The Calgary Flames are probably still the team to beat for the Canucks: Previewing the Pacific

Photo credit:© Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Michael Liu
1 year ago
The award for the quickest and possibly most explosive retool in the offseason has to go to the Calgary Flames. After coming up short in the Battle of Alberta, Brad Treliving managed to turn Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk into Jonathan Huberdeau, MacKenzie Weegar, and Nazem Kadri. It’s a significant change from the core that the team was fielding in years prior.
So as Vegas betting odds place Calgary back into the driver’s seat of the Pacific, here’s how they’re shaping up and how the Canucks stack up.

A forward group that is hard to beat

Both Calgary and Vancouver have good groups in their top 9. However, it’s probably fair to say the Flames edge out the Canucks here.
The top 6 is where the Flames really shine. Replacing Gaudreau with Huberdeau is a lateral move at worst, with the former Panther being an excellent set-up man that can finish chances as well. He should be able to continue his production in Calgary, at least in the near future. Speaking to the rest of the wingers, they can afford to mix and match Blake Coleman, Andrew Mangiapane and Tyler Toffoli. It allows the Flames a dimension of speed, skill and grit to be distributed throughout the top two lines.
With piviots like Kadri and Elias Lindholm down the middle, it bodes for some fearsome offensive production. While Kadri most likely isn’t going to be producing the numbers he did with the Avalanche last season, he still is going to put up the points, especially alongside the Flames’ cast of wingers. Lindholm is a player that doesn’t get as much respect around the league as he should command. Responsible defensively and posting his first ever point-per-game season, Lindolm was and should continue to be one of the most reliable options for Calgary. Plus, if they ever look to stack one line, he could be shifted onto the wing for maximum usage.
Getting into the bottom six is where it becomes a little hazy. Mikael Backlund and Dillon Dube are very good middle six options that can push up or down the lineup, so that much isn’t the concern. What is a bit of a question mark is who will round out that third line and fill the fourth. AHL all-rookie team member Jakob Pelletier torched the Pacific with the Stockton Heat, tallying 62 points in 66 games. He brings a creative offensive punch that is probably more suited for the top 6, but his tenacious forechecking should allow him to stick on the Flames’ third line. This being said, it’s hard to know if Pelletier will be able to translate his AHL success to the NHL. Many players haven’t been able to bridge that gap (see: Hunter Shinkaruk). Others that could be in the mix include Cole Schwindt, Connor Zary and Matthew Phillips.
The elephant in the room will be in the form of the fourth line. With Calgary dedicating $5.25 million to an aging and limited Milan Lucic, it’ll be interesting to see who they’ll opt for to round out their lineup. The Flames could do with some more depth for the bottom line, and its something that they’ll want to address as the season begins.

The Pacific’s best defence

The hallmark of a Darryl Sutter team is a strong defence. It’s one that Calgary has in spades and is absolutely the best in the division. There is no question that from 1-6, the Flames are ahead of the Canucks in this category.
A pairing of Weegar and Chris Tanev should strike fear into opposing forwards hearts. Canuck fans are well aware of Tanev’s excellent defensive work as one of the premier defensive defencemen in the league. Couple that with a puck-moving, two way physical force like Weegar, and that’s a pairing that won’t let you do anything in the offensive zone. Teams would have fits matching up against the shot suppresion and possession that these two would bring to the table.
Going down the lineup, Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson are high-end second-pairing defencemen. Both are capable of putting up points from the blue line while playing a heavy, physical game in their own end. What seperates them from just a typical two-way defenceman is their good skating ability, allowing the Flames to transition from offense to defense in a few strides. Hanifin and Andersson clicked on a pairing together last season, and should bring more of the same for an improved Flames defence.
The third pairing is a little bit more of a gamble, but one that brings plenty of rewards along with it. Nikita Zadorov might find himself playing alongside Oliver Kylington in a compliment of styles. Zadorov could feature in a physical, stay-at-home type role, allowing Kylington to jump up into the rush as he so chooses to. While this sounds great on paper, these two defencemen are also prone to sometimes switching off, making a costly turnover leading to a chance. But, the rewards to this pairing could end up outweighing the risk.
With these six capable options at the back, Sutter’s coaching style naturally emphasizes their strengths, playing a stingy defensive game that will whittle away at the souls of opposing teams. The key will be sticking to that instead of playing a run and gun style that they had no chance of winning with against a team like Edmonton.

