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Photo Credit: (L-R) NBCSports.com; Anne-Marie Sorvin/USA TODAY Sports; Sergei Belski/USA TODAY Sports. Graphic by Mike Gould.

Know the North: Calgary Flames 2021 Season Preview

Welcome back to “Know the North,” our 2021 season preview series here at FlamesNation projecting each of the seven Canadian teams set to face off in the new North Division.

Finally, we’ve reached the end. It’s time to bring it home and take a look at a very familiar team—albeit, one that’s made some sizeable changes since the last time we saw them.

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The Calgary Flames spent the off-season acquiring player after player from the Vancouver Canucks, signing two goalies, a winger, and a defenseman from their rivals to the west. They also solidified their head coaching position, expanded their focus on goaltending with a big new department, and, perhaps most importantly, came out with some sweet new jerseys.

Calgary Flames

2019-20: 36-27-7 (4th Pacific, 8th Western)

Captain: Mark Giordano

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Coach: Geoff Ward

General Manager: Brad Treliving

Key additions: F Josh Leivo, F Joakim Nordstrom, F Dominik Simon, F Connor Zary, D Chris Tanev, D Nikita Nesterov, D Alex Petrovic, D Connor Mackey, G Jacob Markstrom, G Louis Domingue

Key departures: F Tobias Rieder, F Mark Jankowski, F Austin Czarnik, F Alan Quine, D Travis Hamonic, D TJ Brodie, D Erik Gustafsson, D Derek Forbort, G Cam Talbot, G Jon Gillies

No NHL goaltender signed a bigger contract this off-season than Jacob Markstrom did when he put pen to paper on his six year, $36 million deal with the Flames.

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It’s an audacious move by general manager Brad Treliving, particularly as the team is still waiting on the repercussions to subside from his last big UFA mistake, James Neal. That said, Markstrom undeniably established himself as the top goalie on the market after a great 2019-20 season with Vancouver.

According to Evolving-Hockey, out of the 50 NHL goaltenders who played in at least 1,000 minutes of game time in 2019-20, Markstrom finished seventh in goals saved above average (11.56) and 12th in goals saved above expected (3.77). He ranked solidly above average in both of these categories, especially compared to the Flames’ options from last season:

2019-20 goaltenders GSAA (league rank) GSAx (league rank)
Jacob Markstrom (VAN) 11.56 (7th) 3.77 (12th)
David Rittich (CGY) -4.69 (35th) -0.29 (23rd)
Cam Talbot (CGY) 6.75 (17th) -10.43 (40th)

The Flames made a huge investment in Markstrom with the expectation that he’ll provide the team with some stability in net that they haven’t had since the departure of Miikka Kiprusoff in 2013. Our own Ryan Pike said that Markstrom is likely to be one of the players whose play either “makes or breaks” the Flames next year.

“Can Markstrom be as consistently good for the Flames as he was for a good chunk of last season with Vancouver?” said Pike, crafting a rhetorical question for Markstrom to answer in the upcoming season. Pike also identified some other figures likely to be big drivers of the Flames’ success—or lack thereof—in 2020-21.

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“Were the playoffs a sign that Father Time has finally come for Giordano?” asked Pike. “Or does he have some youth left in his game? And can Gaudreau find the swagger that made him an uber-dangerous 99 point player in 2018-19?”

Both Giordano and Gaudreau have two seasons remaining on their respective six year deals and it’s unclear whether they’ll remain Flames beyond the duration of their contracts. Giordano won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman two seasons ago; Gaudreau, as mentioned, set a career-high with 99 points while leading the Flames to a 107-point season.

But neither of the Flames’ “Killer ‘G’s” could repeat their 2018-19 performances last season, with both players posting largely unremarkable results. At 27, Gaudreau is still reasonably young; Giordano, 37, is not.

