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Who will pair up with Niklas Hjalmarsson now that Brian Campbell is gone?

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It’s easy to look at the Brian Campbell trade as a no-brainer for the Chicago Blackhawks. In the grand scheme of things, it really was.

That being said, one thing that often gets lost in the critiques of Campbell’s bloated $7+ million annual salary cap hit is that “Soupy” could play. Sure, his defensive game left something to be desired, but Campbell is a great skater whose offensive skills were undermined a bit in Chicago because he wasn’t getting top power play time thanks to Duncan Keith’s undeniable brilliance.

Niklas Hjalmarsson is almost certainly the Chicago player who will miss Campbell more than anyone else. Campbell has been Hjalmarsson’s running mate for the vast majority of their even strength time during their seasons with the Blackhawks, so it’s reasonable for CSNChicago.com’s Tracey Myers to wonder which defenseman will take Campbell’s place.

The Swede was usually Brian Campbell’s blue-line partner in crime last season. But with Campbell’s trade, the Chicago Blackhawks defenseman will be back there with someone else in 2011-12.

So who will it be?

“I haven’t heard anything yet,” said Hjalmarsson as he and fellow Blackhawks Viktor Stalberg and Marcus Kruger painted the team logo at the United Center on Wednesday. “It’s going to be different without Soupy. I’ll have to find someone else to play with and I think someone on this D core will be a good fit.”

He certainly has enough potential candidates from which to choose. Regardless of whom that will be, Hjalmarsson will come in refreshed and ready.

Looking at Dobber Hockey’s line combo numbers from the last three seasons, Hjalmarsson’s second most common partner was Brent Seabrook. Seabrook should spend most of his time alongside Keith, but the two might be paired together when Chicago needs a different look. None of Hjalmarsson’s third most common partners are with the team anymore, so it’s almost certain that he’ll need to get acquainted with his most common mate during training camp.

If I had to guess, my money would be on Steve Montador or Sean O’Donnell. Montador boasts a bit more offensive prowess and comes in with a bigger contract, so he’ll probably get the first chance to be in Chicago’s second pairing. O’Donnell is a stable and steady veteran blueliner who is considerably underrated, though, so don’t count him out either.

Either way, Hjalmarsson might be expected to provide a little more offense from the blueline now that he won’t be expected to back up an offensive catalyst like Campbell. If nothing else, the Blackhawks have options, as Myers points out that the team has eight defensemen to choose from.

Knowing head coach Joel Quenneville’s line-changing ways, it wouldn’t be surprising if Hjalmarsson sees a little bit of everything before he settles on a consistent defensive partner.

Poll: Will the Flames be a playoff team in 2016-17?

CALGARY, AB - JANUARY 7: Johnny Gaudreau #13 (L) of the Calgary Flames confers with his teammate Sean Monahan #23 during a break in play against the Detroit Red Wings during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on January 7, 2015 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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This is part of Calgary Flames day at PHT…

When the Calgary Flames reached the second round of the 2015 playoffs there were a lot of concerns about whether or not they could repeat that level of play the following season. Even after adding Dougie Hamilton to their blue line in a trade with the Boston Bruins they were still a popular pick to see a big regression in 2015-16.

They not only regressed and missed the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years, they finished as one of the worst teams in the NHL standings and fired Bob Hartley, the NHL’s coach of the year from the previous season.

Along with hiring a new coach this summer — former Dallas Stars coach Glen Gulutzan — they also added Troy Brouwer in free agency from the St. Louis Blues and overhauled their goaltending by trading for Brian Elliott and signing Chad Johnson in free agency. If the Flames are going to rebound in 2016-17 the latter additions are going to have to be the biggest reason why.

Even though the Flames have Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Hamilton leading their defense, a top-three that can be as good as any other top trio in the NHL. As a team, they only allowed teams to get an average of 29 shots on goal per game, a number that was good enough for the top-10 in the NHL. But because they received the absolute worst goaltending in the NHL and were the only team that couldn’t collectively top a .900 save percentage, it sent the team to the bottom of the goals against leaderboard.

If their goaltenders could manage even a .910 save percentage, which would still be below the league average, on the same number of shots it could shave as many as 40 goals off of that total over the course of an 82-game season. That alone could help close that gap in the playoff race.

Along with what should be an improved goaltending situation and their excellent trio on defense, the Flames also still have that exciting group of young forwards led by Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett, and could potentially be adding No. 6 overall pick Matthew Tkachuk to it as well.

Expecting them to catch Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose at the top of the Pacific Division definitely seems like a long shot, but the bottom half of the Western Conference has taken a big step backwards over the past couple of years. A team made the playoffs last season with 87 points, and while that number should increase this season, once you get beyond the top five or six teams in the West the field is pretty wide open, and if the Flames can get that improved goaltending from Elliott and Johnson they should be able to be right in the thick of that race.

So, can they do it?

Under pressure: Brian Elliott and the Flames’ goalies

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 12: Brian Elliott #1 of the St. Louis Blues tends net against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on November 12, 2015 in New York City. The Rangers defeated the Blues 6-3.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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This is part of Calgary Flames day at PHT…

The Calgary Flames had their share of flaws during the 2015-16 season. None were more damaging than a goaltending situation that produced the worst team save percentage in the entire league.

