Calgary Flames: 2021-22 NHL season preview

Calgary Flames: 2021-22 NHL season preview
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The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Calgary Flames.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 26-27-3 (55 points); fifth place in North Division
• Postseason: Did not qualify for playoffs; drafted Matt Coronato No. 13 overall
• Offensive leader: Johnny Gaudreau (56 games, 19 goals, 30 assists, 49 points)

• Free Agent Additions: Blake Coleman, Erik Gudbranson, Brad Richardson, Trevor Lewis, Nikita Zadorov (trade from Blackhawks), Tyler Pitlick (trade from Kraken), Daniel Vladar (trade from Bruins).
• Free Agent Subtractions: Mark Giordano (Kraken expansion draft), Josh Leivo (Hurricanes),  Dominik Simon (Penguins),  Derek Ryan (Oilers), Buddy Robinson (Ducks).

Biggest Question Facing the Flames

• Where is this team going, exactly?

Heading into the offseason, it seemed like the Flames were at a fork in the road.

Would they trade or extend Johnny Gaudreau? What about Matthew Tkachuk? Sean Monahan has two years left on his deal, but the clock is ticking there, too. Might Brad Treliving pay a price to keep both Mark Giordano and Chris Tanev? Could the Flames make even bolder decisions, such as possibly parting ways with Treliving (who’s had plenty of kicks at the can since taking over as Flames GM during the summer of 2014)?

At that fork in the road, the Flames could have gone up (trying to swing for the fences, maybe getting Jack Eichel?) or down (blow things up, rebuild). Instead, they mostly idled in the middle of the road. While they did give Blake Coleman big term in their lone free-agent splash, this is still mostly the same team that disappointed last season. Even their biggest loss (Giordano to the Kraken) feels like a nondecision, one carrying the stench of passivity.

Heading into 2021-22, it feels like the Flames are stuck in neutral, and not exactly driving a cheap vehicle. They’re betting that things just sort of … fall into place.

What’s the salary cap situation?

For a team that’s only won one playoff series (two if you count the Qualifying Round series vs. the Jets during the 2020 bubble playoffs), the Flames aren’t exactly cheap.

By Cap Friendly’s measures, the Flames are more or less scraping against the salary cap ceiling. If the Flames get back into the Jack Eichel sweepstakes, quite a bit of money would need to go back to Buffalo.

Looking past the 2021-22 season returns the Flames to that fork in the road. Gaudreau ($6.75 million cap hit) and Tkachuk ($7M) are both entering contract years. Even if they underwhelm this season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see both get significant raises. A potential raise could also be the downside if Andrew Mangiapane ($2.425M) breaks out in a mainstream way after being an analytics darling for years.

It all sets up a series of uneasy scenarios. If Tkachuk and Gaudreau flop, it might cost Treliving his job. If they both rebound in huge ways, they’d be tough to fit under the salary cap in 2022-23 and beyond.

All of that said, credit Treliving for this: if someone else is taking over as GM, they can make their own mark on the Flames. Even with dicey contracts on the books (most obviously, Milan Lucic), the Flames are projected to have more than $30M in cap space with 12 roster spots covered next summer.

Breakout Candidate

Juuso Valimaki

The Flames’ defense seemed suspect even with an aging-yet-still-effective Giordano. With Giordano cracklin’ with the Kraken, Calgary might just sink.

Valimaki could be called upon to pick up a lot of slack. So far, he’s played 73 games at the NHL level. Both in 2018-19 (24 games played) and 2020-21 (49 GP), Valimaki averaged about 15 and a half minutes per night. The 22-year-old showed flashes of that first-round potential (16th overall in 2017), but the Flames might ask for him to accelerate his growth in an uncomfortable way in 2021-22.

Otherwise, the Flames’ defense might need to lean heavily on some clunky depth defensemen, such as Erik Gudbranson, Nikita Zadorov, and Michael Stone. Not ideal.

Best-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Flames

While the Flames inspire a lot of pessimism, it’s easy to lose track of the good. This was a team that finished in the top-10 in both simple (percentage of shots) and more advanced (expected goals, high-danger chances) metrics, at least at even-strength. You could apply some of the same “if only their power play was decent, and they got a few saves” logic to the Flames, as the Canadiens received before. Yes, contract years can be a big distraction. Pressure creates diamonds, too, though, eh? Maybe we’ll see the best of Tkachuk and Gaudreau, and things just come together for the Flames in 2021-22? Hey, there’s even some room for optimism about the latest Sutter sequel.

(Also, the Pacific Division is weak enough that Calgary could make the playoffs even if a lot goes wrong.)

Worst-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Flames

Look at the Flames’ recent history of head coaches, and it’s difficult to shake the feeling that this franchise is out of ideas. So many retreads; so many Sutters. Darryl’s in-season record (15-15-0) captures the stuck-in-the-middle spirit of the Flames, an expectation that carries over to 2021-22. Truly, staying stuck in the middle might be the worst-case scenario for the 2021-22 Flames. Missing the playoffs (again) would already be bad. But what if the Flames are good enough to maintain false hope, thus leading them to keep Gaudreau and others, instead of trading them at the deadline? There’s the very real, stomach-turning possibility that the Flames miss the playoffs, Gaudreau leaves for nothing in free agency, and people lose their jobs.

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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.

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