The Calgary Flames are just over a week from the NHL’s trade deadline and are sitting first in the Western Conference and in 2nd place overall in the NHL. There was some concern after a losing streak, but this ship seems to be righting as the season starts to wind down. Here are five X-factors for the Flames heading into the last quarter of the season and playoffs.
I feel like this is taking the easy way out by leading off with the obvious one, but for the Flames to get anywhere significant this year, they’ll need their goaltending to be at an elite level. David Rittich did have a fantastic start to the season, but has been fairly average over the last 4-6 weeks. Mike Smith hasn’t inspired much confidence either over the course of the season, but two good performances against Florida and Pittsburgh have given some reason for optimism.
Simply put, you can’t expect any playoff success without your goaltender being one of your best players. Calgary has had the offense to overcome some goaltending shortfalls this season (8 wins in games where they allowed 4 or more goals against), but when things tighten up in April & May, the Flames will need consistent stellar performances in net.
2. Bottom Six Scoring
I started writing this article before the Pittsburgh game, and suddenly the bottom six breaks out with goals from Andrew Mangiapane, Austin Czarnik, Sam Bennett, and three assists from Derek Ryan. James Neal could be an important factor too with his playoff experience, along with improved play over the last few weeks. We still don’t the extent of his injury but hopefully he isn’t out long.
The bottom six has actually played pretty well over the last number of games but the top six has struggled so the results haven’t been there. However if they can maintain this performance level down the stretch, the offense should continue to be dynamite once the top six comes around.
3. Rookie Defensemen
Calgary has gotten a big boost this year by fielding a competent third pairing on defense. The all rookie pairings of either Rasmus Andersson & Juuso Valimaki or Rasmus Andersson & Oliver Kylington have been steadily improving as the season continues. The best playoff teams are successful when they can confidently roll three defensive pairings all game, especially once you hit overtime games. While the top two pairings would obviously receive most of the minutes, having a third pairing that Bill Peters can trust will be a huge boon to the Flames.
There are some folks who are nervous or uneasy about having two rookie defenders potentially in the playoffs, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s the way they’ll get experience. Every top NHL player was a rookie or had no playoff experience at one point, bringing in a marginal and older bottom pairing defensemen may only hurt chemistry and performance on the back end.
4. 2nd Powerplay Unit
The Flames currently sit with 7th best powerplay in the NHL at 22.8% entering play on Sunday. As a team the Flames have struck 47 times while on the man advantage. The issue with the powerplay isn’t their performance, but the imbalance between the first and second units.
The regular first unit (Gaudreau, Monahan, Tkachuk, Lindholm, Giordano) for the Flames has accounted for 37 of those goals. The regular second unit (Bennett, Ryan, Neal, Brodie/Hanifin, Backlund) has 9. When you have five point per game players on the team all skating on the same unit, they’re obviously going to get the majority of the playing time but you’d still like to see your second unit contribute more often.
5. Flames Approach at Deadline
Some days I feel like the Flames should go for a big name before the deadline like Mark Stone, others it feels like they have a good enough team to stick with what they have. How the Flames approach the next eight days will tell a lot about how management feels about their team. If the Flames did add a big name like Stone, it would give them a ridiculous SIX players scoring at a point per game or better.
Will the Flames try to bolster their goaltending, add some experience on the back end, or round out their forward core? If you ask me, they would be smart to look for some forward help, but not in the top group of players (Stone, Duchene, Panarin) but in the secondary market which will likely emerge with a surplus of wingers available this year. Calgary will also have to be smart about what assets they’d choose to give up in a trade, already missing their second round pick.