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It’s Calgary Flames day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Calgary Flames.

2017-18

37-35-10, 84 pts. (5th in Pacific Division, 11th in Western Conference)
Missed playoffs.

IN:

Noah Hanifin
Elias Lindholm
James Neal
Derek Ryan
Austin Czarnik
Alan Quine
Tyler Graovac

OUT:

Dougie Hamilton
Micheal Ferland
Adam Fox
Troy Brouwer (waivers, then buyout)
Matt Bartkowski
Cody Goloubef
Tyler Wotherspoon

RE-SIGNED:

Elias Lindholm
Jon Gillies
Dalton Prout
Morgan Klimchuk

Generally speaking, the Calgary Flames have been confusing because despite boasting some elite talent in Johnny Gaudreau and Mark Giordano, they really haven’t been able to put it together for a deep run. They’ve missed the postseason two of the last four years, including in 2017-18, and have only won a single playoff round since 2009-10.

The Flames come into next season as a confounding presence for a different reason: GM Brad Treliving made massive changes.

[Under Pressure | Three Questions | Building Off a Breakthrough]

Now, this franchise isn’t shy about making big alterations. They were bold in landing Travis Hamonic for assets that could ultimately help the Islanders soothe their John Tavares wounds, while Mike Smith was a bold bet that mostly worked out.

Those types of tweaks feel more like small potatoes after this summer.

After years of falling short under Glen Gulutzan, the Flames opted for Bill Peters. The former Hurricanes coach’s path feels a bit like the Flames’ as a whole: there have been signs of promise, yet Carolina never made the playoffs under Peters. Like the team he’s coaching, Peters has a lot to prove.

While the Flames essentially traded away their 2018 NHL Draft, they still made big headlines during that weekend, sending Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland, and Adam Fox to Peters’ former team in Carolina for Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm. Though the voting was close, PHT readers and many other pundits believe that the Hurricanes bested the Flames in that trade, and strange murmurs about why Hamilton allegedly didn’t fit in with teammates only made the swap seem murkier.

If that wasn’t enough, the Flames signed James Neal to a five-year deal that carries a $5.75 million cap hit. Such a contract doesn’t represent the worst-case scenario for what Neal might have fetched on the open market, but the bottom line is that’s dangerous term for a power forward who’s already 30.

The Flames also still need to sign Hanifin, whose value remains tricky to gauge.

Long story short, the jury’s very much out on this series of dramatic changes.

On the bright side, Neal and Lindholm bolster a Flames offense that already features Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Matthew Tkachuk, Mikael Backlund, and Michael Frolik. It feels foolish to hope that Sam Bennett will finally “figure it out,” but maybe a linemate upgrade might enhance a player who’s still just 22?

Hamonic didn’t provide the supporting boost the Flames sought on defense, and now that unit is a bigger question mark after moving a star (albeit a polarizing one?) in Hamilton. There’s a chance Hanifin will develop into a defenseman at Hamilton’s level, but it’s currently a gamble. One would speculate that the Flames organization is betting on Peters’ system improving their defense, rather than any roster tweaks making the difference.

Once again, the Flames enter a season with some big risks in net.

Smith, at times, was able to save a surprisingly leaky Flames team from itself last season. Unfortunately, injuries and other factors kept him from dragging Calgary to the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and age is a big concern as the big goalie is already 36. If a lot of starts fall to Jon Gillies and/or David Rittich, will Calgary flame out once more?

You can’t blame the Flames for sitting there idle after flubbing another opportunity to contend. That said, there are real questions about whether this team really improved or if the risks outweigh the rewards.

Prospect Pool

  • Juuso Valimaki, D, 19, Tri-City Americans (WHL) – 2017 first-round pick

You can probably pencil this Finn in as the Flames’ most promising blueline prospect. Valimaki, the 16th pick from 2017, generated 45 points in 43 games in the WHL, and Flames assistant GM Craig Conroy said that he has a shot at making the team in 2018-19.

“You hear what Bill Peters wants on defence and that’s Juuso Valimaki,” Conroy said to Torie Peterson of the Flames website. “It really is.”

“I expect him to come in here and really make a push, soon, to make the big club.”

Whenever he does, Valimaki brings a promising combination of size, smarts, and scoring to the table.

  • Dillon Dube, C, 20, Stockton Heat (AHL) – 2016 second-round pick

Conroy provided similar optimism about Dube making the Flames soon, too.

Dube’s shown potential as an agitating presence and hustle guy, to the point that he might have a leg up on other prospects in making the team sooner in a bottom-six role. Calgary certainly can use more support beyond their high-end talent, so that’s an appealing thought.

