While the 2020-21 NHL season will be unlike any before it, the Calgary Flames’ defensive core will again be a major factor in how much success they have. The good news, in that regard, is they enter the new season with largely the same pieces, minus T.J. Brodie who signed a four-year, $20 million deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs during free agency, and Travis Hamonic, who signed a professional tryout with Vancouver.
Replacing Brodie in the top four will be former Vancouver Canucks stalwart Chris Tanev, who inked a four-year, $18 million deal this offseason.
Starting Top Six
In the North Division, the Flames’ defensive core should be able to hold its own with Tanev, captain Mark Giordano, Noah Hanifin, Rasmus Andersson, and Juuso Välimäki all but guaranteed spots.
Oliver Kylington could be a favourite to finish the shortened camp on the roster as he would need waivers to go down. He suited up for 48 games in the 2019-20 season, potting two goals and five assists, with an average time on ice of 13:42. Kylington’s Corsi For % (CF%) last season was underwhelming at 48% but he’s still only 23 years old, and offers upside along with NHL experience.
Other vying candidates include Connor Mackey, Nikita Nesterov and Michael Stone.
Mackey, a 24-year-old, played for Minnesota State last season where he got into 42 games and chipped in seven goals and 17 assists. While it’s still early in camp, Giordano has already said the young defenseman is close to playing in the NHL, which is pretty high praise. (from ‘Flames training camp: Breaking down the roster, taxi squad options,’ The Athletic, 01/06/2021) If he doesn’t make the team as the sixth defenseman, he will likely be sent down to play in the AHL rather than stick around as the seventh defenseman or remain on the taxi squad. The Flames’ front office would likely want Mackey to play big minutes in the AHL, rather than have him sit in the press box.
Nestorov comes over from CSKA Moscow in the KHL, where he hit the ice for 53 games, amassing 23 points. With prior NHL experience in Montreal and Tampa Bay, Nesterov was hardly an offensive threat, but he does fit the mould of a bottom-pairing defenseman. If he is the seventh defenseman, he could come in barring any injuries or underwhelming performance on the bottom pairing.
Blue Line Offense
While the loss of Brodie will no doubt hurt the offensive production coming from Flames defenders, Tanev should be more than complementary in defending the explosive threats that other Canadian teams possess. However, that departure still leaves a gap in offence provided by the back end. Brodie accumulated 19 points last season, which was a down year for him, as he had achieved over 30 points in the prior six campaigns.
Last season, the Flames’ presumable top four saw Andersson with 22 points, Giordano with 31, Hanifin with 17, and Tanev had 20 with the Canucks. It may not be reasonable to expect Giordano to put up the same numbers he did when he was paired with Brodie, but another season with over 30 points would be incredibly valuable for the Flames.
Andersson, who is heading into his fifth season in a Flames uniform, saw his point totals jump to 22 points in 70 games last season. The season before, he totaled 19 points in 79 games. With presumably even more minutes available this season with the loss of Brodie, I expect him to eclipse the 30-point mark for the first time in his career, especially if the Flames want to taper some of Giordano’s minutes on the power play to lessen his load.
Hanifin saw his total points dip by 11 last season in 70 games, and the Flames will need him to turn in a better offensive effort. The good news is the defender is still only 23 (turning 24 on Jan. 25), which means there should still be plenty of growth left on that side of the puck.
Tanev is not primarily known for his offensive touch, so expecting a big explosion of points in his first season as a Flame is not overly realistic.
While limited minutes may be coming to Välimäki early in the season, he has shown pretty good offensive numbers in both the WHL and AHL, which should have the front office excited. Playing in the Liiga before the season started, he had 19 points in 19 games, and while the NHL will certainly offer stiffer competition, those numbers certainly show what could be coming to the top six this season.
Assuming Kylington makes the roster, he will likely add a bit of pop on the bottom pairing, though it likely won’t be huge numbers. In 87 games so far, he has only put forth five goals and 10 assists.
Keeping the Puck Out
While Tanev was certainly a nice addition to the Flames roster, no other free agency signing will help the defensive side of the game more than putting Jacob Markstrom between the pipes. With a good top six in place already, if Markstrom can have a similar season to last, the Flames will be in great shape to nab one of the four playoff spots in the North Division.
Looking at matchups, Tanev and Giordano will likely see plenty of Canadian top lines this season. Tanev has already shown he’s more than capable of playing in his own end.
The other four defensemen will have to hold their own during the season, and both Andersson and Hanifin had great seasons CF% wise, 51.8 and 52.3, respectively. If they can maintain those numbers, it can only mean good things for the Flames’ defence.
Välimäki had a mediocre CF% last year (49.8) but there’s reason for optimism that he can be better next season in sheltered minutes against bottom-six forwards. Pairings this Saturday saw Giordano with Andersson, Tanev with Hanifin and Välimäki with Nesterov. Kylington also participated in his first team skate where was paired with Alexander Petrovic in Group B.
While the pairings may look different come the end of camp, the Flames should feel confident in their defence for the shortened season.