Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The Calgary Flames finish the regular season with a Pacific Division title (with the most points since 1988-89), the top-line forwards all have career years, and they face a wild-card team in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. That description could either be from the 2018-19 season or the current campaign that wrapped up on Friday.
But, here’s the thing; we all know that the Flames’ 2018-19 postseason ended in catastrophic failure after the Colorado Avalanche rolled over Calgary in just five games. That was certainly a tough pill to swallow for a team with the second-best record in the NHL, and it begs the question — how do the boys in red avoid another early exit from the best “second season” in pro sports? The short answer: more depth.
The Flames’ 2018-19 regular-season success leaned heavily on a highly-skilled top unit that was effectively shut down against the Avalanche. One might argue that Calgary could fall into the same trap when the Stanley Cup playoffs begin on May 2, as once again, an extremely potent first line was a huge reason they finished first place in the Pacific Division. While smothering the Flames’ top three guys might have worked three years ago, I don’t think it will be enough this time around.
The Flames’ 2021-22 Top Line Is Better Than it Was Three Years Ago
Yes, two out of the three guys are the same, but the Flames’ current first line is a lot more effective than it was three years ago. The biggest difference is who skates up the middle and how the unit as a whole plays away from the puck. No offense to Sean Monahan, as he’s one of the best snipers in franchise history, but Elias Lindholm at center is a huge upgrade — simply because he’s a terrific 200-foot player. Monahan is not.
Moving Monahan off the first line meant Matthew Tkachuk got a promotion, and he took the opportunity and ran with it — securing the first 100-point season of his career. Probably the biggest surprise on this season’s top unit has been the transformation of Johnny Gaudreau. Previously known only for his offensive razzle-dazzle, the speedy winger has added an impressive checking ability to his repertoire, making him a truly effective two-way player.
It all adds up to a threesome that is much harder to play against than it was three years ago. It’s no secret that Gaudreau and Monahan were playing sheltered minutes in 2018-19 and rarely got defensive zone starts. This year, the top line stacks up much better with almost any forward line the opposition throws at them, and that could pay huge dividends in the 2021-22 playoffs.
The Current Flames Are Getting Secondary Scoring From All Over the Top Nine
There’s no need to remind anyone about the first line’s incredible scoring punch as the NHL 2021-22 regular season comes to a close, as it literally boasts three 40-goal scorers. But what about the rest of the lineup, and how does it compare to the 2018-19 squad? Three years ago, all three of the Flames’ top unit forwards also had career years, but the offence dried up pretty quickly after that. Outside of Tkachuk’s 77 points and Mark Giordano‘s 74, it was pretty slim pickings if you looked for goals in Calgary’s bottom-six.
Players like Mark Jankowski, Derek Ryan, Garnet Hathaway and the incredibly disappointing James Neal (7 goals) didn’t add much offence in the team’s first-round loss to Colorado. This season, the Flames have been scoring in bunches, with multiple players posting career years. Andrew Mangiapane (35 goals) and Dillon Dube (18 goals) have been giving the Flames a balanced attack, while newcomers Blake Coleman (16 goals) and Tyler Toffoli (20 goals) are adding depth to the top-nine that simply wasn’t there in 2018-19.
This year, Flames head coach Darryl Sutter has also done a better job of rolling four lines and spreading out the ice time. In 2021-22, Gaudreau played almost a minute and a half less per game than in previous seasons, which means the bottom-six guys are getting a lot more shifts. Theoretically, the team’s top guns should have more gas in the tank for a potentially long playoff run.
The Flames Have Added Multiple Stanley Cup Champions to the Roster
Sutter is a big believer in veteran players making a big difference in the postseason. It’s no secret that Calgary’s core players haven’t had much playoff success, but this year’s squad is littered with guys who have gone all the way. Formerly with the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning, Coleman brings two Cup rings to the table, as does fourth line stalwart Trevor Lewis.
Toffoli also has a championship with the Los Angeles Kings and is fresh off another Stanley Cup Final with the Montreal Canadiens. Throw in Milan Lucic’s 2011 Cup win with the Boston Bruins and his 124 career playoff games, and you’ve got a boatload of postseason experience on this team. That was something sorely lacking in 2018-19, and I wouldn’t discount the effect of having veteran guys who’ve been on long Cup runs.
Speaking of playoff experience and going the distance, I’m quite certain the most important part of that equation for the Flames isn’t even a player — it’s the head coach. In 2018-19, Calgary had Bill Peters behind the bench, fresh off four seasons with a mediocre Caroline Hurricanes squad and exactly zero playoff games under his belt. Compare that with two-time Stanley Cup winner Darryl Sutter, and the difference in postseason coaching success couldn’t be greater.
I don’t know about you, but I’d bet on the guy with 170 career playoff games on his resume. Sutter has been to three Stanley Cup Finals, and I can’t think of a better bench boss to guide the Flames into the 2021-22 postseason. I haven’t even addressed Calgary’s back end yet, but I honestly don’t have a whole lot of concern in that department either.
Flames’ Back End Looking Solid Heading Into the Playoffs
The Flames absorbed the loss of their captain and number one defender in the offseason, and that somehow made the D-core a stronger unit. All six regular defencemen posted career years in 2021-22, making the loss of Giordano seemingly irrelevant. Calgary’s number one pairing of Rasmus Andersson and Noah Hanifin is the only remnant from the 2018-19 squad, and their collective game has progressed tremendously over the last three seasons. That’s a huge plus.
Second-year Flame Chris Tanev has turned back the clock and has proven to be an excellent tutor for breakout defenceman Oliver Kylington, and even the third pairing of Eric Gudbranson and Nikita Zadorov has played well above my expectations. I have to admit, I was not high on either of them coming out of training camp, but I stand corrected. Are these “new guys” upgrades over the 2018-19 defenders T.J. Brodie, Travis Hamonic and Oscar Fantenberg? I say yes.
Looking at Calgary’s goaltending, I must say that having a true number one guy heading into the postseason is something we haven’t seen around these parts since the Miikka Kiprusoff days. After a so-so 2020-21 season, Jacob Markstrom has had a career year, and if he simply plays his regular, consistent game when the 2021-22 Stanley Cup playoffs begin next week, the Flames should be in great shape between the pipes.
This Is a Make or Break Playoffs for the Flames
I don’t think the Flames’ fan base is truly over the crushing disappointment of getting punted in the first round after finishing first in the Western Conference in 2018-19, so I think optimism with the current squad comes with a dose of realism. Can this team actually build on their incredible regular-season success? After clinching the Pacific Division last week, the head coach told the media that his team hadn’t accomplished anything just yet.
“I’ve won lots of ’em (division titles).” Then Sutter pointed to the roof, “It goes up there, and you get nothing for it.” He’s right. Nobody will remember winning a Pacific banner if this team doesn’t go on a deep postseason run. However, unlike the 2018-19 squad, I think this version of the Flames is actually built for the playoffs and will find a way to get to the Western Conference championship and maybe even back to the Stanley Cup final for the first time since 2003-04.
Greg Tysowski is a former broadcast journalist who chose the exciting life of a stay-at-home dad for over a decade. He’s now a published author, parenting blogger and aspiring sports writer covering the Calgary Flames for The Hockey Writers. Greg is also a regular contributor to the weekly roundtable discussion “Flames Faceoff”, now streaming on YouTube and all podcast outlets.