That, perhaps more than anything else, contributed to the team giving up the most goals in the NHL and going from a team that was in the second round of the playoffs the year before, to a team that finished with the fifth worst record in the league.

To help address that glaring weakness the Flames completely overhauled their goaltending over the summer by acquiring Brian Elliott from the St. Louis Blues and signing Chad Johnson in free agency.

The Elliott move is obviously, the big one, but the pressure is going to be on both of them to solidify a position that was one of the worst in the NHL a year ago.

For Elliott, it is going to be a huge opportunity because he is finally going to be the No. 1 guy without having somebody else constantly looking over his shoulder. During his time in St. Louis he consistently put up great numbers, including a .925 save percentage that was among best league between 2011 and 2016. But even with that strong play the Blues never seemed willing to fully trust him to be their top guy and and were always going out of their way to take playing time away from him, whether it was with Jaroslav Halak, Jake Allen, or acquiring Ryan Miller in a deadline trade.

That is not going to be an issue for him going into Calgary.

That also means a little added pressure. Because he’s almost always been a part of a goaltending platoon during his career (he played more than 38 games one time in five years in St. Louis), and because he spent the past few years playing behind a Ken Hitchcock coached defensive team, he is going to have to prove that he is not only capable of sustaining that level of play as a full-time starter, but also that his success in St. Louis wasn’t the product of a system.

If he can do both and come even close to performing the way he did in St. Louis it is going to go a long way toward helping the Flames erase the memory what was pretty much a lost 2015-16 season and get back closer to the postseason in 2016-17.

Looking to make the leap: Matthew Tkachuk

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24:  Matthew Tkachuk celebrates with the Calgary Flames after being selected sixth overall during round one of the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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This is part of Calgary Flames day at PHT…

Even though the 2015-16 season was a disappointing one for the Calgary Flames, they still have a great young core of young forward talent. They added to that group at the 2016 NHL draft when they selected Matthew Tkachuk with the No. 6 overall pick, immediately making him one of the team’s top prospects.

The 18-year-old forward is coming off of a monster season for the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League that saw him score 30 goals and add 77 assists in only 57 games.

When you combine his skill, size and strength he has the potential to add a power forward dimension to the Flames lineup that none of their young forwards currently possess. That could make him an intriguing candidate to make the NHL roster as early as this season, and even though he did not skate at the team’s prospect evaluation camp (something the Flames were OK with given how much hockey he played last year) he is entering camp with the mindset that he is going to make the team right away.

Because of his age he is not yet eligible to play in the American Hockey League, and as he showed last season during his time with an incredible London team he doesn’t really have much left to prove at the junior level after putting up absolutely massive numbers as a 17-year-old.

If nothing else a nine-game look in the NHL to start the season seems like a very real possibility.

It’s not like the Flames are opposed to giving recent draft picks an early look in the NHL if they show they belong. Sean Monahan made the immediate jump to the NHL after being selected in 2013, while Sam Bennett played a role in the 2014-2015 playoffs after he was selected with the No. 4 overall pick that year. There is no reason to think that Tkachuk can’t do the same. Especially when Brian Burke has already referred to his style of play as “kind of a pain in the ass” and that the Flames don’t have enough guys that are like that.

With Monahan, Bennett and Johnny Gaudreu already in place the Flames have an exciting young group of forwards that have already shown they can be top-line players in the NHL.

It is not going to be long before Tkachuk joins them.

It’s Calgary Flames day at PHT

PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 29: Sean Monahan #23 of the Calgary Flames celebrates his goal with teammates against the Philadelphia Flyers during the first period at Wells Fargo Center on February 29, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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If you want to boil the Calgary Flames’ past two seasons down simply, you could do worse than this:

In 2014-15: Bob Hartley won the Jack Adams Award.

In 2015-16: The Flames fired Bob Hartley.

The Flames finished this past season with 77 standings points, missing the playoffs for the sixth time in the last seven years.

While Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan survived the sophomore curse, the Flames couldn’t survive in their own end. No team allowed more goals than the 260 Calgary surrendered last season. It cost people some jobs, most notably that of Hartley.

Off-season

Naturally, the first big change in Calgary comes with Glen Gulutzan replacing Hartley behind the bench.

Much like the team he’s coaching, Gulutzan needs to get over some past failures (he failed to make the playoffs during his two seasons coaching the Dallas Stars) but is young enough (45) to argue that the best days are ahead.

To little surprise, the Flames decided that Karri Ramo, Jonas Hiller and Joni Ortio isn’t necessarily the group of goalies to get things done. The Flames brought in two-time All-Star Brian Elliott to try to right the ship.

The Flames didn’t stop there, adding Chad Johnson as Elliott’s backup. With a .917 career save percentage, Johnson could very well keep Elliott on his toes.

Aside from big improvements behind the bench and in the net, the Flames’ most noteworthy work came in extending Sean Monahan,* picking up Troy Brouwer and landing Matthew Tkachuk in the draft.

Calgary is making a lot of strong moves, but did they make enough to climb back into the postseason in 2016-17? PHT will explore these factors on Saturday.

* – Naturally, the biggest move needs to come soon: also handing an extension to Gaudreau.