Of all the questions swirling around the Calgary Flames this season, there is one that looms largest:
Can this team make the playoffs?
Thanks to a return to the league’s weakest division, it wouldn’t surprise too many if coach Darryl Sutter was able to steer the Flames to a third-place finish in a Pacific Division sure to be led by Vegas and Edmonton.
Granted, the Vancouver Canucks, the rebuilding Los Angeles Kings and the upstart Seattle Kraken may have something to say about that.
Despite losing Mark Giordano in the expansion draft and being unable to replace him, the Flames' goal remains the same as it has been the bulk of the last three decades -- squeak into the playoffs and hope for an upset.
To do that the team will have to rely on a much more tenacious, structured approach under Sutter that puts a focus on brawn and defensive responsibility.
The additions of Nikita Zadorov and Erik Gudbranson on the back end give the team more muscle and edge, as Sutter aims to rebuild the team’s identity as a tough club to play against.
Veteran winger Blake Coleman was an excellent free-agent signing and seems a perfect fit for what Sutter wants and what the Flames need.
The 29-year-old right winger helped Tampa win its second straight Cup with a two-way game the coach hopes becomes infectious.
Expect the 20-goal man to play top-six minutes on a team that also now includes Sutter’s depth allies like Brad Richardson and Trevor Lewis, as well as defensive-minded Tyler Pitlick.
While all the newbies can be counted on to buy into the coach’s system, the biggest question surrounding this team is whether the core can do the same while rebounding offensively.
Given how poorly last season went for players like Sean Monahan, Matthew Tkachuk and, to a lesser extent, Johnny Gaudreau, general manager Brad Treliving wasn’t able to make the significant change to the group he hoped to this summer.
So, once again, the onus will be on them to turn things around and get the team back into the post-season.
Current salary cap space: $1.075 million
GM: Brad Treliving
Head coach: Darryl Sutter
Assistant coaches: Kirk Muller, Ryan Huska, Cail MacLean
Unsigned players: None
1. CAN THE BIG BOYS BOUNCE BACK?
When people speak of the long-time core in Calgary, they are speaking largely about Gaudreau and Monahan, and to a lesser extent, Tkachuk.
None were happy with their truncated season last year, which was cut short by falling four points behind fourth-place Montreal. Add leader Mikael Backlund to that list.
Elias Lindholm was steady after shifting over from the wing to be the team’s top centre, but knows he needs to be better this season given how precious goals will be in Cowtown.
Andrew Mangiapane emerged as a fan favourite and a likely top-six fixture after a late flurry saw him finish with 18 goals -- one shy of the team lead held by Lindholm and Gaudreau.
He’ll be counted on to continue his growth, as will talented youngster Dillon Dube, who experienced plenty of tough love from Sutter down the stretch.
“We’ve got to create more and get more out of our top guys, whose job it is to produce,” said Treliving of the key to a Flames resurgence.
“I think there’s more there for them.”
Treliving said Monahan has recovered nicely from off-season hip surgery, and should be ready to start proving he’s capable of returning to being a perennial 20- to 30-goal scorer right off the bat.
Tkachuk needs to return to being as engaged and dangerous as he was before Jake Muzzin flipped a puck at his chest without recourse.
The talent up front that led the Flames to a second-place finish overall three years ago is still there.
Can Sutter's style bring their talents back to the fore?
No one will endure more scrutiny than the gifted Gaudreau -- the face of the franchise who has just one more year on his contract before being able to walk into free agency.
2. WHAT DOES JOHNNY GAUDREAU’S FUTURE HOLD?
It’s a loaded question that has as much to do with his on-ice performance as it does his off-ice decisions.
The 28-year-old said last spring he’d like to sign an extension to stay in Calgary, but has yet to come to terms with the team on a deal that will keep him here past this season.
Given how much his stock has diminished since he finished with 99 points three years ago, it is easy to understand how there could be a discrepancy between what the Flames are willing to pay him for a long-term deal versus what Gaudreau’s camp believes someone on the open market will pay him next summer.
If that gap can’t be bridged, the team will have to consider trading him at the trade deadline to avoid losing him for nothing.
That will be further complicated by the fact Gaudreau recently submitted a list of five teams he’d be willing to go to, as per the conditions of a limited no-trade clause that kicked in for the final year of his deal, paying him $6.75 million.
Would they still trade him if the Flames are in the thick of a playoff race?
What if he gets off to a bad start and none of the teams on his list are interested in paying anything of significance at the deadline to try squeezing him into their cap structure?
Would a Gaudreau trade be the unofficial kickoff of a rebuild?
Would a Gaudreau signing prevent the team from being able to pay Tkachuk, or even Mangiapane, long term?
How far apart are they in negotiations for a new deal?
“No new update -- we’re not going to play-by-play it,” said Treliving.
“We all know his situation here. We’d certainly like to get him extended. We’ve had lots of discussions and we’ll see where this goes.”
Indeed, we will.
3. WILL THE DEFENCE BE GOOD ENOUGH WITHOUT MARK GIORDANO?
No team was hurt as much by Seattle’s expansion draft than the Flames, who lost their captain and heartbeat of the franchise.
At age 37, he was also their best defenceman and power-play anchor. Giordano faced off against the opposition’s top forwards while leading his team’s blue-liners in offence.
Two years removed from winning the Norris Trophy, there was obviously no one on the open market capable of filling his shoes.
“The dollars, in terms of free agents, didn’t fit with us,” said Treliving, who traded for the hulking Zadorov, who will likely open camp on the second pairing.
“It’s going to be a work in progress. You’ve got to have some growth within. We think between Juuso (Valimaki), Noah (Hanifin) and Rasmus (Andersson) that young group has got another step to take. We will see where some guys take steps up.”
Hanifin had his best year to date last year and is a lock to start on the left side of the top pairing, likely alongside Andersson.
Zadorov will play on the left of Chris Tanev, who was every bit as good as Giordano defensively last season, albeit as a stay-at-home type.
The hope is that Valimaki, who was openly critiqued by Sutter last year, is eventually capable of pushing Zadorov for top-four minutes. The Finnish first rounder will almost certainly start on the third pairing with Gudbranson.
Andersson’s ascent to first-line minutes last year included mixed reviews as the team’s power-play quarterback -– a role he will continue to play. Look for Hanifin to get some power-play time this year while Valimaki continues gaining the coach’s trust.
Connor Mackey’s progress will continue to be monitored, as the organization hopes he will soon be proficient enough to crack the roster and contribute on the man advantage.