It’s time to unpack everything that’s happened in the past month. There’s just so much to say about the trade deadline, player’s being forced to defend themselves in the era of new-school hockey, and the idea of tanking for draft picks. So, let’s dive right in.
1. JOHNNY GAUDREAU
When Connor McDavid threw an elbow at Jesperi Kotkaniemi during the Edmonton-Montreal game, I think most people were a little shocked that a superstar player would be so seemingly aggressive. After some thought, I saw it from a different perspective. I think it goes back a long way to when aggressive players were just another part of every team, brought in to protect those superstar players who make the plays, score the goals, and generally bring the wins. The McSorelys/Messiers/McGrattans just aren’t part of the game anymore. Old school hockey has been dying off at an exponential rate in the past few years and the league has been filtering out the protectors ever since, leaving the star players to defend themselves. Fast-forward to the Crosby/McDavid/Gaudreau era. We still have the star players on each team - they’re now called franchise players - and they have no one to defend them anymore. Now, all the best players are left out there to fight on their own, to defend themselves. Gaudreau’s hands have been slashed countless times during each game because every player in the NHL knows that’s his biggest asset. If Johnny Gaudreau did the same thing as McDavid, would the world be as shocked? Should we be surprised? If Johnny was to do something similar, would it be wrong? Personally, I hate that star players are thrown to the wolves and have to defend themselves, but it’s the nature of the beast. I don’t think it’s right, but what’s the alternative? I’m not excusing the behaviour, I’m just saying I can understand why it happens and I’d like to find a different way of dealing with the problem.
2. BATTLE OF ALBERTA
Speaking of Edmonton, remember when the Battle of Alberta was good? Ah, those were the days. The Calgary Flames are not having a good season. And, in the grand scheme of things, the Edmonton Oilers are still struggling to claw their way out of the bottom half of the standings in the league. It’s a battle of the bottom-feeders in the past few seasons. And, sadly, the Flames are not winning this battle very often. I’m looking forward to the impending rebuild because I hope someday to bring back the excitement of a real Battle of Alberta. Until then, it just seems that we’re forced to watch a battle that is more like a petulant sibling fight over a stuffed toy.
3. SAM BENNETT TRADE
Did anyone NOT see this coming? Did anyone actually buy it when Sam commented that he talked to Sutter and he was ready for a fresh start? Me neither. My guess was that the Flames would hold onto Bennett only to expose him to the expansion draft when the Seattle Kraken team join the league next season. I was wrong. Bennett brought in a prospect and a second round draft pick, which means he was actually worth more than most of us had guessed. Considering Sam is a RFA soon, I think the Flames (and maybe even Sam Bennett) won that trade.
4. DAVID RITTICH TRADE
David Rittich was moved to the Maple Leafs at the deadline, to be reunited with T.J. Brodie in Toronto. The Flames got a 3rd round pick in exchange. Considering Rittich will be a UFA after this season, with no guarantee that he would re-sign in Calgary and no guarantee that he would ever be a starting goalie with the Flames because of the long-term contract signed by Markstrom, I think this was the right move. I hope Rittich gets a better chance as a starter in Toronto and this works out for the best for him because he did a lot for the Flames and he’s earned his chance.
5. TANK NATION
Because the Calgary Flames are at the bottom of the laundry pile this season, most of us know that their hopes of making playoffs have all but ended. Enter the “tank for a draft pick” fans who think that top picks are exclusively the best players. Remember Sam Bennett?? Yeah, he was a first round draft pick. And look how that turned out. On the other hand, remember Theo Fleury? He was an 8th round pick. T.J. Brodie was a 4th round pick, Micheal Ferland was a 5th round pick, Andrew Mangiapane was a 6th round pick. And if you try to tell me that each of those players were not a dependable part of the Calgary Flames when they were needed, then this discussion is over before it even starts. My point is that sometimes the players we come to depend on during tough times are not always the first round picks that everyone covets so intensely. For that reason, and also because I cannot morally support a losing culture, I don’t agree with taking a dive in the regular season for a good first round draft pick. It’s flawed logic.
6. SUTTER GETS POLITICAL
Darryl Sutter made it very clear this month that he is not happy with the vaccine rollout in Alberta. When asked in an online interview about his concerns regarding the Covid-19 virus, he stated, “my biggest concern is...we’re not getting the vaccines necessary...to curb this...The big problem is we’re not getting the vaccines and we need that.” And he’s right. The vaccine rollout in Canada has been sporadic at best, and lagging behind a lot of other countries at its worst. Everyone is trying to do what they do with that nagging thought of Covid-19 at the back of their minds and hockey players are no exception. Last season, during playoffs, in the bubble, the people involved in bringing hockey back were a bit more protected because of the closed community they created in order to finish off the season. This year, there are no bubbles and, even though everyone involved this season is under restrictions and regulations, they are all still at risk. The Vancouver Canucks proved just how at-risk these players and staff are. I hope this isn’t the fate of all the other teams, but we just don’t know how this will all turn out because of the unpredictable vaccine rollout.
