Parker Michaels continues his NHL Season Preview series in reverse to first order according to his projected standings. Be sure to bookmark our Season Previews home base here where links to all 31 teams will appear as they’re posted. Today at No. 19, the Calgary Flames.
This season marks the 30th anniversary since the Calgary Flames last won the Stanley Cup. Flames fans have seen their team in the playoffs 13 times since then but only twice (2003-04 and 2014-15) have they advanced past the first round. Among Canadian teams, only the Atlanta/Winnipeg franchise has had less playoff success over that time, but they have had ten years less to draw on having only existed since 1999. Calgary has endured three decades of pain and suffering in a market as passionate about hockey as any other.
It has been just as difficult for the Flames to keep a man behind the bench. Since Terry Crisp was fired just one year after winning Calgary’s last Stanley Cup, no Flames bench boss has survived more than three seasons apart from Bob Hartley who survived four (2012-16). Since the NHL expanded to 30 teams in the 2000-01 season, Calgary has started a season with a new head coach more often than any other team in the league.
This year will be no different as Glen Gulutzan only lasted two seasons before he was fired on April 17, following a season where the Flames were expected to build on their playoff trip under Gulutzan’s first season. Gulutzan went 82-68-14 in his two seasons overall.
Less than a week later, General Manager Brad Treliving announced the hiring of new head coach Bill Peters who had resigned days earlier as head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes. Peters held a 137-138-53 record over four seasons in Carolina but failed to make the playoffs each year. Peters has had success on the International stage over his career, winning the gold medal as the head coach of Team Canada at the under-18 2008 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament and the 2016 IIHF World Championship, and as an assistant coach at the 2015 IIHF World Championship and 2016 World Cup of Hockey. He was also the head coach for Canada at this year’s World Championship where Canada finished fourth.
The Flames have a history of getting off to poor starts when a new coach is introduced so Peters will look to buck that trend. The Flames have played a similar style as Peters’ former team the last couple of seasons, being a high puck possession team but the Flames have better high-end talent over what he had to work with in Carolina. With Peters history of working well with talented teams, there is hope he can translate Calgary’s already solid base into another championship contender.
Record: 37-35-10 (84 points), 5th in Pacific Division, 20th Overall
Playoffs: Missed by 11 points
One of the strangest things about Calgary’s season was their inability to win at the Scotiabank Saddledome, where they finished 17-20-4 overall. In the Western Conference, only the last place Arizona Coyotes accumulated less total points on home ice than the Flames.
Despite this, Calgary remained in the thick of the playoff race for most of the season until an outage on offense occurred down the stretch and the back of the net could not be found. In the end, the Flames finished 26th overall in scoring with 218 goals (2.66 per game).
Calgary was one of the most frustrating teams for sports bettors as their advanced metrics showed a very good team just on the wrong side of luck. At 5-on-5, the Flames finished third in puck possession and scoring chances percentage but were third worst in shooting percentage. Basically, the Flames controlled most of the play but could not put the puck in the net. If that sounds a lot like Peters former team, you are right. Carolina finished first in possession last year and second in scoring chances percentage and were fourth worst in shooting percentage. It has been the calling card for a Hurricanes team who missed the playoffs in all four seasons under Peters and it could be a bit concerning he might be inheriting a team with similar traits in Calgary.
Unlike Carolina though, the Flames had a couple of noteworthy events late in the season which threw them off the course. Calgary suffered a major blow with just two seconds left in their February 11 game against the Islanders. Starting goaltender Mike Smith preserved a one-goal victory with a late save but had to be helped off the ice for what was later ruled a groin injury which forced him out of action for a full month. The Flames were 29-19-8 at the time and sitting third in the Pacific Division but went 5-6-2 over the next month and allowed 3.23 goals per game behind the play of backups Jon Gillies and David Rittich. When Smith returned, the Flames sat one point out of a wild card spot. A late push seemed possible, but Smith may have returned too soon as he was completely ineffective, going 2-6-0 with a .880 save percentage down the stretch.
