The trade deadline has come and gone, which leaves the Flames have 18 games to determine exactly who and what they are. In a year plagued with inconsistency, Calgary holds down a playoff spot with just over a month to go. Now that they know who’s staying and who’s going, let’s dive into the stretch drive as this team looks to do something they haven’t done in a decade: qualify for the postseason in consecutive years.
With two games to go in each of February and April, much of what the Flames do will be determined by the 14 they play in March. Depending on how you look at things, Calgary’s schedule over the final 18 games either looks daunting or promising.
|27 at Nashville
29 at Tampa Bay
|01 at Florida
04 vs. Columbus
06 vs. Arizona
08 vs. Vegas
12 vs. New York Islanders
14 vs. Winnipeg
16 at New York Rangers
17 at New York Islanders
19 at New Jersey Devils
21 vs. Tampa Bay
23 vs. San Jose
25 vs. Anaheim
27 at Vancouver
31 vs. Winnipeg
|02 vs. Vegas
04 vs. Edmonton
In New Jersey, San Jose, and Anaheim, the Flames play just three teams out of postseason contention. That means the vast majority of Calgary’s remaining opponents will be other desperate teams fighting for their playoff lives. Particularly of note are the eight games they’ll play against teams in and and around them in the Pacific Division and Western Conference wildcard races.
The Flames play Vegas and Winnipeg twice with huge implications. Through February 25th, the Golden Knights are four up on Calgary for top spot in the Pacific with even games played. The Jets are two points back in the wildcard mix with one more game played. The Flames also have singles with Arizona, Vancouver, Edmonton, and Nashville. Every team in that group is either two points up or two points back of Calgary.
The home/road split is interesting to keep an eye on, too. 11 of Calgary’s final 18 games will be played at the Scotiabank Saddledome; all of those come after the team returns from the five-game trip they’re on now. Regularly, a home heavy schedule would be a good thing, but it doesn’t really feel that way where the Flames are concerned.
Calgary is just 4-9-2 in their last 15 home games, which isn’t a promising trend when looking ahead to March and April. Conversely, the Flames are 15-4-1 in their last 20 road games after Tuesday’s 5-2 win in Boston. Seeing so few games on the road down the stretch isn’t encouraging, either. These trends are by no means guaranteed to continue, but they add nuance to how things could go down the stretch.
Now that the deadline has passed, we have a good idea of what Calgary is working with for the rest of the year. In Erik Gustafsson and Derek Forbort, the Flames added a pair of everyday defencemen and said goodbye to organizational depth piece Brandon Davidson. No one else is leaving and, other than some potential returns from injury (more on that later), no one else is coming in.
Nothing changed for the Flames up front, as they didn’t get the top six forward many were hoping they would. While we could see some tweaking, the groupings Calgary went with Tuesday in Boston are a pretty good template to work off.
No one has been a bigger proponent of using Elias Lindholm at centre than me, and I still firmly believe that is best in the longterm. However, I understand why having him on the right side of Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan is important right now. The Flames need that line to be consistently dangerous to have a shot, and no one has been a better fit on the right side than Lindholm.
It’s also easier to lose Lindholm down the middle when you consider how well Mikael Backlund and his line have played of late. Along with Andrew Mangiapane and Matthew Tkachuk, that line has been downright dominant in nine games together since being reunited February 8th in Vancouver.
If the Flames can have Backlund’s line performing like above while also taking on the most difficult head-to-head matchups, they become so much harder to matchup against. The trio is routinely stomping the opposition when they’re on the ice, which opens things up for the other three forward lines.
On the back end, Calgary is deeper than they were prior to the deadline. While neither are five-on-five dynamos, Gustafsson and Forbort are regular NHL defencemen and fit just fine in third pairing roles. Furthermore, knowing what Gustafsson can do offensively, he has the opportunity to give the team a significant boost on the powerplay.
With Mark Giordano likely to return Thursday in Nashville, you can bet we’ll see the pairings above more often than not down the stretch. Kylington and Stone are nice extra pieces the team can slot in to shake things up if needed, or if they run into more injury trouble.
The injury situation
The Flames have two main injury questions right now. When will Travis Hamonic be back? And will Juuso Valimaki be an option at any point? To address the first, don’t expect Hamonic back in the near future. I believe he’s playing through a “mid-body” injury, which could be ribs, an oblique, or something else.
Hamonic is officially week-to-week and everything I’ve been told suggests his injury is too painful to play through. For pain to keep Hamonic out for any period of time, it has to be bad. He hasn’t started skating and I don’t think it’s crazy to think Hamonic could be out for the rest of the regular season.
As for Valimaki, his situation is also uncertain. As we reported last month, Calgary has been fully prepared all along for Valimaki not to play at all this season. He continues to skate on his own, which is good, but to expect Valimaki to jump into March or April NHL hockey is a big ask.
Unlike last season, Valimaki won’t be able to get a bunch of AHL games under his belt before suiting up in a playoff round. The Flames have the option to get Valimaki some work in Stockton on a conditioning stint, but last year he had 20 American League games before being recalled late in the season. That option doesn’t exist this spring.
All of that doesn’t even consider his expansion draft status, either, which remains unclear. The belief is, researched meticulously by our own Ryan Pike, that Valimaki playing one game professionally (NHL or AHL) this season will make him eligible for protection lists in the Seattle expansion draft next June. If that’s the case, erring on the side of caution and holding him out the rest of the year has an added benefit.