7. MARK GIORDANO
I will always have a soft spot for Mark Giordano because he has done a relatively good job of leading the Calgary Flames since Jarome Iginla left. As an undrafted player, Giordano has spent his entire career so far with the Flames. And, generally speaking, he has been a dependable part of the Flames team. So, what are the options at this point in his career? We know he won’t get a cup with this team. And we know every player deserves a cup during their tenure in the NHL. We know his veteran experience has been an asset to this young team. And it says something big when a player has dedicated their entire career to one team because, essentially, this is a business, and players rarely spend their entire career with one team anymore. At this point, should Giordano stay or should he go? On a personal level, I’d like to see him stay in Calgary and retire a Flame. But I don’t want to see him retire yet. If he wants a cup, if that’s the most important thing to him as it is to most players, he will have to chase a cup with another team. I think this off-season will be a turning point for Giordano, when he will have to decide what’s most important to him and his career. Whatever he decides, I will support him because his loyalty to the Flames has been something we don’t see a lot in the NHL anymore. And I will always appreciate what he’s done for the Calgary Flames.
8. MATTHEW TKACHUK
I watched Keith Tkachuk play for St. Louis back in the day. I loved his style of play and I thought he was a difference-maker. So, when the Flames drafted Matthew Tkachuk, I was cautiously optimistic. Hockey has changed and I knew Matthew couldn’t be the same player his dad once was. And then the situation with Doughty happened. And then Kassian. And then Muzzin. And then all those other players in the NHL who lined up for a piece of Matthew Tkachuk. And I was intrigued. Just as Matthew was finding his way in the league, amicably chatting with his brother at the center line during warm-ups against the Ottawa Senators and seemingly losing his edge, things began to shift for the worse for the young winger. Enter Darryl Sutter. Since the resurgence of Sutter in the NHL, Matthew Tkachuk is learning to take his presence in the NHL to another level. The aggressiveness that dwindled away for a while has slowly returned. He’s picked up his pace and worked harder since Sutter took over as head coach. Tkachuk is slowly getting back to the player he should be. The only person not shocked at his snow-shower on goal against the Maple Leafs after Rittich got traded was David Rittich himself. Tkachuk is becoming the low-key aggressive player that I was hoping to see in the NHL when he was drafted. And I’m here for it.
9. LUCIC’S 1000TH GAME
I watched Lucic win the Stanley Cup in 2011 with the Boston Bruins. I’ve followed his career as he bounced around the NHL for a few years. I’ve always had a soft spot for Lucic since 2011. But I’ve always known he was never a top level goal scorer. He is a compliment to a team that wants to make a run for the cup. He knows his job, he contributes to every team he plays for, and he has been successful at his role. When the Flames took over his contract for 6 years at almost 6 million, I just about fell off my chair. In a league that has tried to force out players like Lucic who bring grit and truculence, I didn’t know how long this would last. In spite of this, seeing Lucic celebrate his 1000th game with the Flames was another moment that I will never forget. Lucic’s 1000th game, started with a beautiful pass to Valimaki who opened the scoring and handed Lucic the assist. Then Lucic took on Leafs Scott Sabourin in a fight that added to his momentous evening. Everyone held their breath as we waited for his goal that would complete the Gordie Howe hat trick even though it didn’t happen. Lucic started his career as the grit and he’s making a statement in his 1000th game that he’s still got it. I like Lucic for a lot of reasons. Mostly because he has made a career out of being that unpredictable piece on every team that can be depended on in those moments when they need him the most. But he also seems to be a great addition to any dressing room because he seems like a genuinely good person off the ice. Congratulations on the milestone, Milan!
10. THE BIG PICTURE
As individuals, the Calgary Flames are full of talent and skill. But, as a collective, they’re awful together. The rebuild has started (again?) during the trade deadline with the removal of David Rittich (who went to Toronto) and Sam Bennett (who was traded to the Florida Panthers). Who’s next is anyone’s guess, but I really don’t think the Flames are done moving pieces. I think they will be sending more players around the league during the off-season because there is something among this team that clearly isn’t working. What will become of the Calgary Flames? Who knows. But with all the free agents coming up in the next couple seasons, this team will look completely different in the next two years. Derek Ryan, Josh Leivo, Buddy Robinson, Brett Ritchie, Joakim Nordstrom, Micheal Stone, and Nikita Nesterov are all UFAs next season. Dillon Dube will be an RFA next season. As much as it pains me to say this, Andrew Mangiapane and Matthew Tkachuk will be RFAs in 2022-2023, while Johnny Gaudreau will become a UFA in 2022-2023. That’s a lot of potential changes on the horizon as the Flames need to make the decisions whether or not to attempt to re-sign those players. And then there’s the question of, will they even consider staying? Best case scenario, Calgary is able to keep some assets while off-loading some needless contracts. Worst case scenario, the Flames will be a completely different team by 2023-2024.
And that concludes my thoughts this month. I have a feeling my next installment won’t happen until the season is over and that makes me a little sad, knowing that the Flames probably won’t make playoffs. On the other hand, maybe this is what it will take for the organization to take a good hard look at what’s working and what isn’t in Calgary. Either way, I’ll be back next month with a few more thoughts on the Calgary Flames during the off-season.