The injury to Smith received most of the headlines as to why Calgary missed the playoffs but there was another reason I personally felt was an even bigger blow. On March 11, the day Smith returned to the crease, the Flames lost Matthew Tkachuk in that same game to a concussion after he crashed into the boards. He missed the final 12 games and that is when Calgary looked completely lost and the season really fell apart with a 3-9-0 finish. Tkachuk’s importance to this team is often underrated but fans received an unfortunate taste of what life would be like without their second line super-pest.
General Manager Brad Treliving was quiet throughout the season, choosing not to add anyone at the deadline to get the team over the hump. The most notable transaction during the year was veteran Jaromir Jagr who was waived in January after just one goal and seven points in 22 games. The ageless wonder had signed a one-year deal just before opening night but injuries throughout the early part of the season limited the legend’s effectiveness.
With a new head coach in place, Treliving set out to improve the roster. The June Entry Draft was not the best place to start as the Flames were without a selection in the first three rounds. Calgary selected three players in the fourth round, one in the sixth and one in the seventh. The best of which might end up being Milos Roman, the No.122 pick overall. Roman is a slick playmaking center who dropped down the board due to a year limited by injuries. Draft ranking site Future Considerations had Roman projected as high as 66 overall with several others inside the top 100.
In terms of immediate impact, Treliving was going to have to get creative on the trade front this summer and he certainly did two days after the draft when he swung a blockbuster deal with Peters former team, sending underrated top pair defenseman Dougie Hamilton, physical forward Micheal Ferland and Harvard standout prospect Adam Fox to the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for forward Elias Lindholm and defenseman Noah Hanifin.
It was a controversial move by Treliving who many berated him for, believing the Flames lost the trade for the simple reason of sending away the best player in the deal. While there is no argument of Hamilton’s on-ice ability, the Flames believed this was a necessary deal for reasons off the ice. Leaving overplayed museum visit jokes aside, the Flames seemed to have justification with their concerns. Elite defensemen rarely get traded yet Hamilton has now been moved twice within a four-year period. He was upset with the organization for waiving his brother, Freddie, in January and several instances played out indicating he was no longer happy in Calgary. There was also the implication that Hamilton was too easy going with the team’s losing down the stretch. To what degree any of these things were true, the Flames felt there were enough issues to justify making a necessary change.
On July 1, Treliving continued shaking up the team by adding a pair of key forwards in free agency. First, third line center Derek Ryan was signed to a 3-year, $9.375 million contract, another former Carolina player who Peters wanted brought over. Second, former Bruins forward Austin Czarnik signed a 2-year, $2.5 million contract. A player coming off a big year in the AHL as the third leading scorer and could help the Flames depth scoring.
A day later, veteran James Neal was arguably the biggest addition and came on board with a 5-year, $28.75 million contract. The consistent point producer is exactly what the Flames needed to add in their top-six to complement Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Tkachuk.
Leaving Calgary this summer were Matt Stajan, Kris Versteeg, Matt Bartkowski and Jagr who all became free agents and were let go. The final two years of veteran Troy Brouwer’s contract were also bought out, ending that failed experiment. The combined Point Shares value of those losses is 1.6 points in the standings. A healthy Austin Czarnik alone replaces 2.1 points, so the Flames will not miss any of these players (although everyone is sad to see Jagr’s playing days end).
The Flames just wrapped up a trip to China for a pair of preseason games against the Boston Bruins. Calgary may have lost both games, but the team chemistry built on such a trip could pay dividends down the road. The Flames also looked like a more aggressive team with Peters implementation of a harder forecheck already noticeable. The powerplay looked night-and-day different than last year, thanks partially to an entirely new structure brought in by new assistant coach Geoff Ward who replaced Dave Cameron. Also, partially thanks to new right-shot personnel like Lindholm, Ryan and Czarnik who give the Flames more options than just the flailing Brouwer one-timer from the right side last year. And maybe most importantly, Smith looked very good in goal and that is good news for a team who will rely on their starting goaltender more heavily than most other teams.
