For all intents and purposes, the Flames roster for 2017-18 is set. The club has come a long way since the inception of the rebuild back in 2012, but there’s still a lot of room to grow. The young core seems to be set and the team is moving forward with a fresh, younger coaching staff.
Calgary is exiting the lower expectations of the early rebuild phase and is entering its window for contention. While no one expects the Flames to suddenly jump up to the top of Western Conference this year, the club should be making clear, demonstrable strides given their cap situation and growing maturity (and resultant expense) of their younger assets.
The Flames are still a work in progress. Here are the four major questions facing them this year as they strive to break out of the Western Conference basement: the RW, the defense, the “other” kids and, the new coaching staff.
The right side
Brad Treliving performed major reconstructive surgery on the Flames’ right wing this year, but the overhaul hasn’t really strengthened the club’s starboard side. Gone are Jiri Hudler, David Jones, Josh Jooris and Joe Colborne. In are Troy Brouwer, Alex Chiasson and Daniel Pribyl.
It’s arguable if the change will be good for the Flames, but for my money they’re now weaker on the RW. Pribyl is an unknown entity, so it’s possible (though not probable) he moves the needle. Alex Chiasson might rediscover a scoring touch he briefly displayed in Dallas, but all indications are that he’s a third or fourth liner at best. And Troy Brouwer, well… we’ve discussed him at length.
If Brouwer meshes with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, and Pribyl makes the team and is a legit top six player and/or Tkachuk jumps straight out of the OHL and into the top six, maybe the Flames can avoid a drop off. The right wing is definitely the club’s lone major weakness up front currently.
The defense bottom three
Calgary has a great top three defense corps in Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Dougie Hamilton. In fact, it might be one of the best top three groups in the league.
Unfortunately, that can’t be said of the current bottom end of the rotation. Defensively speaking, the trio of Dennis Wideman, Deryk Engelland and Ladislav Smid might be one of the worst groups in the NHL.
The operative section of each HERO chart is the shot suppression section. As you can see, none of these players even register on the charts, meaning they are below the average third pairing defenders at denying shots against (i.e.; they’re replacement level defenders).
That puts a huge weight on the Flames’ top three and makes the club’s defense rotation grossly top-heavy. There’s a good chance Smid will be LTIR’d for the season, but that still leaves the highly dubious pairing of Wideman-Engelland as Calgary’s in the rotation. Or it means one of them has to move up to a second pairing role, which is way above both of their heads at this point.
The tragedy of the Flames’ blueline is they’ve had cheaper, better options pass through the organization recently. David Schlemko could have been kept for peanuts and Jakub Nakladal is probably a better bet than any of the three incumbents. An object lesson that the opportunity cost of bad money isn’t just about taking up valuable space – these types of guys tend to clutter the roster and make it more difficult to sign replacements or move kids up.
Treliving still has time to fix up the blueline (moving Wideman, re-signing Nakladal, etc.) but if things remain unchanged, you can expect to see Giordano and Brodie once again get buried by some of the toughest minutes in the league.
The “other” kids: Ferland, Shinkaruk, Tkachuk
Gaudreau, Monahan, and to a lesser extent, Sam Bennett, have established themselves in the show. There’s little question they will all be very good NHLers moving forward. However, the Flames will likely need to see some of their other youngsters take a step or two forward in order to be competitive this year.
The main candidates are Micheal Ferland, Hunter Shinkaruk and Matthew Tkachuk. If at least one of these players can move up and be effective in the top nine, it will take a lot of pressure off the rest of the crew, from Gaudreau to Frolik.
As established, the club’s RW is probably going to be less than impressive. Aside from a Pribyl surprise, the other way the team could compensate for that is a very strong port side with Gaudreau, Shinkaruk/Tkachuk and Ferland picking up the slack. Shinkaruk and Tkachuk are very good prospects but relative unknowns at this level.
Ferland, however, is an excellent break out candidate. If he can become a legit, two-way winger it would be a huge boon for the club. Otherwise, the LW suddenly depends on Gaudreau and a fresh-faced rookie doing all the heavy lifting.
The new coaching staff
Last but not least are the new bench bosses. Given Bob Hartley’s struggles to improve the Flames’ defensive game and special teams, moving on from him was the right move. However, we still can’t be sure that Glen Gulutzan and Paul Jerrard are going to be a meaningful improvement.
Aside from improved goaltending, the coaching staff has the potential to make the biggest difference to the Flames’ results next year. If they can improve the defensive systems, transition game and special teams efficacy, the club could make huge strides in just a short time. As I noted last summer in my review of “big gainers (teams who went from basement dwellers to contenders in the space of three seasons), a change in coaches often precipitated the jump from pretender to contender.
The Calgary Flames should be a better team this coming season, if only because of an inevitable improvement in netminding. Getting better goalies was Treliving’s primary objective heading into the offseason and he no doubt achieved it.
There remains very clear question marks heading into 2017, however. The right side is questionable, the blueline is top-heavy, at least one of the kids needs to take a jump and the coaching staff has to make real strategic improvements.
Not all of these issues have to necessarily be answered this year, of course. That said, if they all simultaneously break the wrong way, the Flames may well be battling in the basement again. However, a few lucky breaks in one or two areas and Calgary could be playing in the post-season.