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Pacific Division Preview: Calgary Flames look to bounce back after early playoff exit derailed impressive 2018-19 campaign

The Flames, who finished second in the NHL with 107 points last year, will look to make the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2008-09.

NHL: NOV 19 Golden Knights at Flames Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As Year 3 of Vegas Golden Knights hockey fast approaches, we’ll take a look at the other teams in the Pacific Division ahead of the 2019-20 campaign. This series will provide an overview of each of Vegas’ division rivals, reviewing how the teams fared last season, examining organizational changes made during the offseason and exploring what their lineups might look like to start the season.

The Calgary Flames finished the 2018-19 season as one of the top teams in the league, winning both the Pacific Division and Western Conference with 50 wins and 107 points. It was the second-highest point total the team has earned in franchise history, second only to the 1988-89 season, which resulted in a Stanley Cup victory. However, the playoffs came and went rather quickly as the Colorado Avalanche handed them a five-game series loss in the first round. The Flames weren’t overly active this summer but are hoping the team’s core continues to produce.

Season in review

The Flames were an offensive juggernaut last season, finishing third in the league in scoring with 289 goals, good for a pace of 3.52 goals per game. The club was particularly dominant in the third period with a league-leading 118 tallies in the final frame.

The Flames outshot their opponent a league-leading 56 times, securing wins in 32 of those games and points in 39. They gave up the fewest shots per game (28.1) and drew 3.41 minor penalties per 60 minutes, good for second in the NHL. Calgary finished third in faceoff win percentage (52.4), fifth in team Corsi For percentage at 5-on-5 (53.83) and, just in case you happened to be wondering, tied for first in the league in backhand goals with 34.

Despite middle-of-the-pack special teams numbers, Calgary led the league in short-handed goals with 18 and had the seventh-ranked power play on home ice, operating at 23.6 percent.

Unlike the Ducks and Coyotes, the Flames had several elite scorers last season. Five, to be exact. Not so coincidentally, the five players that made up the top power-play unit all finished the season with 74-plus points and 21-plus power-play points.

Leading the way in every category was Johnny Gaudreau, who set personal career highs across the board with 36 goals, 63 assists and 99 points in 82 games; his 27 power-play points and eight game-winning goals also led the team and were personal bests.

Linemates Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm chipped in 82 and 78 points, respectively, giving the top line a total of 259 combined points on the year. All three forwards set career highs in goals, assists, points and power-play points.

Matthew Tkachuk also exploded offensively, setting career highs in goals (34), assists (43), points (77) and power-play points (24). Defenseman Mark Giordano rounded out the group with a career-best 74 points en route to a Norris Trophy-winning season.

Mikael Backlund, T.J. Brodie and Travis Hamonic also had impressive seasons.

However, the team’s high-end talent, particularly the top line, faded down the stretch and largely disappeared in the first-round series against Colorado. Calgary scored just seven goals in the final four games of the series, and Gaudreau registered just one assist in five games.

The Flames had their chances, though Avalanche netminder Philipp Grubauer deserves some credit after managing a .947 save percentage after Game 1. But at the end of the day, Calgary got outplayed, and its best players simply did not do enough when it mattered most.

It’s fair to say the team defense imploded, succumbing to the dominance of Colorado’s top players and giving up an average of 41 shots per game (after averaging 28.1 during the regular season).

This left goaltender Mike Smith out to dry.

Smith and David Rittich split netminding duties during the regular season, with Rittich posting a 27-9-5 record along with a 2.61 goals-against average and .911 save percentage. Smith, on the other hand, went 23-16-2 with a 2.73 goals-against average and .898 save percentage.

Rittich was considerably better for most of the year; he went 20-4-4 with a 2.49 goals-against average and .918 save percentage in his first 31 games.

But it was Smith who got the nod in the playoffs after outperforming Rittich towards the end of the regular season; ultimately, head coach Bill Peters elected to go with the experienced veteran.

The move paid off as Smith was exceptional against Colorado, though he was only able to secure one win, a dominant 4-0 shutout performance in Game 1.

He faced 50-plus shots in two of the other four games of the series but was unable to best the Avs in what would be his final stretch of games with the Flames.

Offseason overview

It wasn’t Smith’s final stretch of games in Alberta, however, as the netminder signed with Edmonton on day one of free agency, reuniting with former coach Dave Tippett.

In an ironic twist of fate, former Oilers goaltender Cam Talbot completed the goalie swap when he signed a one-year, $2.75 million contract with the Flames on the same day. Rittich later signed a two-year deal, also carrying a $2.75 million cap hit, so it’s likely the two will compete for the No. 1 role throughout the season.

However, there’s every indication that Rittich has the edge, particularly given Talbot’s recent numbers; he went 11-17-3 with a 3.40 goals-against average and .892 save percentage in 35 games with the Oilers and Flyers last season.

The Battle of Alberta rivalry was made even more intriguing when the two clubs also swapped slumping forwards James Neal and Milan Lucic; the Oilers retained $750,000 of Lucic’s $6 million cap hit and also included a conditional 2020 third-round pick in the deal. Both players have four years remaining on their contracts.