The 56th pick of the 2016 NHL Draft collected 84 points in 53 WHL games with the Kelowna Rockets, while Dube also generated four points in six AHL games in 2017-18.

  • Spencer Foo, RW, 24, Stockton Heat (AHL) – college free agent

Ready your bad Dave Grohl-related jokes, because Foo could be a fixture for the Flames … at least if he can fend off the team’s veteran forward options. Foo distinguished himself at Union College before turning pro last season, scoring two goals in four Flames games while also playing well (20 goals, 39 points in 62 AHL games) for the Stockton Heat.

His last name definitely serves as a handy tie-breaker against other prospects.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Seven hockey players suspended in Belarus match-fixing case

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ZURICH — Seven ice hockey players have been suspended during an investigation into match-fixing in the Belarus league.

The players — five from Belarus and two from Russia — told a domestic investigation they were paid to help arrange the outcome of a game in November, the International Ice Hockey Federation said on Friday.

“During the investigation, each of the players also admitted that they had agreed to exert an unlawful influence on the outcome of the game in exchange for illegal remuneration,” the governing body said in a statement.

The IIHF said its disciplinary board had taken over the case “for further review and sanctioning.”

The case involves Dynamo Molodechno’ losing to Mogilyov 6-5 in a Belarus Extraliga game.

The players have been suspended from taking part in any competition organized by the IIHF or its member federations.

PHT Morning Skate: NHL vs. viruses; Flat salary cap pain = Avs’ gain?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit for the PHT Morning Skate? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Lafreniere, COVID-19 hockey concerns, and how Avs may benefit from a flat salary cap

• Rank Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen among those expressing some misgivings about playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. [TSN]

• Breaking: Alexis Lafreniere is not a defenseman. In all seriousness, a look at some Maple Leafs possibilities … which might be complicated at No. 1 because of that positional point. Maybe? [Pension Plan Puppets]

• Speaking of those Maple Leafs, Buds fans are not pleased about the idea of a possible flat, $81.5M salary cap. There are teams who might take advantage of this situation, though. Here’s why the Avalanche could be one of those teams. [Mile High Hockey]

• A look back at the NHL’s “rivalries” with viruses. Does the history of the NHL’s dealing with such issues — even the Mumps — be a cause for concern amid COVID-19 outbreaks? [Arctic Ice Hockey]

• Earlier this week, PHT selected the best landing spots for Alexis Lafreniere. What about getting even more specific? Andrew Berkshire shared his picks for some of the lines that would benefit most from adding the consensus No. 1 pick to their left side. [Sportsnet]

Other hockey links

• Sean Gentille put together an oral history for the Jean Claude Van Damme masterpiece “Sudden Death.” If you haven’t heard of the candidate for “so-bad-it’s-good” designation, how about the elevator pitch: “Die Hard at a hockey game.” [The Athletic (sub required)]

• On face value, this article focuses most on Rudy Gobert and Novak Djokovic and athletes feeling invulnerable to COVID-19. But it’s a really good read for hockey fans, players, and executives as cautionary tales with a return-to-play picking up steam. [The Score]

• Joe Pelletier of Greatest Hockey Legends wonders why the bar is set so high for goalies to get into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Not an awful point when you consider that they play the most important position in the sport, and all. I wouldn’t mind Ron Hextall making a future cut, to name just one worthy goalie. [Greatest Hockey Legends]

• Five crossovers between hockey and Todd McFarlane. Yes, the “Spawn” guy. [PuckJunk]

• Taking a run at putting together the Sabres’ roster during the upcoming offseason. It gets elaborate, including potential trades. Yes, this scenario includes trading away Rasmus Ristolainen. Don’t they all? [Die by the Blade]

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Our Line Starts podcast: NHL, NHLPA nearing agreement; hub cities, Olympics, CBA

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Liam McHugh, Keith Jones, and Patrick Sharp react to the reports that the NHL and NHLPA are nearing the completion of a massive agreement that would not only cover this year’s Return to Play protocols, but also serve as an extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The guys discuss Edmonton and Toronto emerging as hub city favorites, as well as what it would mean for the NHL to return to the Olympics. Plus, a breakdown of the Qualifying Round series in both conferences.

Start-4:45 Edmonton, Toronto new hub city frontrunners
4:45-8:45 NHL, NHLPA nearing CBA extension, including Olympic participation
8:45-13:00 Other return to play details
14:00-23:00 Eastern Conference Qualifying Round preview
23:50-End Western Conference Qualifying Round preview

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

Mrazek vs. Reimer and other Hurricanes lineup questions readying for Rangers

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Beyond obvious outliers like the Penguins, the Hurricanes rank among the most legitimate of the NHL’s Qualifying Round teams. Yet as stable as the Hurricanes are compared to a field full of erratic teams, Carolina faces many of the same lineup questions as the Rangers, the team they’d face in a best-of-five series.

