Last Word on Hockey’s Puck Drop Previews are back for the 2023-24 season! As the regular season approaches, Last Word will preview each team’s current outlook and stories to watch for the upcoming year. We’ll also do our best to project how things will go for each team throughout the campaign. Today, we’re previewing the 2023-24 Calgary Flames.
2023-24 Calgary Flames
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Then it was an even better of times, followed by some not-great of times. The last five seasons have been a LOT for Calgary Flames fans is what we’re saying. A 50-win season in 2018-19 was followed by a successful regular season on the ice and turmoil off it. The COVID-shortened 2020-21 year included three head coaches and missing the playoffs entirely. The Flames came roaring back the next year – the first under returning head coach Darryl Sutter. Fifty wins, 111 points, and making it out of the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2014-15 gave everyone reason to hope. But it wasn’t enough to keep their two highest scorers with the team.
The Flames entered 2022-23 with a mix of trepidation and eagerness. The Brad Treliving-built team was supposed to be using their flourishing youth – Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau – and veteran leadership to win NOW. Instead, they were abandoned by it.
The trade forced by Tkachuk was generally looked on as the best Calgary could hope for. Sure, Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar were both older than Tkachuk, but they were highly skilled players. One passed 100 points, and the other was a top-pair right-side defenceman. The team also added coveted free agent and Stanley Cup champion Nazem Kadri to their lineup. Surely, even if there was a slight decline in overall team skill, they improved enough in other areas to compensate. Alas, no. Huberdeau had an off year, as did the normally reliable Jacob Markstrom. Markstom’s numbers plummeted, going from a .922 save percentage and nine shutouts to just one and an .892 SV%. There was even a player’s revolt against Sutter. One of the more ridiculous stats from last season was their 7-17 record in overtime. That’s ten points handed away. For the record, the Flames missed the playoffs by two points to the Winnipeg Jets.
The biggest news of the offseason in Calgary has been off the ice so far. There was some very good news for the team, as they and the city finally agreed to a new arena deal. Replacing the 40-year-old Saddledome has been an ongoing battle, so any compromise is a welcome sight.
The removal of Darryl Sutter as coach was no surprise, given the players’ outspoken criticism. The resignation of Brad Treliving as general manager, though, did raise some eyebrows. The team’s ownership group appreciated his overall successful run and had expressed interest in keeping him.
As for on-the-ice changes, for the forwards, it’s all about one big move in Calgary. The team traded away last year’s top scorer, Tyler Toffoli, to the New Jersey Devils for Yegor Sharangovich and a third-round pick. Sharangovich doesn’t have Toffoli’s scoring pedigree, but he is younger, cheaper, and more versatile. On defence, the expected return of Oliver Kylington after a year-long absence should give the blue line a boost. He decided not to return to Calgary in 2021-22 for personal reasons, and the league allowed the team to put his salary on the IR list. His return was announced in May during the same press conference held for Sutter’s dismissal. The biggest hope for the Flames is a return to form from their veterans. Several of them, including Kadri and Weegar, are coming back to town looking for a more relaxed, fun environment to work in. Whether that’s enough to make up for a tense season with mediocre results will have to be seen.
Keeping in mind according to Capfriendly.com, the Flames are currently right around cap ceiling. Just above depending on the LTIR status. Therefore, here are our best lineup projections.
As turbulent a top line as you’ll find in the league this season. A scoring star looking for redemption, one of the league’s best all-around centres in his contract year, and a young newcomer the team hopes will replace their top scorer. So hey: no pressure. And guess who’s on the second line? Backlund is also in the final year of his six-year contract. The 34-year-old had his best statistical season in six years, and like Lindholm has a sterling all-around game. Flanking him are Mangiapane and probably Coleman.
Mangiapane is looking to get his scoring touch back in a big way. While it might not be realistic to expect 19% shooting, that’s what he did for two seasons running. The fact that he hit the net half as well in 2022-23 is the more unrealistic feature. Coleman emerged as a solid, reliable, middle-six scorer and there’s no reason to think he’ll quit now. This trio worked phenomenally well last year, absolutely dominating opponents. Expect the same this year.
