This week, we’re going to look at the six opponents the Leafs will spend all season playing. If you’re already tired of stories about this all-Canada division, just wait to see how you feel when the season actually starts. Today, we head to Alberta to look at the Calgary Flames.
One of the highlights of NHL hockey in early 2020 was the atomic bomb set off in Alberta. The long famous “Battle of Alberta” had in previous seasons become a tiresome exercise where the Flames and Oilers played out meaningless late-season games to decide which would be the first eliminated from the playoffs and head to the golf course.
In 2020, that all changed. It was open warfare between two teams fighting for the top spot in the Pacific Division, but it was also two teams that viscerally hated each other.
Matthew Tkachuk and Zach Kassian were already pretty well known pugilists, but it took on new meaning when their animosity spiralled out on trough their teammates, which then turned a series of games into a gong show that NHL fans everywhere else gleefully watched play out. Fans of the teams in the east were literally staying up late to watch the games in Alberta, and on January 11th they got what they wanted to see when it all blew up.
Not only was Kassian suspended two games after that, but the imbroglio escalated to a point the league had to dispatch George Parros, the alleged Director of Player Safety, to Alberta to attend and monitor games between the Flames and Oilers in person. He actually had to go in the locker room before the game and chastise the players like a kindergarten teacher. Not much changed with him there.
You know it’s bad when Milan Lucic is on the team and he looks shocked at what is going on. That team, by the way, was the Flames, in case you forgot they traded for Lucic from the Oilers before the start of the 2019-20 season. They still have Lucic now, stuck with his $5.25M salary cap hit which produced a meagre 8 goals in 68 games.
The Flames and Oilers were on course for a meetup in the playoffs as the second and third place teams in the Pacific Division, both benefiting from the three California teams absolutely bombing out for the season, but, that collision course with chaos was unfortunately disrupted when the pandemic shut down hockey and the playoff format was revised to wind up the season.
The Flames instead went to and made it through their qualification round by absolutely destroying the Winnipeg Jets. Then they faced the Dallas Stars in the first round of the playoffs and took them all the way to six games before being eliminated in a 7-3 rout. Not bad to take an eventual Stanley Cup Final team that far, but, another disappointment. The Flames haven’t moved past the first round of the playoffs (or it’s equivalent last season) since 2015.
While the hype about losing is held by Eichel and McDavid, I’m pretty sure Gaudreau qualifies as another star who is pissed off about very limited playoff success, and he is one looking at free agency in only two years.
Separately to all the above, it is important to note that Bill Peters started as head coach of the Flames for the season and resigned after accusations were made of disgraceful conduct, including racism, and also physically assaulting his players when coach of the Hurricanes.
The allegations of racism made by Akim Aliu, and assault by Michal Jordan, were a tipping point which forced the NHL to acknowledge it had not only failed to hold itself accountable to its own published standards, but, worse, it never even tried to monitor or audit itself to see if it was meeting those standards. The league had put words on paper and never bothered to check downstream those were ever read. The revelations triggered a cascade of events that culminated in much good happening, but left fans with a clear view there is a large gap that still requires significant work to close at the management level of the league.
The Flames took a page from the Kyle Dubas draft handbook and made their splash on Draft Day by trading down twice. GM Brad Treliving traded down from the 19th pick in the first round to 22nd, picking up an extra third round pick in the process. Then he did it again, trading down from 22nd to 24th, picking up another third round pick. Ultimately their big acquisition in the draft at 24th overall was Connor Zary, a centre from the WHL who looks promising, but more importantly, was allegedly who they targeted at 19th anyway, so their trade down gamble paid off quite well. They got the player they wanted and an extra two picks in the third round. Zary is presently playing for Team Canada at the World Juniors.
The biggest change to the team we will actually see is in net where Jacob Markstrom will take over from Cam Talbot. Markstrom was signed as a free agent after spending seven seasons on the Canucks.
Another big name to join the team is Chris Tanev who was signed as a free agent after spending ten seasons on the Canucks... Wait a minute. I’m seeing a trend here. I guess Treliving decided to raid the Canucks for spare parts this off-season.
Turnabout is fair play, though, as the Canucks have reportedly brought on Travis Hamonic from the Flames. I guess these Western Canada teams decided to simply all trade and swap players only with each other.
Also departing the Flames as free agents were Erik Gustafsson, and T. J. Brodie who left for bluer pastures in Toronto, so I will simply refer you to the related item box for more on that if you haven't already heard all about it. It’s a loss to the Flames defence, but one they seemed to know was coming.
Geoff Ward had his interim title dropped and will be the head coach of the team for this coming season. This is the Flames fourth head coach in five seasons; the previous being Peters, Glen Gulutzan, and Bob Hartley. That’s not a lot of consistency for the players to work with, and I can’t help but think that is a part of the reason for their lack of success.
One thing Calgary does have is time to figure out where to go next. The only big name on the contract block at the end of this season is Sam Bennett, who will be a simple Restricted Free Agent. Johnny Gaudreau’s contract runs through one more season before he hits UFA status, and the other big names are locked up for longer term. This team will have a pretty solid core that will likely hold right through into the 2021-22 season.
The Leafs games against the Flames are relatively well dispersed. They face each other two games in a row in January, February, and March, with the final three games in April. Contrast that to their Alberta cousins the Oilers whom the Leafs will face four times over ten days in January alone! There will be a lot of time for tempers to cool off between Tkachuk match-ups, but the Leafs do have Wayne Simmonds around to keep score on Tkachuk’s hits and slashes, and you know that he will, and that he will collect from Tkachuk on any debt in the Flames favour at some point.
The Flames and the Leafs are living in interesting times.