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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.

The Buzzer: Pageau, Panarin stay hot; Blues sign Brouwer

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Three Stars

1. Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers. The Rangers may not be where they want in the standings right now, but Panarin has been everything they could have possibly expected him to be and more. He extended his point streak to 12 games on Wednesday night with a two-goal effort in the Ranges’ 4-1 win over the Washington Capitals. Panarin has recorded at least one point in 16 of his 19 games this season and has at least two points in seven games during his current streak, including three in a row. Read all about the Rangers’ big win right here.

2. Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Ottawa Senators. Don’t look now but the Senators are just a single point behind the Toronto Maple Leafs in the standings and have played in one less game. The biggest reason for the Senators’ recent surge has been a goal-scoring binge from Pageau that has seen him score 10 goals in the month of November, tops in the league. His goal on Wednesday to open the scoring in the Senators’ 2-1 overtime win against Montreal was his 13th of the season and 10th of the month. He is on track for a career year offensively. The timing could not be better for him personally as he is in the final year of his contract and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. It will also increase his trade value for the Senators if they look to continue their rebuild by dealing him before the trade deadline.

3. Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators. Goaltending (mostly from Anders Nilsson) is the other big reason for the Senators’ recent improvement, and on Wednesday it was Anderson doing his best to steal two points by stopping 35 of the 36 shots he faced against the Canadiens. It was probably Anderson’s best performance of the season.

Blues add some forward depth

The defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues made a roster move on Wednesday by signing veteran forward Troy Brouwer to a one-year contract. He spent the 2018-19 season playing for the Florida Panthers, scoring 12 goals and adding nine assists in 75 games. That move comes on the same day the team announced that forward Sammy Blais will be sidelined for 10 weeks after he was injured in the Blues’ win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night. The Blues are already playing without Vladimir Tarasenko and Alexander Steen, and recently traded Robby Fabbri to the Detroit Red Wings.

Highlight of the Night

Brady Tkachuk was the overtime hero for the Senators, finishing a great breakaway and taking advantage of a miscommunication by the Canadiens.

Factoids

  • Henrik Lundqvist earned his 454th career win, moving him into a tie with Curtis Joseph for fourth place on the NHL’s all-time list. [NHL PR]
  • Panarin’s 12-game point streak is the Rangers’ longest since Scott Gomez during the 2007-08 season. [Rangers Stats & Info]
  • Pageau just needs more three more goals in November to tie the Senators’ franchise record for most goals in a month. Ottawa has five more games this month.  [NHL PR]
  • John Carlson added another assist to his total for the season, giving him 36 points on the season. Entering play on Wednesday he and Bobby Orr were the only defensemen in NHL history that needed only 23 games to hit the 35-point mark. [NHL PR]
  • Nick Suzuki scored the only goal for Montreal, giving him six on the season. That is second among the NHL’s rookies this season. [NHL PR]

Scores

Ottawa Senators 2, Montreal Canadiens 1 (OT)
New York Rangers 4, Washington Capitals 1

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Panarin, Lundqvist help Rangers take down Capitals

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If the Rangers are going to contend for a postseason position, their top players have to perform.

On Wednesday Night Hockey, Artemi Panarin and Henrik Lundqvist led the Rangers to a surprising 4-1 victory against the NHL-leading Washington Capitals.

Panarin extended his individual point streak to 12 games and is living up to the high-priced contract he signed this past summer. The Russian winger has 11 goals and 14 assists through 19 games in his first season on Broadway.

Lundqvist picked up his first win since a vintage performance against the Carolina Hurricanes in early November when he made 47 saves.

Rangers power play has the right ingredients

Any time you add a deadly scorer via free agency, your power play unit should improve. The Rangers have multiple weapons and a player to fill each critical role. For years they were missing a puck-moving defenseman, a net front presence and a big shot from the outside, but Jeff Gorton and his staff have assembled a roster that should excel when skating up a man.

Panarin notched two power-play goals on Wednesday from the left circle but is not the only threat when the Rangers are on the man-advantage. Chris Kreider is a quick power forward that can create havoc in front of the goaltender and Adam Fox has been able to quarterback the play from the point. Mika Zibanejad has been sidelined a few weeks with an upper-body injury, but also boasts a big right-handed shot when in the lineup.

Offseason changes looming in Washington?

The Capitals have been one of the most dangerous teams in the Eastern Conference for quite some time, but this might be their final hoorah with the band together.

Forward Nicklas Backstrom — who missed his first game of the season with an upper-body injury – and goaltender Braden Holtby are unrestricted free agents this upcoming summer and have been key pieces in recent years.

Backstrom has long been Alex Ovechkin’s underappreciated sidekick and Holtby is constantly having to prove himself with Ilya Samsonov waiting for his chance to become a starting goalie.

Washington is off to a tremendous start and a November slip up against the Rangers is not going to damage their postseason plans. But, this could be the final season the Capitals get another crack at the Stanley Cup with their core from the past decade intact.