Behind Gaudreau and Giordano, the Flames boast a wealth of talent and options. Matthew Tkachuk looks to be stealing Gaudreau’s spot as the team’s offensive heartbeat, with Elias Lindholm close behind—look for them to start the season together on a line. Sean Monahan is still around and he’ll likely score 20 goals for an eighth consecutive year. Rasmus Andersson, Noah Hanifin, and Juuso Valimaki all possess a ton of upside as two-way defensemen.

New on defense? Chris Tanev, signed to a four year, $18 million deal on Oct. 9. Tanev will likely be looked at as a sort of hybrid-like replacement for both the departed TJ Brodie and Travis Hamonic, bringing both skating skills and a calm demeanour reminiscent of the former and the defensive pedigree of the latter.

In this case, does Tanev’s high pedigree equal ability? In the past, it has—Tanev consistently posted great defensive results in the early to mid-2010s. Recently, however, things have taken a turn for the worse.

Tanev gets a lot of defensive deployments and spends a lot of his time on the ice while his team is shorthanded. Recently, he hasn’t driven play well in any situation. The Canucks outperformed the expected results of his play last year; it remains to be seen whether that fortune will transfer over to Calgary.

“[Tanev will] probably play top four minutes all season unless he gets hurt. He’s got awful injury luck, so don’t rule that out,” said Pike. “But his main gig will be to be the defensive-minded veteran on the right side of an energetic youngster, so, at some point, I think he plays with Juuso Valimaki, but primarily he’ll be Noah Hanifin’s backup.”

Valimaki, of course, is coming off an extremely difficult two years. First, he missed the majority of 2018-19 with a high ankle sprain; then, his entire 2019-20 season fell by the wayside after he suffered a torn ACL. But Valimaki looked dominant with Tampereen Ilves to begin 2020-21 and will look to continue that momentum in his return to Calgary.

Beyond their top four forwards, the Flames will be relying on a diverse collection of options for secondary scoring in 2020-21. The most intriguing of the lot are undeniably Dillon Dube and Andrew Mangiapane, the latter of whom already has a 17-goal season under his belt.

Then, there are Josh Leivo and Sam Bennett, currently projected to be starting the season on the fourth line. Bennett was the Flames’ best player in the 2020 playoffs, scoring five goals and eight points in 10 games; Leivo, meanwhile, is another ex-Canuck who recorded 19 points in just 36 games last year.

“[Leivo will] bounce around the top nine a bit,” said Pike. “He’s too good to slide down to the fourth line entirely, but I can see him riding shotgun to any of the team’s regular forward pairs—Gaudreau and Monahan, Lindholm and Tkachuk, and Backlund and Mangiapane.

“For Bennett’s future in Calgary, it would behoove him to find regular season consistency that he thus far hasn’t had as a pro,” Pike added.

The Flames’ lineup will likely exist in flux for much of the upcoming year. They’re a difficult team to project, particularly given their status of being (barely) underneath the salary cap. Ultimately, their stars need to be stars, and whoever slots in around them on any given night needs to step up consistently or risk being swapped out.

If Gaudreau, Lindholm, Tkachuk, Monahan, and Giordano can all return to their 2018-19 brilliance while Dube and Mangiapane both take another step, the Flames could run away with the North Division crown. But if Markstrom is a bust and Tanev continues to regress, things could look tough. We’ll begin to find out on Thursday.

Projected Lineup:

Matthew Tkachuk Elias Lindholm Dillon Dube
Johnny Gaudreau Sean Monahan Dominik Simon
Milan Lucic Mikael Backlund Andrew Mangiapane
Joakim Nordstrom Sam Bennett Josh Leivo
Derek Ryan
Mark Giordano Rasmus Andersson
Noah Hanifin Chris Tanev
Juuso Valimaki Nikita Nesterov
Connor Mackey
Jacob Markstrom (starter) David Rittich

Projected Taxi Squad:

F Zac Rinaldo F Byron Froese
D Alex Petrovic D Oliver Kylington G Louis Domingue

Update — upon the release of Tuesday’s waiver news, the projected taxi squad was updated with Oliver Kylington in place of Michael Stone.