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Pacific Division Preview: Calgary Flames hopeful offseason shake-up leads to playoff berth

Additions like James Neal, Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin give the Flames a new look in 2018-19.

NHL: Preseason-San Jose Sharks at Calgary Flames Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

As the regular season approaches, we’ll take a look at Vegas’ seven Pacific Division opponents to examine how they fared in 2017-18, what moves they’ve made in the offseason and what their lineups may look like to start the 2018-19 season. The Golden Knights have a full season and a trip to the Stanley Cup Final under their belts, so no one will be taking them lightly in Year 2. Here’s a look at the Calgary Flames.

The Calgary Flames made several splashes this offseason in a widespread “reset” throughout the organization. Whether it was replacing the coaching staff, pulling off a blockbuster trade, snagging a popular free agent or locking up key members of the team’s core, general manager Brad Treliving did not flinch this summer, though the jury is still out on whether the changes will produce different results.

Season recap

To say the Calgary Flames had a disappointing season last year would be an understatement of epic proportions. Many believed the Flames could win the Pacific Division, or at the very least considered them shoo-ins to finish in the top three. Instead, a disastrous end to the season replete with almost inexplicable mediocrity held them out of the postseason; in fact, Calgary missed the playoffs by 11 points despite sitting in seventh place in the Western Conference in late February.

On paper, Mike Smith didn’t necessarily have a great season. His numbers, a 25-22-6 record with a 2.65 goals-against average, .916 save percentage and three shutouts, appear average. However, he was one of Calgary’s most valuable players, winning 20 games with a 2.39 goals-against average and .926 save percentage leading up to January’s All-Star break. An injury knocked him out of the lineup for much of February and March, and he got caught in the whirlwind of Calgary’s late-season meltdown, finishing the season with two wins in his final eight games while posting a 3.44 goals-against average and .880 save percentage. If not for the injury, he might have put together one of the best campaigns of his career.

Up front, Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan led the way once again. Gaudreau posted career highs in assists (60) and points (84), leading the team in both categories, while Monahan scored a team-high 31 goals and set a new career high in points with 64 despite missing eight games.

Mark Jankowski’s long-awaited rookie season delivered 17 goals and 25 points, and Matthew Tkachuk chipped in 24 goals and 49 points (both career highs) in 68 games. He led all forwards (min. 2 games) in Corsi For percentage (57.29) despite a 45.17 offensive zone start percentage at 5-on-5.

Dougie Hamilton led all defensemen in scoring with 17 goals and 44 points, and he and captain Mark Giordano led the team in CF% with 57.67 and 57.63 ratings, respectively. Calgary was a strong possession team in general; in fact, 18 Calgary skaters that played in at least 20 games finished with a CF% above 50.

Ultimately, the Flames took themselves out of the playoffs by going 5-13-1 in the final 19 games of the season. This included a seven-game losing streak in late March during which Calgary got shut out three times. It didn’t help that the Flames’ backup goaltending wasn’t even decent in Smith’s absence, but the end of the season was an ill-timed, team-wide collapse for a squad that was originally supposed to contend for the division title.

Offseason moves

In response, Treliving made many adjustments this summer, starting with firing head coach Glen Gulutzan and the coaching staff and handing bench duties to former Hurricanes coach Bill Peters.

Treliving then executed a surprising blockbuster deal on draft day that sent Hamilton, forward Micheal Ferland and college prospect Alex Fox to Carolina in exchange for forward Elias Lindholm and defenseman Noah Hanifin.

Giving up a player of Hamilton’s caliber isn’t something you see often, especially considering he led the team in scoring and skated with Giordano on the team’s top pairing. That being said, Hamilton has been traded twice in his young career, and rumblings suggested that off-ice personality issues precipitated the move. But regardless of what may or may not have contributed to Treliving’s willingness to move the 25-year-old rearguard, it was a clear sign that Treliving was not settling for the status quo heading into 2018-19.

Plus, the Flames were able to acquire two valuable players in the process, both of whom bring significant upside and both of whom were awarded multi-year extensions following the trade.

Hanifin led all Hurricanes defensemen in CF% (56.19) last season but did so in sheltered minutes (62.79 offensive zone faceoff percentage). He scored a career-high 10 goals and 32 points but has a career minus-53 rating in three NHL seasons. That should improve on the Flames’ blue line, but Calgary is banking on Hanifin taking a large step forward in all areas of his development, especially offensively, this year. Treliving demonstrated his confidence in Hanifin’s ability to do just that by signing him to a six-year, $29.7 million extension with an average annual value of $4.95 million.

Lindholm has yet to hit the 50-point threshold in five NHL seasons but will have every opportunity to do so with a consistent top-six role in Calgary. There’s a strong possibility he will play on the top line with Gaudreau and Monahan, which should help him immensely. He, too, was given a vote of confidence with a six-year, $29.1 million deal (AAV: $4.85 million).

Treliving further upgraded his forward ranks by signing James Neal, Derek Ryan and Austin Czarnik in free agency.

Neal wanted more money and term than Golden Knights general manager George McPhee was willing to offer the 31-year-old sniper, but he got both from Calgary on a five-year, $28.75 million deal with an AAV of $5.75 million. The perennial 20-goal scorer should be especially hungry after coming up empty in back-to-back Stanley Cup Final appearances.