Stanley Cup: +4000 (Bookmaker)
Western Conference: +1859 (Bookmaker)
Pacific Division: +766 (Bookmaker)
Regular Season Points: 93.5 (-125, -105) (Bovada), 93.5 (-110) (Bookmaker, BetOnline)
Make Playoffs: YES -145, NO +115 (Bovada), YES -185, NO +155 (BetOnline)
Current odds as of September 23, 2018
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
*Individual Player Ratings represent how many points in the standings each player is directly responsible for over the course of the full season and is called Point Shares. It involves the base formula created by Justin Kubatko at hockey-reference.com. An explanation of how I further use his methods can be found here with a more detailed methodology by Kubatko himself, here. The average value for a forward is 3.5 and a defenseman is 4.4 Point Shares
*Salaries in green denote entry-level contract
NHL RANK: 12
Calgary’s top-end talent is very good, and it starts with Sean Monahan in the middle. He tied a career-high with 31 goals and set a career-high with 64 points, while playing in a career-low 74 games. All this despite playing the second half of the season injured before finally being shut down for the final seven games of the year. Monahan then underwent four surgeries in April – left wrist reconstruction, two hernia surgeries and then a groin procedure. Everything went well with rehab and Monahan is now one hundred percent healthy and says he feels like a new man with more flexibility and strength. With Gaudreau again on his left and a capable winger finally on his right, do not be surprised to see Monahan set more career highs this season.
Mikael Backlund continues to be one of the more underrated centers in the game. He is a strong two-way player who is relied upon more in the defensive zone but can still contribute 45-55 points on the offensive end. Only a handful of forwards have averaged better puck possession numbers over the last few seasons.
The Flames improved their bottom-six with the addition of Derek Ryan who put up 38 points in Carolina last season. Ryan was a late bloomer entering the NHL at the age of 29, after playing at the University of Alberta and then four seasons honing his game in the Austrian and Swedish league. He is responsible with the puck and Flames fans should like what he brings to the table.
Mark Jankowski had a respectable first season with 17 goals and 25 points over 72 games which was highlighted by a four-goal game against Vegas in the regular season finale. Jankowski was slated to move up the depth chart before the addition of Ryan, but this should work out better, providing a skillful touch to an energy fourth line.
NHL RANK: 5
The heart and soul of the Flames is the speedy Johnny Gaudreau who has led the team in scoring over each of the past three seasons. He set a career-high with 84 points last season while firing a career-high number of shots on goal. Over his four career NHL seasons, Gaudreau sits 17th among all skaters in points per game and 13th in overall total points.
Matthew Tkachuk has just two NHL seasons under his belt at the age of 20 but has already become one of the best players in the league at getting under an opponent’s skin. He is the Brad Marchand-lite of the Western Conference in that way and has a similar offensive flair, as well. After a 13 goal, 48-point rookie season, Tkachuk upped his totals to 24 goals and 49 points in eight less games. He also led the Flames in puck possession numbers and was second to only Dougie Hamilton in relative shot differentials among teammates. In terms of league production among skaters with at least 400 minutes played, no one was better than Tkachuk when it came to shot differentials, compiling nearly 58% overall. His importance to this team is underrated and I expect he will outperform his 6.9 Point Shares projection.
The bottom two spots seem to still be a work in progress but based on early preseason actions, Michael Frolik is going to slide over from the right side and form part of a very interesting third line. Frolik was an effective member of the 3M line last year on the second line right wing alongside Backlund and Tkachuk but with the addition of both Lindholm and Neal, he is the unfortunate casualty to drop in the order. Looking at Frolik’s numbers away from that line, he was still very effective with over 57% of shot shares and only -1 in goal differential, albeit in a very limited sample of just 129 minutes. At the least, he should be able to bring stability to a third line which struggled for consistency much of last season.
Sam Bennett had a productive 18 goals and 36 points in his rookie campaign three seasons ago but has struggled to progress at the NHL level, regressing to 26 points in each of the last two seasons. He has shown flashes of high-end skill but has not been able to string together enough consistent efforts to warrant much hope for the future. It appears he will slide down to the fourth line to begin this season and at just 21-years old maybe he can still develop into something more than a low-end depth player.