Some might argue that the Hurricanes face tougher questions than the Rangers. (Though, the Rangers aren’t off the hook in that regard.)

In particular, the Hurricanes may need training camp to find answers in net and on defense. For all we know, Hurricanes lineup questions could even persist beyond “Phase 3.”

Let’s glance at both the goalie and defense questions for the Hurricanes.

Who should start in Hurricanes playoff lineup: Mrazek or Reimer?

Reimer, Mrazek, Hurricanes Rangers lineup questions NHL playoffs
(Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

With Henrik Lundqvist jousting with two young upstarts, some might wonder if the Rangers have too much of a good thing in net. The Hurricanes don’t enjoy quite the abundance of options.

Even so, coach Rod Brind’Amour faces a decision, as they lack a clear No. 1. Should the Hurricanes go with Petr Mrazek — who helped them during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs — or James Reimer (who boasts superior numbers this season)?

If Brind’Amour knows, he’s putting on a poker face.

“It’s easy to say right now, ‘OK, I’m going to go with Petr,’ but I don’t know,” Brind’Amour said in a recent interview, via NHL.com’s Dan Rosen. “He may be in rough shape. I don’t know until I get to see them and see what they’re like.”

It’s unclear if that last playoff run explains why Mrazek would be the “easy” choice, or if that came down to Reimer entering the pandemic pause with injury issues. (The Hurricanes may also be concerned about Reimer’s rather lengthy run of injury hiccups, too.)

Because, again, Reimer performed at a higher level than Mrazek in 2019-20. Reimer boasts a better save percentage than Mrazek this season (.914 to Mrazek’s .905) and over their careers (.914 to Mrazek’s .910). Reimer takes most/all goalie “advanced stats” between the two this season, as well. Generally speaking, we’ve seen more from Reimer over the past few seasons than Mrazek, whose career was teetering on the edge here and there.

(But, to be fair, Reimer’s had his issues, too.)

Regardless, just about every team should take a long look at how their goalies are performing during training camps. Even teams with clearer No. 1 options.

Honestly, with the NHL not expected to limit the number of goalies at training camps, maybe the Hurricanes should even look at options like Anton Forsberg or Alex Nedeljkovic?

An unexpectedly crowded defense

Dougie Hamilton Hurricanes Rangers lineup decisions playoffs
(Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

During the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline, the Hurricanes acquired Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen. As you may remember, those moves hinged at least partially on injuries to Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce. After the twists of those bad-luck injuries, the pandemic threw off Carolina’s rhythm once more.

The best news is that it sounds like Hamilton will be available. Don’t let the museum talk fool you. If Hamilton maintained his hot pace and didn’t get injured, he would have been a go-to choice for those making arguments against John Carlson‘s Norris credentials. Either way, Hamilton provides an enormous boost to the Hurricanes lineup — one they weren’t expecting during the deadline.

On the other hand, Brind’Amour told NHL.com’s Rosen that Pesce remains unlikely to return. However …

“It’s going to be a long shot, but the longer this goes the shot gets a little shorter,” Brind’Amour said.

(Anyone else visualizing that after that rather literal description from Brind’Amour? No? OK.)

So, Hamilton stands as probable while Pesce looks unlikely. Beyond that, the Hurricanes have two still-new faces in Skjei (just seven not particularly impressive games played) and Vatanen (who was injured and didn’t even get to suit up). Let’s say that represents three defensemen for the Hurricanes. Here are the other contenders for spots in the Hurricanes defensive lineup:

  • Jaccob Slavin, a lock.
  • Jake Gardiner, who dealt with a tough season, averaging only 16:40 TOI. Still, Gardiner is experienced, played in 68 games this season, and may have benefited from the break.
  • Joel Edmundson (68 GP like Slavin and Gardiner, averaged more TOI than Gardiner with 18:27 per contest).
  • Trevor van Riemsdyk (49 GP, less than 15 minutes per night; still, Hurricanes are very familiar with TVR).
  • Haydn Fleury (45 GP, averaged fewer than 15 minutes per game).

Realistically, Brind’Amour could have eight options on defense, and possibly nine if Pesce makes unexpectedly rapid progress. Being that some of those options are quite good, there are worse problems to have.

But it still adds to the notion that training camp could be quite important for Hurricanes lineup decisions. With both goalies and defense, Brind’Amour emphasized a wait-and-see approach. So … we’ll see?

More on the Hurricanes, Rangers, return to play, and similar subjects:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.