With the opening game of the Calgary Flames 2020-21 season just four days away, things in training camp are starting to solidify more in terms of line combinations and special teams units. With the season about to kick off, these are five Flames who are going to have a lot of pressure on them this season and in turn will need to perform/prove their value to the team:
1. Johnny Gaudreau
I think it goes without saying that Gaudreau’s name jumps to the top of this list, whether its deserved or not. Gaudreau enters his seventh (where has the time gone?) full season with the Flames after another not-so-great playoff performance during the summer and a major regression during the regular season in 2019-20. Gaudreau saw his point totals drop from 99 in 82 games to just 58 in 70 in 2019-20. No matter how you slice it, that’s a big step back. Gaudreau also saw his goal total halved from his career high of 36, to just 18 in only 12 fewer games. While nothing game easy for Gaudreau or his linemates of Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm last season, there is a lot of pressure on all of them to return to their 2018-19 form to help the Flames really contend for the top of the North Division. Additionally the entire line will need a strong playoff performance assuming the Flames get there. If Calgary falters again this season, Gaudreau could be on the trade block during the offseason with his contract having just one year left after this one.
2. Sam Bennett
Bennett is almost the exact opposite of Gaudreau. We know all about playoff Sam Bennett. There’s nothing that I can say negatively about how he’s showed up in the last two postseasons. The issue lies in that he has mainly been a passenger in the regular season throughout his career at this point. It’s the fact that he has shown for two years now that he can elevate his game and be a play-driver when the playoffs begin that makes him so frustrating. He has 13 points in his last 15 playoff games, but only had 12 points in 52 regular season games last year.
While the Flames may be good enough to pass without a much regular season contribution from Bennett, the pending expansion draft provides a wrinkle. The fact of the matter is that Bennett is likely sitting on the outside of the Top 7 forwards Calgary will protect (Gaudreau, Monahan, Lindholm, Andrew Mangiapane, Mikael Backlund, Matthew Tkachuk, Dillon Dube) so even if he brings another good playoff performance, another luckluster regular season could leave him exposed. Seattle may be willing to take a chance on him if that’s the case. He’ll need to prove that he can help get the Flames to the playoffs, not just turn into a superstar when they get there.
3. Noah Hanifin
Underwhelming would be the word to describe Hanifin’s first couple of years in Calgary. He’s been alright but hasn’t really taken any concrete steps forward as he’s gotten older. With five seasons under his belt but only 23 years old, it’s hard to exactly say just how much room is left to develop his game. Given the fact that the Flames have reportedly explored moving Hanifin in deals with other teams, it seems that Calgary is ready to look at other options. With that in mind, there is a lot of pressure on Hanifin to perform this season, especially if he is given a bump in ice time if he’s paired with Chris Tanev or Rasmus Andersson.
It’s not that he’s doing anything particularly wrong, but given his high draft billing and that he seems a tad overrated by others around the league, there should be higher expectations on Hanifin to take a step forward this season.
4. Oliver Kylington
It’s really tough to get a grasp on where the Flames view Kylington in terms of both their present and their future. He has been replaced in the lineup by trade deadline acquisitions the past two seasons, and now finds himself in Group B of training camp sitting on the outside with just a few days to go until the season starts. This could be due to him just getting going after immigration issues, but with Nikita Nesterov and Connor Mackey among others pushing for the last few defensive positions, Kylington will be hard pressed to even make the team. At this point Kylington’s defensive game hasn’t really improved but his offensive skillset doesn’t really suit a third pairing well in most cases which leaves him in a tough spot. Assuming he makes the team out of camp, Kylington will have to prove he can stick as an NHL regular or may find himself on the trade block before the end of the season, or potentially even waivers.
5. Jacob Markstrom
It’s safe to say that there is a lot of pressure on Markstrom heading into the season. After being signed to a 6x6 megadeal this past offseason, the Flames finally should feel confident in having a true #1 goaltender. However it is up to Markstrom to live up to that billing. Over the past three seasons he has worked his way into the NHL’s elite group of goaltenders with Vancouver, however as heads into Calgary, he joins a team and market salivating to have a true superstar in net. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Markstrom have a slow start as he adjusts to a new system, but with David Rittich who has been a consistently average goaltender and notorious hot starter pushes him, Markstrom will need to push back. Both goalies will have big expectations heading into the year and will get a lot of starts with the condensed schedule, but it is up to Markstrom to be THE guy. It’s a lot of pressure on him after being one of the biggest signings of the offseason.