If Bennett continues to spin his wheels, he may lose some playing time this year as Andrew Mangiapane has come to training camp to compete for a spot. Mangiapane was a go-to guy in Stockton at the AHL level last year and produced 46 points in 39 games. He will battle several marginal depth wingers for a spot and while he may start in the AHL due to his waivers-exempt status, Mangiapane should be one of the first names called up when needed.
NHL RANK: 23
The Flames right wings look much better to me than what their projections suggest. Elias Lindholm and James Neal are not high-end wingers, but they are above average and play their roles well. Both are going to provide a boost to the Flames scoring and fill the desperate need of a top line right wing to pair with their two superstars. Neal has stated how much he really wants the spot, but it appears Lindholm is going to be the first choice with Neal fitting in on the second line. To be fair, Peters is going to play multiple guys on the top line early in the season to see who fits best, even stating he might try Tkachuk there for a time. Lindholm would seem like a better potential fit as he has the speed to keep up with Monahan and Gaudreau, but either way, the Flames top six have become much more dangerous.
On the second line, some Flames fans are concerned about breaking up last year’s highly successful 3M line of Tkachuk, Backlund and Frolik but while that trio controlled play with exceptional puck possession numbers, they were still outscored 25-22 while on the ice together. Whether it is Neal or Lindholm replacing Frolik, both put up excellent shot differential numbers themselves but should provide a higher level of scoring, especially with Neal’s ability as a sniper.
Newcomer Austin Czarnik is getting a look on the third line in preseason and it looks like this interesting trio could open the season together. As I mentioned above, Czarnik finished third in AHL scoring last year after a 49-game rookie season with the Boston Bruins in 2016-17. He only saw 10 games of action with the Bruins last year but had an overall very positive effect on shot shares. Paired with Ryan and Frolik, this could be a very underrated line for Calgary who could control play at a high rate. Czarnik also gives Peters another option at center when the situation calls.
The fourth spot is currently the biggest black hole in the lineup and Peters will no doubt experiment with several players here throughout the year. Garnet Hathaway seems to be the first player up in preseason action and has impressed the coaching staff. He plays a physical game and is responsible with the puck. Curtis Lazar is also a right wing option but will hopefully see limited playing time. His Point Shares projection is -0.2 which would drop the Flames a full point in the standings if he is a regular fourth liner over Hathaway. Prospect Spencer Foo is also looking for a spot. It should come down to him or Mangiapane for who earns a spot as an extra forward with Mangiapane holding the edge.
NHL RANK: 6
Mark Giordano has been a consistent two-way force for a number of years now and while his offensive totals have dropped a bit the past two seasons, Giordano never enjoyed as much puck possession success as when he was paired with Hamilton last year. The pair together controlled over 59% of shot shares and overall Giordano was over the 57% mark himself. Together, Hamilton and Giordano finished 1-2 among defensemen with at least 400 minutes in the entire league, showing they were the most effective top pair in the NHL when it came to puck possession.
With T.J. Brodie sliding up to the top pair on the right side, Noah Hanifin will take over his second pair spot. A lot of Flames fans are not familiar with the 21-year old, but they are going to be pleasantly surprised by his skills. Hanifin has increased his point total in each of his three NHL seasons and took a big step forward last year with his shot differentials. He is a bit below where Hamilton was offensively in his first three seasons (both entered the league at the age of 19) and will unlikely become the offensive defenseman of Hamilton’s caliber, but Hanifin still has high potential to be a solid second pairing defender.
The Flames 6th place overall projection on the left side is largely thanks to the addition of Rasmus Andersson who is already projected to be at second pair quality, but his spot here is hardly guaranteed. The right-shot defender has been NHL-ready for a year or so but has been blocked on the depth chart, so Peters has tried him on his off-side on the left in the preseason which so far has yielded positive results. Andersson’s strength is his elite offensive talent thanks to his playmaking ability. He can move the puck up ice and would be a substantial addition to the Flames blueline. In a perfect world, Andersson would supplant Stone on the right side, but the Flames are not going to sit Stone’s contract in the press box on a nightly basis.