Neal signed a five-year, $28.75 million contract with the Flames last summer after posting his 10th straight 20-goal season; however, his 2018-19 performance was nothing if not disastrous. The 31-year-old recorded just seven goals and 19 points in 63 games during the regular season and went scoreless in four games in the postseason before getting scratched for Game 5. He was never a good fit in Calgary in what was by far the worst season of his NHL career.

However, Lucic’s decline has been progressing over the last few years and was capped off by a six-goal, 20-point campaign last year with the Oilers. Lucic brings a physical element to the lineup, and it’s possible a change of scenery will help the bruiser become a productive power forward once again. He finished first on the Oilers in Corsi For percentage (50.72) among forwards who played in at least 35 games; though his overall offensive upside is questionable, the Flames don’t need him to fulfill a top-six role, so he could be effective with a fresh start.

Another interesting offseason move seemed like a simple transaction at first when the Flames bought out the final year of defenseman Michael Stone’s contract.

But in a surprise twist, following a potentially season-ending injury to defenseman Juuso Valimaki, Calgary turned around and signed Stone to a one-year, $700,000 contract.

While it seems shady on the surface, it’s technically legal as the one-year buyout/re-sign rule only applies to compliance buyouts. In the end, the Flames will save roughly $1.6 million in cap space when all is said and done.

That cap space was put to very good use yesterday when the Flames re-signed Tkachuk, whose RFA status has been a concern for months. Tkachuk was awarded a three-year bridge deal carrying an average annual value of $7 million, making the 21-year-old the highest-paid player on the roster.

Though it came down to the wire, this is a big win for a team that needs the feisty and talented winger in the lineup every night.

The move puts the Flames roughly $650,000 over the cap, though that shouldn’t necessitate a dramatic move (such as trading Brodie, which was a rumored possibility, particularly given the emergence of Rasmus Andersson).

The Flames also re-signed forwards Sam Bennett, Andrew Mangiapane and Alan Quine and added Byron Froese and defenseman Brandon Davidson in free agency. Garnet Hathaway, Oscar Fantenberg, Dalton Prout and Curtis Lazar were among the notable offseason departures.

Lineup preview

The top-line trio of Gaudreau, Monahan and Lindholm likely will remain together, though there have been rumors about the possibility of moving Lindholm to center and putting Tkachuk on the top line. With Tkachuk set to join the team for the rest of the preseason, Bennett could drop to the third line. He’s made a strong case for himself to retain a top-six role, in which case Michael Frolik could be the one demoted. However, it’s quite possible the Flames will just stick with the 3M line of Tkachuk, Frolik and Backlund.

There’s uncertainty surrounding Lucic’s specific role in Calgary, but his determination to get back on track could make him a decent bottom-six option moving forward; he seems destined for fourth-line duties barring an unlikely resurgence, especially with Tkachuk back in the picture, though there are multiple factors at play. Dillon Dube and Quine could compete for the 13th forward slot.

On the back end, Brodie should stick with Giordano on the top pair, with Noah Hanifin and Hamonic skating on the second pair. Expect two of Stone, Andersson and Oliver Kylington to fill out the bottom pair, with the third serving as the seventh defenseman.

Here’s one possibility for what the Flames’ lineup might look like to start the season:

Gaudreau — Monahan — Lindholm
Tkachuk — Backlund — Frolik
Bennett — Jankowski — Czarnik
Lucic — Ryan — Mangiapane

Giordano — Brodie
Hanifin — Hamonic
Kylington — Andersson

Rittich
Talbot

Quick hits

2018-19 record: 50-25-7-107
Position in standings: Division-1, Conference-1, League-2
Pacific Division record: 16-11-3
Record against Vegas: 2-2-0
Playoff result: Eliminated by Colorado in first round (4-1 COL)
Power play (NHL rank): 19.3 percent (18)
Penalty kill (NHL rank): 79.7 percent (21)
Goals for (NHL rank): 289 (tied for second)
Goals against (NHL rank): 223 (23)
Leading scorers: Gaudreau (36-63—99), Monahan (34-48—82), Lindholm (27-51—78)
Top Corsi For % (min. 30 GP): Giordano (57.34), Tkachuk (56.95), Frolik (56.27)
Goals above replacement: Giordano (17.8), Gaudreau (16.9), Monahan (12.4)
Season opener: Oct. 3 at Colorado

Looking ahead to 2019-20

There’s no reason to believe the Flames will not challenge for the division title once again this season, especially now that the Tkachuk situation has been resolved. Once again, goaltending will be the main question mark surrounding this team. Rittich is coming off a breakout season but needs to improve his .846 save percentage against the power play, especially since Talbot is such an unknown.

Fortunately or unfortunately for the Flames, the roster will be largely the same as last year’s, but asking the core of this team to out-do last year’s effort is a tall order. Playing in the weakest division should help Calgary secure its second consecutive trip to the playoffs, but what happens beyond that is difficult to predict. Colorado exposed team weaknesses, and a few injuries could really jeopardize the team’s standing. At the end of the day, the Flames still have much to prove despite last year’s record, even if the level of talent in the organization makes them a threat every time they take the ice.

Golden Knights vs. Flames schedule

Oct. 12 vs. Calgary
Nov. 17 vs. Calgary
Mar. 8 @ Calgary
Apr. 2 @ Calgary

Statistics courtesy of Evolving-Hockey, NHL.com, Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference.