With the NHL season just around the corner, we are unveiling our 31 in 31 series previewing one team per day. We’re going division by division, moving alphabetically within each. Today we look at the Calgary Flames.
It was a funny season in Calgary last year. The Flames started slow under new coach Glen Gulutzan, then found their legs and produced a 94-point season to nab a wildcard spot.
Then the first round came, and the Anaheim Ducks swept Calgary in a series that exposed some serious flaws in the Flames’ roster. Goaltending was the No. 1 issue, and they’ve scratched that itch by acquiring Mike Smith. Adding Travis Hamonic makes this a staunch defence, but can Calgary score enough this season? Stay tuned.
UP-AND-COMING PLAYER TO WATCH
Spencer Foo? Mark Jankowski? Nope, the most impactful young player we’re waiting on is Sam Bennett, the No. 4 overall draft pick in 2014 whose time is now.
Bennett went from a 36-point rookie campaign to 26 points last season, and at the time of this writing was a restricted free agent yet to be signed by the Flames.
If the organization wants him there, but his play won’t allow Gulutzan to play him there, then that’s an issue for the Flames.
If Bennett becomes a contributor, that could push the Flames into the top half of NHL goals scored. It’s his third NHL season and he’s better than a 26-point player. Time to fly, son.
WHAT A SUCCESSFUL 2017-18 WOULD LOOK LIKE
Calgary had the eighth-most wins in the NHL from Jan. 1 onwards last season. It was a poor start that rendered Calgary a wildcard team.
This season, a consistent 82-game performance should more than make up the nine points that separated Calgary and second-place Edmonton in the Pacific. It starts in Anaheim. The Flames have won just once in Anaheim in the current century, and have dropped 27 straight at The Pond. If the Flames can’t win in Anaheim, they can’t win the Pacific. It’s that simple.
Breaking that streak and being in the hunt for the division into the last two weeks of the season would mark regular season success. Winning a round — just Calgary’s second since 2004 — is necessary to call the post-season a success.
BIGGEST REMAINING QUESTION
Scoring, and the goalie.
Up front, Monahan went from 63 points to 58 last year, while Gaudreau fell from 30 goals to 18. As those two go so too do the Flames, and they need to get inside the NHL’s top 20 in scoring to fulfill their roles as Calgary’s go-to players offensively. They’re good enough to be top-20 guys.
In goal, Smith is perhaps the best puck-handling goalie in hockey, and should have plenty of game left — even at 35 years old. But he hasn’t had a save percentage over .916 since 2011-12, and was clearly beaten down playing behind an inferior Coyotes club for all those seasons.
Smith’s workload will be far easier behind this stout defence. If he is healthy and can play the way he did as a younger man, Smith could take these Flames somewhere. If not, well, we all saw what happened in Calgary last season.