The Flames have high-end skill up front, and one of the NHL’s elite defense corps, but by 2019-20 it will be up to young goaltenders to put them over the top.
Welcome to 2020 Vision, our new feature taking a look at how the roster of each NHL team may look three seasons from now when the 2019-2020 season begins.
Over the next month we’ll profile one team, in alphabetical order, each day and project what their roster (12 forwards, six defensemen, two goalies) will look like.
There were some ground rules for this exercise. We didn’t allow any blockbuster trades or free agent signings, but we did make assumptions about teams re-signing their own UFAs and RFAs.
Therefore, this isn’t intended to be a fantasy-like look at the league in 2019-20. Instead, since this is part of the THN Future Watch family, it’s meant to be a realistic, best-case-scenario projection for each team based on players already under contract, and prospects in their system.
When Brian Burke joined the Calgary Flames as director of hockey operations a few years ago, he talked at length about needing to transform the team into a rugged, black-and-blue outfit that could compete against the big and surly California forces in the Pacific Division. But as the game got quicker and more skilled, so too did the Flames under the guidance of GM Brad Treliving.
Johnny Gaudreau was already in the system and high picks such as Sean Monahan, Sam Bennett and Matthew Tkachuk were almost automatic skill-based selections in the top six of their draft years. But Calgary struggled with scoring depth outside the top two lines and its bottom few defensemen were getting dominated with speed and possession. And goaltending, of course, was still an issue as a capable replacement for Miikka Kiprusoff was still sought.
In the summer of 2017, Treliving rolled the dice on 35-year-old stopper Mike Smith, and the blueline additions of Travis Hamonic and Michael Stone gave Calgary a top-rated blueline for the first time since the Stanley Cup title year of 1988-89.
With the Flames playing more of a possession game under coach Glen Gulutzan, and the beefed-up two-way blueline, the expectation is Smith need only supply league average goaltending or better to remain a competitive team capable of winning a playoff round or two. But what sort of reasonable growth is projected from the forward ranks?
If Mark Jankowski has a successful rookie NHL season in 2017-18, that could push Bennett to the left wing, where he may show more offensive creativity. Tkachuk had a terrific rookie NHL season and may best be suited on the right side of Sean Monahan and Gaudreau. Tkachuk played some right wing in the OHL. And if NCAA free agent Spencer Foo makes good on his budding potential, the Flames will have three balanced lines that can also take care of their own end.
By 2019, the game will still be based on speed, energy and puck-possession skills. So much for black-and-blue hockey. But Calgary does have the makings for a cheap, unheralded fourth line that can grind, score and dominate possession against other fourth lines around the league – AHL sniper Hunter Skinkaruk, two-way WHL star Dillion Dube and energizer Curtis Lazar.
GOT IT: Defensive dominance. Calgary’s defense will evolve into a league force and stay there for a decade. Mark Giordano will be 36 in 2019-20 and probably his last season as a first-pairing D. But Hamilton, Brodie and Hamonic will be in their prime and crafty Rasmus Andersson will have replaced Michael Stone on the third pair.
NEED IT: Goaltending experience. Jon Gillies was Mike Smith’s steady backup in 2018-19 (projecting) while top prospect Tyler Parsons completed his second impressive season in the AHL (also projecting). So the Flames will be relying on inexperienced, but promising young stoppers to carry the load. Gillies will be 25 and Parsons 22.
CAP WATCH: With two goalies on cheap contracts, the Flames will have room to sign Tkachuk and Bennett to long-term deals at $5 million-plus and not have to trade any core players. But Brodie and Hamonic have expiring contracts in 2020 and both are looking for significant raises. It’s probable one will have to be moved and replaced with Juuso Valimaki or Adam Fox.
BOTTOM LINE: After loading up on high-end skill forwards in recent drafts, the Flames’ current focus on blueliners, both quantity and quality will pay dividends. But it all comes down to whether or not Gillies or Parsons develop into a top-10 NHL No. 1 goalie that will determine if Calgary can become Cup contenders.
Monday: Carolina Hurricanes