The high-profile Flames skaters are having a miserable series: the top line is nowhere to be found, none of the high scorers through the regular season are actually scoring, the defence is a disaster and there’s only so much one goalie can do. Things do not look particularly hopeful for the Flames in the spring of 2019 at all.
But – even through small contributions – some members of the team are setting themselves up to look like contributors for the 2019-20 season and beyond. It’s mostly bad, but it’s not all bad.
Rasmus Andersson has gone from not making the Flames’ opening night roster to being trusted on occasion on playing on the top pairing: even during a playoff game. He’s gone through the trials and tribulations of adjusting to the league to turning into one of the Flames’ most valuable assets, and he honed away at his craft so quietly on the third pairing it’s hard to pinpoint where the shift really started happening.
It happened, though, and it’s continued through the playoffs. Nineteen points in 79 games has translated to three points in four playoff games. It’s a smaller sample size, of course, but Andersson has still take charge offensively. Sixteen of his 19 regular season points came from January onwards: that switch flipped with the new year, and it hasn’t flipped off. He gets powerplay time; he’s thrown out on the ice in crucial, late-game moments. He’s a threat to the other team. His skating will sometimes see him beat, but his instincts, smarts, and shot will often make up for it.
Andersson is going to be one to watch for a while yet – and considering how well he’s playing now, it’s going to be really fun to see how well he plays with a full year of NHL experience under him. He’s 22 years old and already looking a legitimate top pairing guy, and his postseason performance has been one of the best the Flames have had to offer so far.
Andrew Mangiapane opened the Flames’ playoff scoring. Though he’s yet to get a point since then, he’s still had his moments in the following games – all with limited opportunities, playing on the bottom six – that hint at there being more to come.
He’s one of the few Flames forwards it’s hard to take an issue with: the drive and the effort have been there each game, along with the scoring chances, even if only the one has gone in. Don’t forget, though, that during the regular season he scored 13 points in 44 games, 12 of those points coming from February onwards. His corner-turning has been much slower and much less pronounced than Andersson’s, but it’s been there all the same, and in the worst case scenario, Mangiapane does look like he could at least be a depth forward with potential to score.
The rest will hopefully come.
But even if it doesn’t, the Flames were finally able to dig out an NHLer from their 2015 sixth round pick. The team started with a slot open in its forward lineup for a prospect to take. Dillon Dube won it initially, until it became apparent he’d need some time in the minors to find his game. Once he was sent down, absolutely nobody was actually showing any hint of being good enough to make that lineup spot his permanently: until Mangiapane got settled in.
You hope he can turn into a scorer, though having young, high-scoring forwards isn’t exactly something the Flames are really lacking (recent small sample size aside). But he’s still someone they have, and that’s one more spot in the lineup likely filled for 2019-20 that was a question mark to start 2018-19 – and his playoff performance so far has done nothing to dissuade that.
It’s been one game. He had an assist. He made some good defensive plays. But it’s only been one playoff game.
Still, the Flames, already looking stacked on defensive prospects, picked Valimaki in the first round in 2017 for a reason. That reason became apparent when he made the team out of camp and appeared to be settled in by November, at least until a seemingly innocuous at first injury pretty much wiped out the rest of this rookie season.
But the Flames knew they needed to be better for Game 4, so they took a risk, putting him right back into a competitive game scenario at the highest level: something he hadn’t played for four and a half months. And he looked like he hadn’t missed a beat.
Andersson, free of injury, had the chance to grow through the 2018-19 season. It seems as though Valimaki’s time will be in the 2019-20 season – but going by the early returns, the Flames are looking pretty good going forward when it comes to young, high-end defencemen. There’s so much to look forward to here: and his first playoff game, though just one game, hints at what still may be to come for his career.
Though it seems unlikely they’ll draw in for this series – or, at this rate, the playoffs to begin with – don’t forget about Dube, who registered 39 points in 37 AHL games once he was sent down (or the fact that he already has 25 NHL games under his belt – and judging by his AHL performance, there should certainly be more on the way). He wasn’t ready for a full-time spot in the lineup this year; it was also his first year as a professional. Maybe he’ll be ready for a full-time spot in the NHL in 2019-20, maybe he won’t, but the early returns are positive.
And then there’s Oliver Kylington, who had to step up and play 38 games in the NHL this past season: likely far more than the Flames wanted of him or expected him to, and a possible contributor to the future of the team in his own right.
The Flames don’t really have any high-end prospects beyond those five that entered the season as such – with at least three appearing to have graduated – yet. Hopefully more will reveal themselves as they begin their professional careers (or as their professional careers progress); in the meantime, remember the Flames still have a young team.
Though early positive playoff performance doesn’t necessarily mean anything in the long run – for all the angst currently surrounding Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, remember that for their first playoffs in 2015 they had nine and six points, respectively, in 11 games each – it’s at least something to focus on.
The Flames probably weren’t supposed to be the best in the West this year. The playoffs may be showing that a little. But this is still just the beginning for this team: and for some of the team’s youngest players, it’s a good beginning. It’s better than the alternative.