Over the span of six weeks, we’ll be taking a quick look at each of the 30 NHL clubs — examining their major storylines, pivotal players and the most important questions they need to answer heading into the 2016-17 season.
By the time we’ve hit every team, it will be mid-September. And that, of course, means it will be time for training camps to open. Perfect timing, really.
Today, it’s the Calgary Flames…
One year after surprising pretty much everyone with a run to the second round of the playoffs, the Calgary Flames slipped back into the rebuilding track they were previously on. That isn’t necessarily a huge setback in the grand scheme of things, but it did ultimately cost former head coach Bob Hartley his job.
Now Glen Gulutzan is the man behind the bench, looking to improve on the performance he delivered earlier while coaching the Stars from 2011-13. The Flames are still looking big picture, but they’re quickly becoming a club to keep an eye on in the Western Conference. And they’re hoping he can be the guy to lead them up the standings.
It’s going to be tough to unseat any of the top eight playoff teams from a year ago though. And, even if one of those contenders does drop out in 2017, clubs like the Jets and Coyotes are on the rise as well. But Calgary already has a lot of the right pieces in place to make a push — and the addition of Brian Elliott between the pipes could help them take that next step.
Is Gulutzan the right fit for this group?
Obviously, you always want your coach to match up well with your roster. That’s a pretty basic concept. But it’s particularly vital in this situation, because the Flames are entering a pretty pivotal time.
When the organization finally accepted what they had become and went into full rebuild mode a couple years ago, the fan base was pretty accepting of the plan. And they’ve clearly made progress to this point. But there’s always a risk in changing coaches with a young roster, because the simple concept of consistency can be so important for a group of developing players. With that in mind, the coach coming in now needs to stick around for awhile.
Brad Treliving and the front office did their due diligence to find their man this summer — for that very reason. This group is getting close to being a consistent playoff threat and, even if they don’t crack the top eight this time around, they need to keep building in the right direction. Because the last thing they want to have to do is start over with a new coach again two years from now.
NOTABLE SUMMER ACQUISITION
Brian Elliott (from STL)
Calgary finished last in the entire league in both goals allowed and penalty killing. That’s not all on the netminders, but they obviously shoulder a big load of the responsibility as the last line of defense.
Rather than the combination of Jonas Hiller, Joni Ortio and Karri Ramo that they employed last year, the Flames are handing the reigns over to Elliott for the 2016-17 campaign. Coming off a decent season in Buffalo, Chad Johnson will be the backup. But Elliott will be the clear No. 1 and, if he performs anywhere close to the level he was playing at with St. Louis, he should keep this group in the playoff hunt down the stretch.
Matthew Tkachuk (drafted: No. 6 overall in 2016)
Seeing as how Tkachuk was just taken sixth overall just two months ago, there’s no guarantee he plays in the NHL this season. But things worked out pretty well for Calgary when he slipped to them in that slot, and they quickly scooped him up.
Playing with good size and the same edginess that his dad once employed, Tkachuk can be physical — but can also put the puck in the net. Skating on the best line in junior hockey alongside Mitch Marner and Christian Dvorak this past season, he tallied 30 goals and 107 points in 57 OHL games. And then he finished the year off with the overtime game-winner in the Memorial Cup, for good measure.
True, the Flames already have a good amount of young talent in their top-six, and that’s where Tkachuk ultimately projects to. But they don’t really have anyone like him yet, so his uniqueness could get him on the big club sooner than some might expect.
BIGGEST CAP HIT
Mark Giordano ($6.75 million)
The blue line just might be Calgary’s biggest strength, and Giordano is the anchor. While handling his defensive responsibilities in his own zone, he also managed to pile up 21 goals last season — tied with Oliver Ekman-Larsson for the second-most by any defenseman. And two years ago, he was generating serious buzz as a Norris candidate, before injuries cost him a quarter of the season.
2017 UFA TO KEEP AN EYE ON
When he’s not dealing with suspensions, Wideman is still a factor in this defense corps. But the Flames have certainly amassed a nice collection of young talent, and that could make the 33-year-old blueliner expendable at the trade deadline, especially if they feel they’re still one more year away.
With Sean Monahan now locked in up the middle for the next seven years, the Flames can be patient with Bennett. But they likely won’t need to wait long.
The former No. 4 overall pick (2014) who once famously struggled with the pull-up bar at the combine isn’t struggling at all on the ice. He netted 18 goals as a 19-year-old last season, and any improvement on that number could really be a huge boost for Calgary.
If Bennett scuffles for a little while as he continues to find his way in this league, the Flames have other ways to score goals as they develop. But if he keeps trending in the direction he was headed last year, he could really speed up the whole process in Calgary.