lead all Stockton Heat (AHL) defenders with five goals and 31 assists in 53 games. That’s 15 more points in six fewer games played than his next closest teammate.
While not overly experienced as a pro, Mackey is already 25 years old and plays a poised game suited to all situations. Mackey doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses in his game, and for that reason was one of the very last cuts in training camp last fall. It’s also worth noting that Connor’s father David played parts of six seasons in the NHL.
With Kylington hurt, veteran Michael Stone was the first (and most readily available) option to step in. Stone has shown well in his appearances, but he shoots right while Kylington is a lefty. Coach Darryl Sutter is known to favour traditional left-right pairings, making Mackey or fellow call-up Jusso Valimaki the preferred option. Valimaki, a former first-round pick, has had a hard time finding his game since major knee surgery in 2019. He’s played just 9 games with the Flames this season, with Sutter mentioning several times this year that the Finn has some work to do. To that end, when Nikita Zadorov returned in Seattle, it was Valimaki, not Mackey, who sat in the press box.
Sutter, when asked to evaluate several players after his team’s win in San Jose, only mentioned Mackey by name. The coach said Mackey “served us really well”, a comment made moments after he called the defenseman a “foot soldier” alongside such reliable veterans as Trevor Lewis, Christopher Tanev and Ryan Carpenter. Not known for heaping undue praise, Sutter was more critical of Mackey’s effort two nights later in Seattle. The coach felt Mackey had to be more “physical, assertive” and that he wasn’t as good as he had been in San Jose. Hardly a scathing indictment, Sutter is known to use subtle criticisms to try and motivate players he feels are capable of more.
Consider this. In 2004, Darryl Sutter’s Calgary Flames made it all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. Defensemen Steve Montador and Mike Commodore helped take the Flames there. They were not regulars however and were only pressed into full-time duty when both Denis Gauthier and Toni Lydman went down with injuries. If injuries become an issue, or if Sutter merely wishes to rest players like Zadorov and Gudbranson heading into the postseason, someone will need to step up. That isn’t to say Calgary is necessarily going to have a long playoff run, but analysts league-wide believe this group is built for such a run. If that’s to happen, players like Mackey will need to be ready.
Sutter clearly likes Mackey’s game. It’s conceivable Mackey could overtake Kylington in the playoffs if the latter is still injured or due to Mackey’s more low-risk style of play. In any case, Mackey looks like a lock to be a regular next season. Erik Gudbranson, Nikita Zadorov and Michael Stone are all pending unrestricted free agents. Gudbranson and Zadorov in particular could each earn raises elsewhere due to their elevated play this season. The Flames also need to resign several star players along with Kylington while Mackey will carry a cap hit of just $912,500 next season (per Cap Friendly). All this to say that Connor Mackey looks like the safest and smartest bet to be the newest full-time Flame in 2022-23, if not sooner.
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