If Andersson does not make the full-time lineup, two other high-end prospects are looking to step in. Juuso Valimaki and Oliver Kylington are natural left shots which could give them an edge over Andersson, despite Andersson’s readiness to play at this level. Valimaki is a blue-chip prospect with an all-around game and high IQ. He has had three excellent seasons with Tri-City in the WHL and will move up to the AHL this year. He has impressed in camp to this point, but the Flames will likely have him start in Stockton this year. Kylington has already had three seasons in the AHL and is close to NHL-ready. His offensive game is up to par, but he gets pushed around by bigger forwards in front of his own net. He needs to build more strength before he is ready for NHL-quality forwards.
If Peters feels the prospects are not the right fit, Brett Kulak will slide up here with his 1.9 Point shares projection – a drop of 2.5 points in the standings for the Flames. Needless to say, Peters decision to keep Andersson on the roster is going to have a major impact on how good the third pair will be.
NHL RANK: T-28
The loss of Hamilton is a major blow not only for the Flames defense as a whole, but particularly the right side where they have several underperforming pieces. T.J. Brodie spent three seasons from 2013-2016 as Giordano’s main partner and found some success, so Peters will see if that pair can still work together. Honestly, I was expecting to find much better numbers when I looked at their time together over those years. In 2,704 minutes they had a combined shot share of just 51.3% with an on-ice goal differential of 116-103 overall. Not bad numbers by any means but very underwhelming for a top pair who I have heard were so good together.
The Giordano/Brodie pairing was exceptional together in their first full season (2013-14), compiling a 56% shot share and +7 goal differential at even-strength but were a hair under 50% in both the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons. Not what I was expecting to find. With Brodie’s offensive numbers and shot differentials deteriorating over each of the past three seasons, I am skeptical this pair is going to be as effective as most Flames fans believe and should be nowhere near the production of the Giordano/Hamilton combo.
If Brodie is unable to raise his game back to a top pair level, the Flames could be in trouble since they are hoping their next option of Travis Hamonic can just rebound back to a second pair level. Hamonic’s strength has come from his defensive play but he was ineffective alongside Brodie in his first year with Calgary and had an incredibly poor season prior with the Islanders. The Flames hope he can develop chemistry with his new partner, Hanifin, or else the right side could tumble even further.
Things do not get any better for Calgary on the third pair with the abyss known as Michael Stone who provides little to nothing on the offensive end and has posted some of the worst shot differentials in the league on average over the past four seasons. He still has two years remaining on his three-year contract and although he should be a strong buyout candidate next summer, the Flames still have to swallow his $3.5 million cap hit this season. Andersson is ready to step in and as I previously mentioned would be a huge boost to the lineup. Hopefully Peters finds a way to get his stick into the lineup on either side rather than sticking to a Kulak/Stone combo. If none of the prospects make the final roster, veteran Dalton Prout is expected to slide in as the seventh defender.
NHL RANK: T-20
(Starter – T-13, Backup – 55)
Mike Smith was having a great season in his first year as a Flame until injury struck him in February. Smith was 23-16-6 with a .921 save percentage before a groin injury kept him out of action for one month. Each day he was gone, the Flames playoff chances slowly dwindled to the point where it felt like they may have rushed Smith back before he was quite ready. Smith finished the final eight games of the season with a .880 save percentage and just two wins, officially sealing Calgary’s fate.
The now 36-year old will hope to hold off Father Time once again as goaltenders tend to take a steep decline at this point in their career. Coming off an injury is a concern, as well. The Flames had better hope Smith can remain healthy because there is not a lot of dependable help in the pipeline.
Jon Gillies and David Rittich are battling in preseason right now to determine who will start the season as the backup. Gillies was solid in net for Stockton last year with a .917 save percentage in 39 games and saw 11 games with Calgary. Overall, he posted subpar numbers going 3-5-1 with a .896 save percentage but he answered the bell when he was needed most. After Smith’s injury in February, Gillies made five starts until Smith returned in March and went 2-2-1 with a .921 save percentage, helping Calgary stay in the playoff race.