Kadri is the star, here, and the only reason we have him on the “third” line is because he’s often tagged to match up against the opponent’s best. He’s a possession beast, finishing the year with 60% or higher Corsi four of his last five seasons. He may not get close to his career-high 87 points again, but he’s an excellent and skilled agitator. Besides Kadri, Dubé is a player who can, and has, step onto the top line in a pinch. Going into his sixth NHL season, Dubé is used anywhere he’s needed, and makes for a productive third-line player.
Now we’re getting a bit more speculative. Calgary needs cheap, young players to step up and grab roles, and Coronato is our guess despite playing just a single NHL game. He had two excellent seasons at Harvard before joining the Flames, and while he may not stick for the year, he should get a healthy chance. Another should be “seasoned rookie” Jacob Pelletier, ready to move up after two rock-solid AHL seasons. His 24-game audition in 2022-23 showed a high-energy player with plenty of skill. He’s on the smaller side, so who he lines up with will matter. Ružička and Duehr both top the 6’2″ mark, and both clear 200 lbs. That’s not all they bring, of course. Ružička managed 20 points in his 44 games, getting six of those on the power play. And Duehr earned himself a new two-season, one-way contract this year. He’ll play, at least to start the year.
Top Four / Bottom Pair
We’re going to flip things around a little here. The top pair for the 2023-24 Calgary Flames are locked in solid, whereas the bottom four may have some mixing up to do. Hanifin and Andersson have played over 2,200 minutes together over the past two seasons. The odds of them being broken up now are staggeringly remote. An extremely strong defence should continue to be the Flames’ calling card, led by these two. They can be pencilled in for 80+ games, one (or both) getting somewhere around 50 points. Why change what works? Well, when something better comes along is when.
Tanev and Weegar worked together very well last season, but Kylington, Tanev’s former partner, is back in the fold. With Weegar and Tanev both being right shots, it would make sense to move Weegar and Zadorov a pairing and reunite Tanev and Kylington. Indeed, Weegar and Zadorov played together quite effectively last year. Whether Kylington needs the safety net that is Chris Tanev is a question, too. Missing a year from NHL play doesn’t often make a player better when they return. It will bump the newly-signed Jordan Osterle down to seventh, assuming Kylington is ready to go on Day One. He probably won’t mind too much, though, as this could be the best team the journeyman has ever been on.
Oh, here we go. As you may have noticed, a lot of the forwards may not have had their best years offensively, but they still had great possession stats. Same can be said for the defence, where Calgary held a strong advantage in possession and goal opportunities. The eyes travel down the stat sheet until they hit some very mediocre goaltending. Neither Markstrom nor Vladar is entirely to blame for the 2023-24 Calgary Flames finish, but that’s where to start looking.
Markstrom is notorious for needing time off to reset himself. He isn’t the guy to turn to for four games in a week, or often even three in a row. He needs a consistent backup to pair with, and this year that wasn’t Vladar. That doesn’t mean the team is going to abandon either player. Markstrom has three seasons left on his contract, Vladar two. But if either happens to falter, Dustin Wolf is waiting to pounce. Wolf finished two excellent seasons in the AHL and showed well in his one-game cup of coffee with Calgary.
Players to Watch
Sharangovich has a simple, three-part job.
- Replace the team’s leading scorer and points man;
- Reignite Huberdeau’s scoring;
- Convince Lindholm to re-sign with the club.
If he can pull that off for the bargain price of $3.1 million, he’ll be the steal of the century. Thing is, with the rest of the team improving, he just might.
Vladar doesn’t need to be a game-breaker when he gives Markstrom some time off. But he does need to be consistent. Getting his save percentage back up to his 2021-22 level of .906 would be a start. Those flashes of .930+ are nice, but it’s the lows he needs to avoid more than the highs he can occasionally attain.
Prediction for 2023-24 Calgary Flames
The Pacific Division is a ten-year-old’s poker game, half the deck is wild cards. There is a lot of prognostication that depends on the actions of other teams, but this may be less true of the 2023-24 Calgary Flames than of anyone else. Their usually reliable goaltending collapsed, the newly arrived star player scored half the points he had the year previously, and the locker room was in turmoil. And yet the team only missed the playoffs by a single win.
If there is an Achilles Heel to this team, it’s time. There are a large number of players on the wrong side of 30. Their top two centres are waiting to sign new contracts. The pressure to perform now is huge. But what are veterans for if not to handle pressure? Expect the Flames to be one of the playoff teams coming out of the division, no wild card needed.
Main photo: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports