An all-Canadian division is a certainty if/when the next NHL season starts in mid-January. With at least nine games against each team, and with moves we’ve seen over the offseason, a Canadian division has the potential to be as tight and hotly contested as any in recent memory. So how do the Flames stack up compared to the six opponents they’re about to become very familiar with? Let’s start between the pipes.
We’ve got pieces coming out focusing on forwards and the blueline this month, too, and Calgary is very competitive at both those positions. For me, though, goaltending is their biggest strength entering next year and in comparison to the rest of the division.
The scouting report
It’s my opinion the signing of Jacob Markstrom is the most significant addition the Flames have made in years and gives them something they haven’t had since the early 2010s: a true number one goaltender. Markstrom has a proven resume of being able to shoulder a number one workload while posting consistently strong results. That’s something Calgary hasn’t been able to say since Miikka Kiprusoff was in top form.
Others believe they’d have been fine sticking with the same tandem of David Rittich and Cam Talbot and goaltending wasn’t the team’s most pressing need. That’s fine, and this all remains to be seen. For me, though, pairing Markstrom with Rittich instantly places the Flames in the upper tier of goaltending in this division.
We’ve seen Rittich play like a number one at different times over the last three seasons. Unfortunately he hasn’t been able to do it over a full season and has been prone to significant drop-offs. But with Markstrom in the fold, I really like Rittich as a number two or 1B option, depending on how you look at it. These two have the potential to form one of the better tandems in the NHL.
I put Montreal number one here because I’m not counting out a fresh, rested Carey Price. He’s put up back-to-back solid, durable regular seasons and was all-world during the NHL’s Return to Play. In ten starts against Pittsburgh and Philadelphia over the summer, Price posted a 0.936 SV% and stood on his head more often than not. Adding Jake Allen as his tandem-mate pushed things over the top for the Canadiens.
The gap between the Flames and Jets is tiny and I almost gave the edge to the latter knowing Connor Hellebuyck is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner. But because the gap between Hellebuyck and Markstrom is fairly small, I lean towards Calgary’s tandem here. Rittich is an upgrade over Laurent Brossoit, which puts the Flames over the top for me.
The gaps between one through five are all quite small here, in fact. If Frederik Andersen returns to 2018-19 form, his Toronto pairing with Jack Campbell is on par as the three teams ranked above them. Andersen had a “down” 2019-20 regular season, but even still, he was at a 0.909 SV% over 52 starts and was very strong in five playoff games.
Vancouver lost Markstrom, but gained two things: Braden Holbty and an expanded role for Thatcher Demko. The only reason the Canucks aren’t ranked higher is due to questions surrounding both goaltenders. After an incredible playoff run vs. Vegas, will Demko be able to maintain a high level with an increased workload? And after a rough regular season and playoffs with Washington, what will Vancouver get from newly signed Holtby?
The Oilers are coming back with Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith, the exact same tandem from last season. I don’t think Edmonton’s goaltending is particularly bad, but they don’t have a legit number one and I don’t see the ceiling as high as Vancouver’s tandem. I’m the first to admit: Koskinen and Smith were both good in stretches last year and Edmonton’s impressive talent elsewhere greatly mitigates the impact of goaltending. But if we’re looking at this strictly position-by-position, I can’t rank the Oilers higher than sixth.
That leaves us with Ottawa, who acquired Matt Murray in October and signed him shortly thereafter. The Senators need Murray to stay healthy, first and foremost, because when he’s healthy he can be a top-end goalie. The problem is, Murray hasn’t been able to make that happen on a regular basis and is coming off his worst statistical season. There are a lot of questions, mixed with cautious optimism, when looking at Ottawa’s tandem of Murray and Anders Nilsson.