Seven weeks before puck drop, and the debate around every backyard barbecue in Calgary is in full froth:
Are the re-tooled Flames better than last year?
Is a team that lost two 100-point players for the first time in the NHL’s cap era actually better off with the additions Brad Treliving cobbled together?
The signing of prized free agent Nazem Kadri Thursday, made possible by trading Sean Monahan, has fueled a discussion that has most people believing the 2022-23 Flames have actually improved over last year’s division-winning squad.
Without the NHL’s most dominant line at their disposal, it says here they’ll be in tough to eclipse the 111-points the team had last season.
However, there’s no disputing the team is now better positioned for playoff success than it was with Johnny Gaudreau as the face of the franchise.
Simply look down the middle, where Treliving and Darryl Sutter have long focused on building winners.
Elias Lindholm, Nazem Kadri and Mikael Backlund are elite two-way centres, who thrive under a system where being responsible defensively doesn’t hamper their offensive abilities.
This team hasn’t had a trio of centres that good since the early 90’s when Doug Gilmour, Joe Nieuwendyk and Joel Otto paced the squad.
On the blue line the team is even better than the group that finished third in goals against last year, swapping out third-pair monster Erik Gudbranson for top-pair fixture MacKenzie Weegar.
With ten defencemen on one-way contracts, don’t be surprised if Treliving moves out a body or two for help on the wing.
Nothing changes goaltending-wise as highly-motivated Vezina finalist Jacob Markstrom will be back with Dan Vladar, anchoring a team that will no doubt rely on winning more low scoring games than last year.
That fits perfectly with the system and style the reigning coach of the year will demand from the group – a style conducive to playoff success.
The toughness lost with Gudbranson’s departure is replaced with the grit and compete Kadri put on display while helping the Avalanche win last year’s Stanley Cup.
While bolstering themselves defensively and at centre, the wing is the thing.
Can the Flames replace some of the offence they’ve lost on the wings with the departure of Gaudreau and Tkachuk?
After scoring 35 goals as a second-liner, Andrew Mangiapane will almost certainly get his first shot at first line minutes, on the right side of Huberdeau and Lindholm.
On the second line the Flames may count on Tyler Toffoli and Blake Coleman to step up their offensive totals alongside Kadri.
The cap squeeze the Flames are in could pave the way for Jakob Pelletier to convert a stellar rookie season in the AHL into a third-line role where he’d be tasked with providing energy and defensive diligence alongside Backlund and Dillon Dube.
Trevor Lewis, Milan Lucic and Kevin Rooney provide so many intangibles as fourth liners, capable of spot duty higher up when called upon.
Stay tuned as another winger (or two) is sure to be added.
Goals will certainly be harder to come by than they were last year when the top line could be counted on for the type of dominance the NHL hadn’t seen for several years.
Defensively the team is better.
By dumping Monahan’s $6.375 million deal, the Flames were able to add Kadri, while also ridding itself of a banged-up-yet-beloved veteran whose litany of injuries relegated him to the fourth line.
Look at the deals this way:
Huberdeau is a larger version of Gaudreau, who has similar playmaking skills.
Kadri brings plenty of the grit, intangibles and leadership Tkachuk possessed, albeit in a much more important position.
No one expects him to repeat the 87-point season he just had in Colorado.
But there is reason to believe he can build on the 15 points in 16 playoff games he had this spring.
Replacing Gudbranson with Weegar is a boost that could be elevated to full-on coup if he ends up extending his stay in Calgary, a la Huberdeau.
Plenty has happened since Treliving announced Gaudreau’s June 12 decision to bolt mere hours from free agency.
News of Tkachuk’s desire to move on came a week later, prompting the unlikely windfall from Florida that changed the team’s sagging outlook on a dime.
Signing Kadri only adds to the organization’s shocking momentum.
What shouldn’t be lost in it all was the team’s ability to convince Mangiapane to forgo two years of unrestricted free agency to sign a three-year extension with the team.
That, the Huberdeau extension and the Kadri signing put an end to talk there’s a problem in Calgary.
Fact is, it’s an organization of solutions of late – a trend that will have plenty of eyeballs on it all year long, as everyone wonders, ‘what’s next?’