Canary in the coal mine between the pipes

If there’s one aspect that Calgary should be wary about, it’s in net. It sounds a little dramatic considering that Jacob Markstrom finished as the Vezina runner-up last season, but there’s more than meets the eye here.
Markstrom provided excellent netminding for his two seasons in Calgary thus far. Last year was his best to date, posting a 2.22 GAA on a .922 SV%. When he’s on, Markstrom is capable of stealing games by himself, stopping everything and anything that comes his way. Long gone are the days of giving up a back-breaking early goal.
However, something that Flames fans have come to see is what happens when Markstrom is ridden for long periods of time. The Swede played 63 games in the regular season and 12 in the playoffs, a higher load than any season in his career. As such, Markstrom’s injury issues began to resurface, along with his penchant of scrambling and reacting when fatigued. It bit hard during the Oilers series in the second round, with Markstrom getting shelled against his nemesis team.
Managing and resting Markstrom through the regular season is key for the Flames to succeed in the playoffs. It’s something that could happen, given the emergence of Dustin Wolf with Stockton, but seems unlikely. Markstrom most likely will run into a similar load, and it remains to be seen if he can sustain this stretch of play, especially as he turns 33 years old in January. His play against the Oilers in the playoffs could prove to be a warning sign of things to come.

How the Canucks compare

It’s hard to say anything except that the Flames are a better team, at least on paper. The Canucks have a good forward corps, one that can go toe to toe with most teams around the league. But Calgary isn’t most teams in the league. Though players like Elias Pettersson or Brock Boeser arguably have more potential than some of the players in the Flames lineup, it remains potential unless it’s delivered upon. Right now, the Canucks have one 99-point scorer in the lineup with the next highest being 68 points. The Flames have a 115-point scorer and follow that up with 87 and 82 points.
Going down the forward lineup, the talent starts evening out. Nils Höglander and Vasily Podkolzin are better middle-six wingers than Dillon Dube or a Jakob Pelletier. Andrey Kuzmenko probably will have a similar if not better impact than a Mangiapane. But right now, the Flames have a higher end top-six, and that will allow them to match up well however they choose to deploy them.
As for the defence, it really is not contest. Whereas Calgary has arguably five top 4 defencemen, the Canucks have two, maybe three. Quinn Hughes and Oliver Ekman-Larsson aren’t bad by any means, but most of the load will be placed on their shoulders in the back, where the Flames can distribute it evenly amongst a strong corps on the back end.
The one aspect of the Canucks that realistically has any argument of being better than Calgary’s is the goaltending. Yes, Markstrom is a Vezina finalist and posted a season for the ages, but Thatcher Demko is approaching that echelon of netminder. In his first full season as a starting goalie for the Canucks, he proved to have that same ability to make game-saving stops. As he further develops, there is no reason to think that Demko would have a regression. That can’t be said with confidence for Markstrom, who is on the other side of 30 and posted a season unlike any other in his career.
Perhaps the only consolation in all of this is, as the title suggests, the Flames are in a supernova phase. They’re burning bright and strong, but it won’t last. Treliving has pushed all his chips into the middle for a 2-3 year cup window. Most of the key contributors on the roster are over 30 years old, with contracts that do not seem like they will age kindly. It’s all about timing with this roster.
But there’s nothing wrong with that approach. Clearly, waiting wouldn’t have done this team any good. If a contender wants to content, sacrafices have to be made. Right now the Calgary Flames are the class of the Pacific, and should remain there for the near future. Vancouver should be targeting the decline of Calgary to start their own contending phase, and looks better positioned to do so with a younger core.
That being said, this is a preview for next season. The Calgary Flames, on paper, look to be runaway favourites for the Pacific Division crown. It’s a position that the Canucks are not yet ready to challenge for. When comparing the rosters, Vancouver just comes up short against a well-balanced Calgary team. Demko unfortunately cannot win them games singlehandedly. It’ll be some tough fought contests between the two teams, but be prepared for a number of Flames wins.

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