For a brief, shining moment there, the Pacific Division was almost up for grabs.
The Calgary Flames, who paced the Pacific with 111 points in 2021/22, looked like they were well on their way to the offseason from hell.
First, leading scorer Johnny Gaudreau walked as an unrestricted free agent, choosing to sign in — of all places — Columbus. This, after seeming to string the Flames along all season with the prospect of his returning.
Within a week, it had gotten worse. Second leading scorer and all-around bad boy Matthew Tkachuk let it be known that, despite only being an RFA, he had no intention of signing long-term in Calgary. That left the Flames with the choice of either hanging on to Tkachuk for another year and letting him walk, or trying to cash in on his value now via trade.
With the Flames down two 100+-point scorers and the rest of the division a bit of an inconsistent mess, it’s no surprise why some fans of the Vancouver Canucks started eying up a 2022/23 playoff finish like it was a distinct possibility.
Then, as they often do, things changed — and in dramatic fashion.
Calgary did trade Tkachuk, and they traded him for a massive haul. Another 100-point scorer, Jonathan Huberdeau (almost immediately extended on an eight-year deal) was the centrepiece; the Flames also got back top-four defender Mackenzie Weegar, a first round pick, and a prospect.
Huberdeau alone couldn’t make up for the absence of both Gaudreau and Tkachuk — despite arguably being the best player of the three — but he doesn’t have to. That’s because, almost a full month after the trade, Calgary went and added another replacement player who scored at a 100-point-pace last year in UFA Nazem Kadri.
With Huberdeau, Kadri, and Weegar on board in Calgary, the Pacific Division is no longer up for grabs or wide open.
The Flames now have by far the best defence corps, and probably the best starting goalie, in the division. If they don’t have the best set of forwards, it’s only because Edmonton has edged them out on the strength of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl alone.
In any category that counts, the Calgary Flames are now the class of the Pacific, and any dreams the Canucks might have had about competing with them in the immediate future are more-or-less nixed.
Which might be frustrating for some in the short-term, but it’s really a good thing in the long-term.
It should have never been the plan for the Canucks to compete seriously for the division crown or a playoff position in 2022/23. Both POHO Jim Rutherford and GM Patrik Allvin have spoken at length about the need to reload the team’s pick and prospect cupboards to ensure a lengthier stint of competitiveness in the future.
But as the Flames started to crumble in July, this author was probably not the only one who had visions of the Canucks being in the running for the Pacific title midway through the season, and being forced into another round of short-term moves by an ownership group with their eyes on postseason revenue.
Now, with the Flames at least temporarily out of reach, those fears can probably subside.
Which is not to say that the Canucks should give up on competing with the Flames entirely. It just means that they need to take a larger, longer view on “competing.”
Are the Canucks built to win a playoff series with the Flames right here, right now, in the present day? No, they are not.
But are they being built up to win a playoff series with the Flames eventually? One certainly hopes.
Here’s the great thing about the recent moves in Calgary. As CanucksArmy alum Harman Dayal pointed out on Twitter, the Flames are about as “all-in” at this point as a team can be.
With the bulk of their talent now cresting the age of 30, Calgary has opened up the sort of Stanley Cup window that can’t help but slam shut in a few years’ time.
Which just so happens to line up perfectly with the timeframe in which the Canucks hope to reach a genuine status of competitiveness.
It’s almost perfect, really. Whether the Flames succeed in winning hockey’s ultimate prize or not, they’re going to be an impressive opponent for the Canucks over the next few years, and probably hand out their fair share of lopsided defeats.
But the Flames will start to slow down as they age, and meanwhile, the Canucks will be on the rise.
Just as the likes of Huberdeau, Kadri, and Jacob Markstrom start to age out of peak effectiveness, the likes of Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, and Thatcher Demko will be in the midst of their own primes. The salary cap sins of Jim Benning will have all been washed away and, ideally, a new crop of young talent will have already found its way onto the Vancouver roster.
The rising star of the Canucks and the waning candle of the Flames should intersect nicely, and provide Vancouver with a few choice moral victories on the way to becoming the class of the Pacific themselves.
At least, that’s the idea. However, there may be a couple of other franchises with something to say about all that.
While all the excitement over the Kadri decision was occurring in the NHL world, the hockey world at large was witnessing the rescheduled 2022 World Junior Championships. There, Canada took the gold medal, led in part by Anaheim Ducks prospects Mason McTavish and Olen Zellweger. Those two will join the likes of Trevor Zegras, Troy Terry, and Jamie Drysdale in what is quickly becoming one of the most talented and exciting upcoming rosters in the entire league.
The Ducks, too, have visions of becoming competitive as the Flames and Oilers begin to decline.
Just across town, the LA Kings have long been identified as the organization with the deepest pool of prospects, and now that’s beginning to come to fruition at the NHL level. Names like Quinton Byfield, Arthur Kaliyev, Jordan Spence, Brandt Clarke, and so, so many more have either already cracked the Kings’ roster or will in the months to come.
No team, it would seem, has a brighter future ahead of them than the LA Kings.
And so, it may be tempting for the Canucks to measure themselves up to the present-day Calgary Flames — and to find themselves lacking. But the quality of the Flames in 2022/23 is, ultimately, irrelevant to what should be the long-term plans of the Canucks.
Instead, the focus should be on teams like the Ducks and the Kings. They’re the ones who will also be hitting their developmental strides at the same time as the Canucks. They’re the ones who will be at their best when the Canucks are at their best.
They’re who the Canucks are truly in competition with to become the premium contenders of the Pacific Division. And whether the front office realizes it or not, that competition has already begun — and the Canucks might even be a few steps behind.
Thankfully, there’s plenty of time left to change that.