Six questions for Flames ahead of training camp
The Calgary Flames might just be the most intriguing team going into this National Hockey League season.
Are they going to continue to play like the group that fell short of expectations in the 2022-23 campaign, narrowly missing out on the playoffs by three points? Or will they find a way to climb back into the postseason under new head coach Ryan Huska in a strong Pacific Division?
Ahead of training camp opening on Thursday, here are six questions the Flames will have to answer.
How will Huska handle the transition from assistant to head coach?
Huska is respected in the Flames’ dressing room as a good person, smart hockey mind, and excellent communicator. Many players were rooting for him to get the job after Darryl Sutter was fired. Being a head coach is different, though. Huska will be the ultimate authority in style of play and lineup decisions and will have to play the role of bad cop far more than he did as an assistant. Blueliner Rasmus Andersson assured media in June that, despite his calm and composed exterior, Huska can be very demanding and loud when he has to be. This is new for him, though, and he won’t have an experienced NHL head coach to lean on behind the bench.
How different will the Flames’ systems be?
Calgary was fairly predictable on the ice last season. Forwards would usually gain the zone with the puck, dump it in, retrieve it, and shoot from the point while hoping for rebounds or deflections. That didn’t quite suit the skillset of Jonathan Huberdeau, Nazem Kadri, and others who have the skill to possess the puck and get creative in the offensive zone. Former Flame Marc Savard is now in charge of the forwards and power play. Calgary’s offence will likely look very different, with a far greater premium placed on puck possession and quality of scoring chances versus quantity.
Who will we C?
Huska and new general manager Craig Conroy have made it abundantly clear that there will be a captain in Calgary for the first time since losing Mark Giordano to the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft in 2021. Several players have remarked that part of last season’s difficulties were due to Sutter not having a captain. This Flames team has yearned for a defined leader and will finally get one to be a conduit between the coaching staff and players. Will 34-year-old Mikael Backlund, a pending free agent considered by several players to already be the default captain, get the C stitched on his jersey, or will the younger Andersson get the honour?
Will Lindholm linger?
In what’s becoming a trend for the organization, on-ice success will likely be determined by if a marquee forward in the final season of his contract decides to remain a Flame or test the free-agent market. No. 1 centre Elias Lindholm answered in short, direct phrases at the team’s golf tournament last week when asked about his future, saying several times that he wanted to remain in Calgary beyond 2024. His body language and tone, however, told a different story. Conroy has said several times he does not want a repeat scenario of what happened with Johnny Gaudreau, when he went into the 2021-22 season without a new deal and ultimately left for nothing. The clock is ticking, and with Backlund, Noah Hanifin, Oliver Kylington, Chris Tanev, and Nikita Zadorov also pending free agents, Conroy may be forced to deal Lindholm and others if they can’t come to terms soon.
How will Huberdeau perform?
Jonathan Huberdeau is now the highest-paid player in franchise history, having inked an eight-year, $84 million extension after he was acquired last July. Huberdeau is paramount to the short- and long- term success of the team and, after a disappointing opening campaign in Calgary where he notched just 55 points, the team has to prioritize finding the right fit for him. On paper, it appears he’ll start with Lindholm. But the Flames are not deep on the right side, with newly acquired Yegor Sharangovich likely getting the first crack on the top line. Given their limited cap space, the Flames are unlikely to trade for anyone else, so the solution will have to come internally. Might rookie Matthew Coronato, a first-round pick in 2021 and one of the few right hand shots on the team, start the season on the top line alongside Lindholm and Huberdeau?
What will be the plan for goaltending?
Internally, there is a strong belief Jacob Markstrom will bounce back after one of the worst seasons of his career (2.92 goals-against average, .892 save percentage), but Huska will likely cut down his starts from the 59 he had last season. Backup Dan Vladar is well regarded and will push for more playing time. Then there is Dustin Wolf, the highly touted seventh-round pick in 2019, who is coming off consecutive seasons of being named the top goaltender in the AHL and an AHL MVP honour in 2023. He can still be sent to the AHL without needing waivers, but Calgary has to find ways to get him into more NHL games after he made his debut at the end of last season. Calgary has the big advantage of its AHL club being in the same building as the NHL club, which will make it easier for Wolf to get spot starts with the Flames and immediately go back to the Wranglers. Conroy and Huska have made it abundantly clear that the door is open for young players, and they have to ensure the 22-year-old Wolf gets a legitimate NHL opportunity after having proven everything he possibly could at the American League level.