Rittich also had a tough season and although the win/loss record was not too bad at 8-6-3, he finished the season with just a .904 save percentage. More telling, Rittich was given first crack at replacing Smith after the injury but could not hold the position. Overall, Rittich started eight games in the month Smith was out and completely melted away with a .888 save percentage. Things did not get better for Rittich after Smith returned as he allowed six goals in just under five total periods for a .867 save percentage and did not see the crease again over the final two weeks of the season.
It sounds like Peters decision should be fairly obvious on who gets the backup role but there is another issue complicating things. Gillies is waivers-exempt meaning he can be freely sent between Calgary and Stockton without consequence whereas Rittich would need to be placed on waivers and clear before he can be sent down. The Flames likely will not want to risk another team putting in a claim with no other option for a third goaltender, so Rittich may have the inside edge of staying with the team to begin the season.
Gillies projected Point Shares rating this year would be 4.3, a 1.2 point bump over Rittich which would bring them even closer to a playoff spot. Gillies is the younger goaltender at just 24 and due to the lack of high-end goaltending prospects in the pipeline, the Flames need him to become the competent backup. With Gillies still developing, one advantage to starting the season in Stockton would be regular playing time.
Calgary does not play their first back-to-back game until October 30 and have just two back-to-backs through the first week of December. The best option may be to ride Smith early on and then bring Gillies up in December.
By then, the Flames should know more about Tyler Parsons and if he is going to bounce back this season. After a standout junior career with the London Knights in the OHL, including a Memorial Cup win in 2016, and helping the United States to a gold medal at the 2017 World Juniors, Parsons was expected to be the goaltender of the future for Calgary but had a terrible first season as a pro last year with a .856 save percentage in seven games with Stockton and a .902 save percentage in 28 games with the Kansas City Mavericks in the ECHL. However, Parsons was limited due to injuries all season, so the hope is he will bounce back and play well enough to earn a full-time role with Stockton this season.
Last summer saw Treliving make moves to acquire goaltending and defense with the additions of Smith and Hamonic and the offense suffered as a result. This summer, the Flames GM did the opposite, focusing on upgrading the offense while leaving the goaltending be and arguably diminishing the defense. There is no denying the Flames should be a better offensive team this year but at what cost?
Hanifin is a fine young defender and will eventually surpass what Brodie gave them in a second pair role, but Brodie does not appear as if he can replace Hamilton. That is going to put a lot more pressure on Hamonic to step up which I am not sure he can do and if Peters decides to roll with a Kulak/Stone third pair for the majority of the season, I am not sure the Flames can hold up in the wildly competitive Western Conference.
The endgame ultimately comes down to Smith and him being able to post another All-Star quality season while remaining healthy. A lot needs to go right for Calgary this season for them to return to the playoffs and while the probability of that happening is a little less than 50/50, the percentages quickly drop if things do not fall exactly their way.
My point projection of 93.2 is right in line with offshore sportsbooks who all currently list the Flames at 93.5 regular season points so there is no edge to be had there. The “To Make Playoffs” prop currently has Calgary favored to get in despite being on the outside points-wise. There is a bit of value on the “NO” +155 at BetOnline which would be worth about a half unit wager.
Current Stanley Cup Futures list Calgary on average from 16th to 18th overall with a small range of +3300 to +4000, just slightly higher than my 19th place projection. The general consensus seems to be about the same everywhere with having Calgary right on the edge of the playoff bubble. Personally, I am not currently interested in these prices on Calgary, but they are certainly a team to keep an eye on this year.
For awards, BetOnline just released odds for the Hart Trophy this weekend and have Johnny Gaudreau listed at +5000. He may need an MVP-type season for the Flames to get into the playoffs, but he is not a name I am interested in targeting.
Calgary should be better than last year and be a fun team to watch. Personally, Matthew Tkachuk is one of my favorite players and I will be cheering for them to make the playoffs but unless everything falls the right way, the Flames might be just on the outside looking in come April.
Salary numbers from capfriendly.com, stats from hockey-reference.com and naturalstattrick.com