Climbing up the record books

Lundqvist earned his 454th NHL victory and tied Curtis Joseph for 5th place on the NHL all-time wins list. He also surpassed Grant Fuhr to take sole possession of 10th place on the NHL’s all-time appearance list.

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

After year away, soldier surprises son during Rangers-Capitals

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It is often forgotten that sporting events serve as a form of entertainment. But on Wednesday Night Hockey, the Madison Square Garden crowd was reminded that life exists outside of the hockey bubble.

During the Rangers-Capitals game, a Staff Sergeant returned in surprising fashion. He had been deployed overseas for the past year and his son thought he was participating in a contest in which he won a Blueshirts jersey.

Instead of the sweater, Luke got to see his father and the emotional embrace delighted the crowd.

Underachieving Maple Leafs needed this change

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It was probably overdue.

It probably should have happened over the summer in the wake of another postseason disappointment, and before the 2019-20 season was allowed to turn into the bitter disappointment it has been.

But when the Toronto Maple Leafs fired head coach Mike Babcock on Wednesday, replacing him with Sheldon Keefe, they finally made the biggest change they needed to allow the organization to take the next step in its development the city — and NHL as a whole — has been waiting for it to take.

[Related: Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe head coach]

This isn’t to say that Babcock is a bad coach (he is probably not), or that he will not find a new team in the coming months or years and find success (he might).

But it was becoming increasingly clear that he was the wrong coach for this particular team and roster, and that it was never going to get where it should be without some kind of a drastic change.

When Babcock joined the Maple Leafs for the start of the 2015-16 season it was at a time when they were at one of their lowest points in franchise history. There had been just one playoff appearance in 10 years, the NHL roster was completely devoid of talent, and they didn’t yet know who their long-term impact players would be. Babcock’s hiring was one of the cornerstones of the rebuild, and by signing him to a massive 8-year, $50 million contract it was a clear sign the Maple Leafs were willing to flex their financial muscle and spare no expense in the areas where the league could not limit their spending.

It was also at a time when Babcock’s reputation as a coach still placed him not only among the league’s elite, but probably at the very top of the mountain.

It seemed to be the right move at the right time.

But a lot has changed in the years since.

For one, Babcock’s reputation isn’t as pristine as it once was. It has been 10 years since he has finished higher than third place in his division (2010-11 season). It has been eight years since he has advanced beyond Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (2012-13). In that time there have been 28 different coaches that have won a playoff series in the league, including two (Mike Yeo and Barry Trotz) that have won playoff series’ with multiple teams.

If you wanted, you could try and find reasons for that lack of success. His team’s in Detroit at the end were getting older and losing their core players to an inevitable decline and retirement. His first years in Toronto were taking over the aforementioned mess left behind by the previous regime, and if anything those early Maple Leafs teams may have even overachieved.

All of that is true. It is also true to say that almost any other coach with that recent resume of third-place finishes and first round exits probably wouldn’t have had the leash that Babcock had. They would have been fired two years ago.

As the talent level dramatically increased in Toronto, the expectations should have changed as well. This is no longer a young team going through a rebuild where just making the playoffs is an accomplishment. This is a team of established NHL Players — All-Star level players — that should be capable of more than what they have accomplished. Not only has that not happened, but all indications were that the team was going in the wrong direction.

Last year’s Maple Leafs team won fewer games and collected fewer points than the previous year’s team despite gaining John Tavares and Jake Muzzin and getting a breakout year from Mitch Marner.

This year’s Maple Leafs team has one of the worst records in the league at the one quarter mark and has seen the once dynamic offense turn ordinary, relying on harmless point shots from defensemen.

And that doesn’t even get into the biggest issue, which was the apparent disconnect between his style and the style of the front office and roster. The Maple Leafs are built for offense, and speed, and skill, and defending by attacking and playing with the puck. Everything that came out of Babcock was always about grinding down, and defending, and you can’t score your way to a championship.

There is not any one way to win in the NHL. Some teams win with speed and skill, others win with defense. The most important thing is to play to your strength and do what you do well. The Maple Leafs are not doing that. Talk about the makeup of their defense or the way they defend all you want, but it still comes down to whether they are playing to their strengths. You can’t take a team built around John Tavares, Marner, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander and ask it to win 2-1 every night. You are wasting them by doing that and you will fail. You have to turn them loose and let them do what they do best. Babcock never seemed able or willing to trust them to do that.

Whether or not this sparks the Maple Leafs to turn their season around and go on a championship run like Pittsburgh in 2009 and 2016, or Los Angeles in 2012, or St. Louis in 2019 remains to be seen. But Keefe has coached many of the players in Toronto before, he has coached them to play a certain way, and he has won with them.

Now he gets a chance to do it on the biggest stage.

Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn’t. But the worst thing that happens is they fall short and underachieve, something they were already doing anyway. At least now they get to go down taking their best swings.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.