Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2016-17, where LastWordOnHockey.com gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2016-17 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the Calgary Flames.
Puck Drop Preview: 2016-17 Calgary Flames
Expectations were high for the 2015-16 Calgary Flames. They were coming off a surprising run to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2015. After a strong off-season, they also looked like an improved team. The Flames made a great trade at the 2015 NHL Draft to land Dougie Hamilton, which gave the team three legit top-pairing defenders. They also signed versatile winger Michael Frolik which filled a huge hole on the right wing.
It appeared the Flames would be able to challenge for a playoff spot in a tough Western Conference once again in 2015-16, but they didn’t come close. In fact, they were all but eliminated by Halloween.
Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo provided good goaltending when the Flames reached the postseason in 2015, but they fell flat coming out of the gate last season. The Flames got their first regulation win on October 31, which improved their record to 3-8-1. They lost to the Colorado Avalanche three nights later in what would be the sixth straight game, and tenth time in 13, in which they allowed at least four goals.
Neither Hiller nor Ramo would be able to string together any success throughout the season. Hiller’s goals-against average (GAA) ballooned from 2.36 in the playoff year to 3.51 last season. His save percentage (SV%) dropped from a very respectable .918 to league worst .879.
Ramo didn’t fare much better, though he received the bulk of the starts in the second half. The Finnish netminder posted a 2.63 GAA and a .909 SV%. Joni Ortio also struggled early before being sent to the minors for a stint. He finished the year with a 2.76 GAA and a .902 SV% in 19 starts.
Calgary also added veteran Niklas Backstrom from the Minnesota Wild at the deadline and handed him four starts late in the season. He won a pair of them, though he struggled as well after going more than a year without a start.
The best way to sum up last season for the Calgary Flames is to point out that they used four goaltenders and not one of them will be playing in the National Hockey League this year.
The Flames had an understandably busy off-season after finishing 26th in the standings. Off the ice, Bob Hartley was let go and Glen Gulutzan was eventually hired as the new head coach. Gulutzan was brought over from the Vancouver Canucks where he served as an assistant for three seasons.
Prior to his stint in B.C., Gulutzan was a head coach at various levels for ten years. He started with the Las Vegas Thunder of the ECHL, before working his way up through the AHL with the Texas Stars and then taking over at the helm of the Dallas Stars for the 2011-12 season.
The Stars posted a combined 64-57-9 record with Gulutzan behind the bench, but finished tenth in the west both years and replaced Gluutzan with Lindy Ruff.
2016 Draft and Free Agency
Due to their poor performance in the standings, Calgary had the luxury of choosing early in the NHL Draft in June. With the sixth overall selection, they added Matthew Tkachuk to the organization.
Tkachuk played for the London Knights last season where he scored 30 goals and 107 points in 57 games. He followed that up with 20 goals and 40 points in just 18 playoff games. Tkachuk wasn’t done there, as he would score the overtime game winner in the Memorial Cup final in Red Deer. The American left winger finished the prestigious tournament with five goals and eight points in four games.
The Flames didn’t stop there at the draft. They entered the annual event with three second round picks, and traded the first one to the St. Louis Blues for goaltender Brian Elliott.
Considering the Flames had a sub-.900 SV% as a team last season, Elliott’s league-leading .930 SV% is an enormous upgrade. Elliott led the Blues to the Western Conference Final, but they have a young Jake Allen looking to take the reins as a number one, so the Flames swooped in and offered up a second round pick for the 31-year-old.
Calgary also signed rugged right winger Troy Brouwer to a four-year contract on July 1st. The 31 year old has scored at least 17 goals in each of the past seven seasons, and promises to add some scoring and sandpaper to the right side of the Flames lineup.
Chad Johnson, a Calgary born goaltender signed a one-year contract worth $1.7 million. Johnson started 45 games for the Buffalo Sabres last season and posted a solid 2.36 GAA and .920 SV%. He will serve as the backup to Elliott, and will see less games than last season, but is a vital upgrade in the crease.
