29Sean Monahan
Photo Credit: Candice Ward / USA Today Sports

Rebound seasons from key players among four early season storylines to watch

The 2021-22 season is finally underway and it started with a loss on opening night for a 12th consecutive year. While optimism always exists to begin a new season, it’s fair to say there’s a healthy amount of skepticism built up amongst Flames fans right now. That’s understandable, too, knowing how things went over 56 games last year.

With 81 games, or 98.8%, of the season remaining, there’s still ample time for Calgary to figure things out. For the Flames to get back to the postseason, though, they’ll need positive answers to most of the following four questions.

Will enough players have bounce back seasons?

For me, Calgary needs rebound years from three guys: Matthew Tkachuk, Sean Monahan, and Rasmus Andersson. Positively, there were encouraging signs from all three in Edmonton. Per Natural Stat Trick, Tkachuk finished with nine shots, 12 attempts, and six individual high danger chances against the Oilers. Andersson, on the other hand, looked right at home with Noah Hanifin on what was the team’s best pairing.

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As for Monahan, he had good stretches in his first full speed game since being shelved in May. At the same time, there were times when Monahan looked like a guy coming back from significant hip surgery. It’s going to take a little time for Monahan to work his way back, but I thought he looked generally solid in Edmonton, especially considering the circumstances.

The Flames need all three players to be significantly better than they were last year. Tkachuk is coming off his worst year as a pro and Calgary relies on him as a primary driver. A return to 20-goal form from Monahan will make the Flames so much more difficult to matchup against. And a step forward from Andersson will go a long way in helping Calgary make up for the loss of Mark Giordano.

How heavy will Jacob Markstrom’s workload be?

I thought Markstrom looked generally good against the Oilers. It was hard to fault him on any of the first three goals against and he made some big saves to keep the Flames within striking distance. That said, the team probably needed a save on Jesse Puljujarvi’s insurance goal 26 seconds after Elias Linhdolm got them within one. Now we watch to see how often Calgary rolls out their $6 million man.

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Managing workloads for goalies can be a contentious topic, but I believe it’s an important one in this case. Markstrom turns 32 in January and has missed time due to injury in each of his last two seasons. To suggest there’s wisdom in guarding against wearing down Markstrom isn’t crazy. That applies even more in a condensed Olympic year where Markstrom is expected to see plenty of action in Beijing with Sweden.

Encouragingly, newcomer Dan Vladar has been one of the fall’s positive stories. In five preseason appearances, Vladar made 111 saves on 121 shots for a 0.917 save percentage. It’s just the preseason, but the 24-year-old made a positive impression. If Vladar can play at that level in his early regular season appearances, I think Calgary can keep Markstrom to around 55 starts this year.

Will someone step up on the blueline?

I think Flames fans can feel confident in this team’s clear top three on defence: Andersson, Hanifin, and Chris Tanev. With Giordano’s departure, though, there remains a great deal of uncertainty about how the rest of this blueline should look.

Nikita Zadorov started the season in Calgary’s top four on a pairing with Tanev. Unfortunately, continuing a trend from the preseason, those two struggled together five-on-five and were out-chanced 4-1 at high danger by the Oilers. It’s just one game, but that’s not what we’re used to from Tanev and it’s something that can’t continue.

It looks like Zadorov is going to get the first chance to prove he can play top four left side minutes and that experiment should be given some leash. However, if things don’t meaningfully improve, the Flames will have to try a different option at some point. Juuso Valimaki had a nice season opener and if that trend continues, giving him a shot with Tanev has intriguing possibilities. Regardless, someone needs to step up and solidify Calgary’s top two pairings.

Were the final 30 games under Darryl Sutter legit?

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Upon Sutter taking over as head coach, the Flames finished last season with impressive underlying metrics. In the 30-game stretch with Sutter behind the bench, Calgary was the league’s second best five-on-five possession team (55.0%) and limited shots and chances effectively. During that same period, Calgary ranked third overall in even strength shots against (20.3) and second in high danger chances against (6.2).

Of course, 30 games is still a small sample size for an NHL team, which is why some wonder if it’s an accurate representation of what’s to come over a full season. Knowing Sutter’s track record, though, I’m confident what we saw down the stretch last year was legit. Teams coached by Sutter have consistently been highly ranked in possession and defensive metrics.

Adding to that confidence is the way Saturday played out in Edmonton. The Flames finished their season opener at 63.4% possession and had a 52-30 edge in five-on-five shot attempts. Now, that didn’t lead to a ton of quality chances or offence, which is an important next step. But for now, it looks like Calgary is building a solid foundation with their style of play.