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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski/USA Today Sports

Four stories to watch down the stretch

With 22 games remaining, the Flames are already in their 2021 stretch drive, which is hard to wrap your head around. Calgary’s playoff math is ugly and they’re a long shot to make it, which will likely take away most of the buzz in final third of the season. But, for the dedicated Flames fan, I’ve got four stories to keep an eye on as we head towards April.

1. Staying in the race

I’m curious how our fine Flamesnation readers look at Calgary’s push for a playoff spot, if indeed you can call it that. Following another ugly loss to the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday, the Flames dropped back below .500 and made their uphill climb that much steeper. Sure, they’re four points back of Montreal, but the Habs have now played three fewer games than Calgary. It’s not a pretty picture.

On the one hand, the Flames still have time to make up ground and there is an added glimmer of hope. The postponement of four games for Montreal due to COVID protocols adds more intrigue to this race than before. How will the Habs respond to an unscheduled break? And will their presumed makeup games with Edmonton in the week following the season have playoff implications, like needing to make up ground? Calgary’s chances remain slim, but for those trying to stay glass half-full, there’s a little optimism for you.

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Conversely, however, I know many are hoping things go the opposite way. If you think the Flames aren’t making the playoffs anyway, I can see why you’d be looking ahead to July’s NHL Draft. A higher pick is more desirable than missing by four points and I know faith is low this team could do much damage even if they did get in. It’s a dilemma fans in Calgary have faced far too many times over the last two decades.

2. The trade deadline

The April 12 deadline is just over two weeks away and the Flames have decisions to make. As we discussed earlier this week, this year doesn’t feel like the smartest one to be chasing a big fish, at least for me. I also don’t believe the 2021 deadline is the best time for Calgary to maximize the value of potential “core” assets. So… then what?

Well, the Flames still have a chance to make this a productive trade season. You can make a strong argument at least three of the pending free agents below would draw interest from playoff teams prior to the deadline. Furthermore, if that’s the direction Calgary chooses to go, they should have no problem helping out a trade partner by eating salary.

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Player Cap hit Expiry
Derek Ryan $3.125 million UFA
David Rittich $2.75 million UFA
Sam Bennett $2.55 million RFA
Josh Leivo $875,000 UFA
Brett Ritchie $700,000 UFA
Joakim Nordstrom $700,000 UFA
Nikita Nesterov $700,000 UFA

I included Bennett for two reasons: he has previously requested a trade and the team will likely be unable to protect him at this summer’s expansion draft. Knowing where things stand for Calgary right now, getting assets for pending UFA players just makes sense.

3. New faces

Running concurrently with the trade deadline theme is the idea of getting solid looks at one or two promising prospects. If the Flames do opt to move out two or three regulars prior to deadline, that could/should open the door for a pair of forwards on the farm: Matthew Phillips and Adam Ruzicka. You’re welcome, Mike Gould.

Player GP G A PTS
Matthew Phillips 15 6 9 15
Adam Ruzicka 15 7 7 14

With the team relatively healthy right now, I can understand Calgary attempting to salvage the season over the next couple weeks. If/when that doesn’t happen, though, it would be a great time to start elevating players from Stockton. Phillips and Ruzicka top the list, but you could easily include the likes of Connor Mackey, Luke Philp, and Glenn Gawdin too.

4. Milestones

Led by Milan Lucic, three Flames are closing in on significant milestones this season. Lucic will hit 1,000 career NHL games early in April, which will be a cool moment for one of Calgary’s best stories this year. Say what you want about the contract or the trade, but Lucic has been effective as a middle six winger and has as many or more even strength goals than Matthew Tkachuk, Sean Monahan, and Bennett.

Player Milestone Currently
Johnny Gaudreau 500 games 498
Mark Giordano 500 points 498
Milan Lucic 1000 games 992

With two more points, Giordano will become just the ninth player in franchise history to hit 500 and just the third defenceman, joining Al MacInnis (822) and Gary Suter (564). Gaudreau, on the other hand, is two games away from becoming the 21st player to suit up in 500 games as a member of the Flames.

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