Matthew Tkachuk – Sam Bennett – Troy Brouwer
Shortly after signing Brouwer, general manager Brad Treliving and Gulutzan spoke about putting pairings together on the forward lines. It was obvious that Gaudreau and Monahan would stay together and it stands to reason that Backlund and Frolik would continue to play a two-way role together. Treliving also mentioned that Brouwer and Bennett would be a good fit.
After putting the aforementioned pairings together, there are only a few gaps left in the top nine. The job of first line right wing is a prized role that is up for grabs. Jiri Hudler was dealt at last year’s trade deadline and Joe Colborne filled in after that. Colborne however, signed with the Colorado Avalanche this summer and the enviable task to play alongside Gaudreau and Monahan could fall to rookie Hunter Shinkaruk.
Bennett will make the full-time switch to center this season and will be in the middle of a very pesky, yet skilled line with Tkachuk and Brouwer. Tkachuk proved enough in the OHL last year that he is physically ready and talented enough to make the jump straight to the NHL from the draft.
Backlund and Frolik are a very natural pair as they both play a safe two-way game while still scoring more than half of a point per game. Ferland rounds out the top nine and lines up on the left side of the all-Mike line, though all three forwards spell their first names differently.
Jyrki Jokipakka – Dougie Hamilton
Giordano and Brodie are perhaps the best defense pairing in the league, and will continue that role this season. Giordano scored 21 goals and 56 points last season and Brodie chipped in six goals and 45 points.
Hamilton stepped his game up halfway through last season and showed the type of potential that Flames management were looking for when they traded a trio of picks for him at the 2015 draft. He will surely be the number three defender on this team, and will be joined by Jokipakka. The Finnish defenseman came to Calgary in the Kris Russell trade at last year’s trade deadline. He had six points in 40 games and the 25-year-old proved to be a very valuable replacement for the departed shot-blocking king.
Engelland and Wideman are an expensive third pairing, combining to earn more than $8 million. However, if kept in this depth role, Wideman’s puck moving abilities and Engelland’s physical play will see that the pair have moderate success. They aren’t the best defensive tandem in the league, but as a third pairing, they won’t be seeing the opposition’s best players.
The biggest change on the Flames roster comes in goal. Going from Hiller, Ramo and Ortio to Elliott and Johnson will ensure Calgary improves from the worst defensive team in the league to one of the best.
The Flames allowed the most goals in the league last season, but Elliott was the NHL leader in save percentage. Johnson backstopped a weak Sabres team but still posted a solid .920 save percentage.
This is the most dramatic upgrade at one position that any team was able to pull off this summer. Calgary was a top ten goal scoring team last season, and could be a top ten team in goals allowed this season thanks to the new tandem in goal.
Players to Watch
The sixth overall pick will look to duplicate Monahan’s success as an 18-year-old and make the NHL roster just three months after being drafted. His combination of size, skill and hockey sense make that a strong possibility.
With Hudler, Colborne, David Jones, Josh Jooris and Mason Raymond all leaving the team in the last few months, there are openings on the wing. Coming off a dominant junior season, look for Tkachuk to make a lot of noise at training camp, and earn himself a roster spot.
The Flames biggest weakness last season was goaltending, and they made a major upgrade by bringing in Elliott. The St. Louis Blues were always hesitant to hand over the number one role to Elliott. He posted his highest ever save percentage in 2011-12 at .940, yet he still only managed to start 38 games.
The Blues brought in Jaroslav Halak, Ryan Miller and even Martin Brodeur to take starts away from Elliott. All Elliott did was post great numbers each year and win far more games than he would lose. He was finally given the chance to be a playoff starter last season and created plenty of Conn Smythe hype before the Blues were ultimately eliminated in the Western Conference Final.
It would not have taken much to find an upgrade on last year’s goaltenders. However, the Flames found one of the league’s best puck stoppers over the past five seasons and acquired him at a very reasonable cost of a second round draft pick.
Players on the Rise
Bennett showed flashes of brilliance during his rookie NHL campaign. He had a four-goal night against the Florida Panthers in January which was clearly the highlight of his season. Bennett had eight other multi-point games, but his points seemed to come in bunches.
