Flames season preview: Can Calgary put it together when it matters most?

Listen to Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk discuss his thoughts ahead of shortened NHL season and where he sees the Flames come playoff time.

The Calgary Flames have the goaltending, the depth and the star power to contend for a Stanley Cup.

What they don’t have is any semblance of proof they can put it all together when it matters most.

"We know we’re going to be judged off the playoffs," said Matthew Tkachuk, whose club is coming off yet another first-round playoff exit.

"We have a very competitive team and too many disappointing endings in the past years we want to change. We have to change it. We’ll be ready to go to try to redeem ourselves after the last two seasons in particular. We have the right pieces and guys who really want to redeem themselves and make a difference."

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He knows redemption can only come if they, first, make the playoffs in a tight North division.
Assuming they can, a roster returning almost all its core pieces believes it is equipped to finally get over more than just one hump.

"Why can’t our team win it this year? We have to go in with that mentality. It’s almost like we’re going all in and trying to win it this year."

Given the franchise’s playoff futility since 2004, few people outside Calgary consider the Flames Cup contenders. Nor should they until this team proves it’s strong enough physically and mentally to fight through a grind that may actually be simulated through 56 games of Canadian battles.

The team is hoping that, unlike past years, when the recent division winner faltered in the spring, the shortened season will prepare them better for what’s ahead.

2019-20 regular season record: 36-27-7

2019-20 season finish: Lost in Round 1 to Dallas in six games

Top 2020 draft pick: Connor Zary (24th)

Additions: Jacob Markstrom (G), Chris Tanev (D), Nikita Nesterov (D), Chris Leivo (W), Dominik Simon (W), Joakim Nordstrom (W)

Subtractions: T.J. Brodie, Erik Gustafsson, Mark Jankowski, Travis Hamonic, Tobias Rieder, Derek Forbort, Cam Talbot

Outlook

The core of the Flames remained intact through an off-season in which most moves outside of the Jacob Markstrom and Chris Tanev signings were minor.

Josh Leivo and Dominik Simon have opened camp flip-flopping between the Matthew Tkachuk/Elias Lindholm line and the Johnny Gaudreau/Sean Monahan line.

All four additions serve to improve Canada’s deepest team, with Markstrom completing the league’s only roster with two all-star goalies on it from last year.

A revamped defence will count on former Norris Trophy winner Mark Giordano to maintain his level of play at age 37 while youngsters like Rasmus Andersson, Noah Hanifin and Juuso Valimaki have shown they are ready to take on bigger roles in a group also steadied by Tanev.

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With his interim tag removed in the off-season and a chance to fully implement his style of play, coach Geoff Ward is asking the lads to focus even more on their defensive play, with an eye on creating turnovers that translate into quick-strike offence.

The team’s depth up front should create more favourable matchups for a club hellbent on rolling four lines. Case in point: Mikael Backlund and Andrew Mangiapane will likely open the year on the third unit despite the fact they combined with Tkachuk a year ago to be the team’s best trio at both ends of the ice.

The team’s best line in the play-in and playoffs – Milan Lucic, Sam Bennett and Dillon Dube – is now the club’s fourth unit.

No wonder players are focused squarely on chasing the Stanley Cup.

While COVID-19 could certainly throw a wrench into any team’s plans, the Flames’ depth in a 56-game war of attrition should give them an advantage.

Management has worked hard to ensure this is no longer a team that goes as Gaudreau and Monahan go. There are plenty other difference-makers throughout the lineup.

Winning the Canadian division is a very strong possibility.

X-Factor: Matthew Tkachuk

No one stirs the Flames’ drink more than the future captain, whose hockey smarts will be counted on for more than just providing offence.

No one can take the temperature of a game – or elevate it – better than the man who led all Flames scorers last year while also drawing the most penalties. The division’s premier agitator figures to be the most prominent figure in almost every divisional matchup, giving Canadians from coast to coast an opportunity to gain newfound respect or hatred for him.

Either way, expect to hear his name (in vain) often when the Flames come to your town.

Player who could surprise: Dillon Dube

The former captain of Canada’s junior team essentially had his breakout in the playoffs last summer when he was arguably the Flames’ best skater.

Because of the 22-year-old’s versatility and ability to check and skate, he has opened camp on the same depth/energy line with Milan Lucic and Sam Bennett that ran the show against Winnipeg and Dallas in the post-season.

However, many believe that he’ll soon make the jump to one of the top two lines, where a 20-goal season in the next couple years would shock no one.

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