Ryan, also 31, has just two full NHL seasons to his name, but he was heavily underrated in Carolina, which explains why he received a three-year, $9.375 million contract (AAV: $3.125 million) this summer. He’ll likely center the third line but can play up and down the lineup, is effective on special teams and is a good fit in Calgary’s possession-driven game. After all, Carolina and Calgary finished first and third, respectively, in team CF% last season, and Ryan led all Hurricanes skaters with a CF% of 57.05.

Czarnik reportedly had interest from 24 teams but chose to sign with the Flames, agreeing to terms on a two-year deal that carries an AAV of $1.25 million. He was buried on Boston’s depth chart but should add a lot to Calgary’s bottom six, and his speed and tenacity were on full display when Calgary took on Czarnik’s former team in China.

Other notable moves include buying out the contract of Troy Brouwer, which will save $3 million in each of the next two seasons, and re-signing forwards Jankowski (two years, $3.35 million) and Garnet Hathaway (one year, $850,000) as well as backup goaltenders Jon Gillies (two years, $1.5 million) and David Rittich (one year, $800,000). Defenseman Brett Kulak was awarded a one-year, $900,000 contract in arbitration.

Lineup preview

It’s unclear whether Lindholm or Neal will earn the first-line slot next to Gaudreau and Monahan, though Lindholm appears to be the early favorite, at least to start the season. Either way, Lindholm and Neal are significant upgrades over Ferland and Brouwer, and Michael Frolik and Czarnik will fill out the right side nicely.

Monahan, Mikael Backlund, Ryan and Jankowski should be the team’s four centers, though there are other options in case of injury (i.e., Sam Bennett, Lindholm, etc.). If prospect Dillon Dube makes the cut after an extremely impressive training camp, he’s a natural center but would play left wing on the third or fourth line. If not, Bennett and either Hathaway or Curtis Lazar should join Gaudreau and Tkachuk at left wing.

On the back end, Giordano and Troy Brodie will be reunited on the top pairing, which could mean a bounce-back season for Brodie. The Flames would also like to see Travis Hamonic bounce back this season; he had a down year in 2017-18 after Calgary gave up three picks to acquire him last offseason, but he and Hanifin have gelled quickly. Michael Stone will play on the third pairing with Kulak or possibly prospect Juuso Valimaki, though Kulak is the more experienced option.

The one gaping hole in the lineup is the backup goaltender, which will go to either Gillies or Rittich. Neither put together a convincing performance last season, and neither can adequately fill in for Smith in case of injury, though Gillies seems to have the edge.

Here’s one possibility for what the Flames’ line combinations might look like this season:

Gaudreau — Monahan — Lindholm
Tkachuk — Backlund — Neal
Dube — Ryan — Frolik
Bennett — Jankowski — Czarnik

Giordano — Brodie
Hanifin — Hamonic
Kulak — Stone

Smith
Gillies

Quick hits

2017-18 Team record: 37-35-10—84
Position in standings: Division-5, Conference-11, League-20
Pacific Division record: 12-14-3
Record against Vegas: 1-3-0
Playoff result: Did not qualify
Leading Scorers: Gaudreau (24-60—84), Monahan (31-33—64), Tkachuk (24-25—49)
Top Corsi For % (min. 10 GP): Giordano (57.67), Hamilton (57.63), Tkachuk (57.29)
Power play (NHL rank): 16.0 percent (29)
Penalty kill (NHL rank): 81.8 percent (7)
Goals for (NHL rank): 216 (27)
Goals against (NHL rank): 243 (13)
Team MVP: Smith (25-22-6, GAA: 2.65, SV%: .916, SO: 3)
Season opener: Oct. 3 @ Vancouver

Bottom line

Even though Neal, Hanifin, Lindholm, Ryan, Czarnik, etc. are all great additions, will they automatically help the Flames produce better offensive results? Calgary finished 27th in goals for last season and had the 29th-ranked power play, which operated at just 16 percent, but Ferland still generated 21 goals and 41 points on the top line, roughly the same as both Lindholm’s and Neal’s production from last season (16-28—44, 25-19—44, respectively). Plus, Hamilton leaves behind big shoes to fill for not only Hanifin but also Brodie. Even if Lindholm and Neal both have strong seasons, there’s no guarantee either will exceed Ferland’s production by a significant margin, though it might not matter if Gaudreau and Monahan, who is coming off four offseason surgeries (yes, four), continue to pile up the points.

There’s no doubt the Flames’ forward corps is improved; top to bottom, this team has more depth and more talent than last year’s roster, especially assuming players like Jankowski and Bennett continue to improve and Czarnik carries his preseason play into the regular season. But with chemistry uncertainty, so many new faces and a brand new coaching staff, it’s a lot to ask for everything to come together so quickly. Even though it feels like the Flames have just become Hurricanes West, with Peters, Hanfin, Lindholm and Ryan hailing from the Canes, it could be challenging or at least take time to manage all the moving pieces.

But at the end of the day, the true fate of the season rests on the shoulders of Mike Smith. The 36-year-old netminder has not been able to start more than 55 games in each of the past three seasons, which doesn’t give Calgary great odds. But simply put, his health will make or break the season. If he goes down with any sort of long-term injury, the Flames could be toast.

Expectations are high in Calgary once again this season, and Treliving went to great lengths to reconstruct this lineup to be able to satisfy the city’s thirst for playoff hockey. Whether or not it will be quenched remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt the Flames have the capability of taking one of the three Pacific playoff slots; it’s just a matter of whether they execute.

Golden Knights vs. Flames schedule

Nov. 19 @ Calgary
Nov. 23 vs. Calgary
Mar. 6 vs. Calgary
Mar. 10 @ Calgary