When Bennett was hot, he was impossible to stop. However, he was prone to long scoreless streaks as well. This isn’t entirely unheard of for a rookie. Bennett was held to just 11 regular season games with the Kingston Frontenacs in 2014-15, which could help explain his inconsistency last year.
Bennett finished last season with 18 goals and 18 assists for 36 points in 77 games as a rookie. He will move to center full time this season, and will be playing a more offensive role now that he won’t be linemates with Backlund. This should add up to a very impressive offensive season for the 20-year-old.
Hamilton struggled out of the gate last season after being acquired from the Boston Bruins for a first and a pair of second round draft picks. He started the year with just one point in nine games and didn’t record an assist until his 12th game.
The Flames struggled as a team early in the season. Hamilton was learning an entirely new system that was night and day from the defensive system used in Boston. Once he got used to playing in Calgary, the 23-year-old defender blossomed into the type of two-way force that he was with the Bruins.
Hamilton closed out the year with 16 points in his last 19 games. He may not keep up that scoring pace all year, but he won’t start the year looking lost like last season. A little more consistency and a much higher comfort level will allow Hamilton to storm out of the gate this season.
Also, Hamilton was primarily paired with Russell last season. While together, the pair posted a weak Corsi-for percentage (CF%) of 45.0. With anyone else, Hamilton had a 52.0 CF%. With Russell having been dealt to the Dallas Stars, and still a free agent, Hamilton’s possession stats are due for a huge hike next season.
Players on the Decline
Wideman had a very unique season last year. He got off to a slow start and then served 19 games of a 20 game suspension that was ultimately reduce to a 10 game ban. The strange suspension was due to the now infamous running-into-a-linesman incident.
Before his lengthy stint in the press box, Wideman was showing signs of his age. He had a bounce-back year in 2014-15, scoring 56 points, but had just 19 in 51 games last season. The 33-year-old defender was never known for his defensive abilities, and with his offensive abilities escaping him, his $5.5 million cap hit is looking like an albatross.
Giordano posted career highs in goals (21) and points (56) last season. If not for injuries the two years prior, Giordano would have posted similar point totals, but he wouldn’t have come close to 21 goals.
Giordano finished second in the league in goals by defenders last season, trailing only Brent Burns of the San Jose Sharks. He will turn 33 before next season starts, and is unlikely to be able to repeat the offensive production of his career year.
Giordano will still be an excellent two-way defender for the Flames. He just won’t be able to score more goals than Erik Karlsson again and will drop to about 15 goals and 50 points.
2016-17 Season Prediction
The Flames had no issue with goal scoring last season, finishing 10th in the league in that department. It was their league high 260 goals against that did them in. Calgary still finished ahead of the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks in their division, and were just one point back of the Arizona Coyotes.
With goaltending going from league worst to a major strength of this team, improvement in the standings will come. The question is whether or not they have closed the gap on the three California teams enough to grab a Pacific Division playoff berth.
The Flames finished at least 21 points back of the San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks. Though the Kings lost Milan Lucic in free agency and the Flames improved, that’s just too wide of a margin to close in one off-season.
This means the Flames will be battling for a wildcard berth. Arizona, Vancouver and Edmonton are all rebuilding and the Flames will be able to remain ahead of them. This means the two wildcard berths will come down to the Flames and several Central Division teams.
The Central Division is stacked with Stanley Cup contenders in the Dallas Stars, Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues who are all sure to be in the postseason again. It will come down to the wire, with the Flames battling the Winnipeg Jets, Nashville Predators, Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild for the last two playoff spots.
It’s a tall task, and they may fall just short, but after the season that just occurred in Calgary a battle for a wildcard berth is a welcome sight. A core of Monahan, Gaudreau, Bennett, Tkachuk, Brodie and Hamilton going forward is just too talented to keep missing the playoffs.
It just might be the 2018 postseason before they can usurp the California teams and make some real noise in the postseason.