After finishing fourth in the Pacific Division this season, are the Calgary Flames ready to become the team to beat? Or do their rivals have a leg up?
The Calgary Flames posted 94 points in 2016-17. And it was good enough for the top wild card spot in the Western Conference. But it was all for nothing in the postseason, as the Anaheim Ducks swept Calgary with ease in the opening round.
Calgary hasn’t won a division title since 2005-06. And they’ve ranked no higher than third in the Pacific since moving there in 2013-14.
But after so many years of being in the middle or in the basement, are the Flames truly ready to become the team to beat in the Pacific? Let’s get the obvious out of the way: They are miles better than the rebuilding Vancouver Canucks and Arizona Coyotes at this point.
Both of those teams figure to be a few year’s away from competing as they continue to develop their young core players. So the Flames don’t have to worry about either.
The Los Angeles Kings finished with 86 points (eight less than Calgary), in 2016-17. It’s tough to see the Kings getting much better, as veterans Anze Kopitar (30 in August), Jonathan Quick (31), Jeff Carter (32), Marian Gaborik (35), and Dustin Brown (32), continue to show regression as they age.
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And given the controversial firing of head coach Darryl Sutter — one of hockey’s ultimate puck possession mastermind enforcers — it’s safe to assume the Kings won’t be a playoff team under this core anymore.
The San Jose Sharks finished with just five more points than Calgary. With franchise stars Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau both slated for free agency, it’s possible the Sharks lose two of their most valuable players. In that case, you can expect the Flames to topple San Jose in the standings for years to come.
Then there’s those pesky Ducks — who eliminated Calgary in the 2006, 2015 and 2017 playoffs. Oh, when will they get off the Flames’ backs?
Perhaps 2017-18? Ryan Getzlaf (32), Corey Perry (32), and Ryan Kesler (33 in August), showed their age at times this season. And another long playoff run is bound to take a toll on all their bodies. The Ducks will surely have to trade one of their best defencemen (Sami Vatanen?) rather than lose one in the expansion draft.
At this point, the Ducks and Flames look pretty even heading into 2017-18. Regardless of how their playoff matchup went down.
Battle of Alberta
And then there are the Edmonton Oilers…
Had this team not blown a three-goal lead in Game 5 against Anaheim with 3:16 left, they would have at least reached the Western Conference Final.
Translation: They’re really good now and they’re only going to get better.
Flames fans won’t want to read this, but Connor McDavid is the best player in the NHL — and he will be for a while. Leon Draisaitl is no slouch himself, while Adam Larsson, Oscar Klefbom and Andrej Sekera round out a great defensive group.
Oh, and Cam Talbot figures to be a perennial Vezina Trophy candidate after winning 42 games in 2016-17.
At this point, the Oilers look like the team to beat in the Pacific Division. Their superior star power and elite goaltending give them a slight edge over Calgary.
The Flames should be better than the Sharks in 2017-18. Given Calgary’s younger roster and better depth at forward, they look primed to finish ahead of San Jose. Who will struggle to make the playoffs next season.
Anaheim has obviously been better for many years, but their ageing core is definitely a cause for concern. Should the Flames play 2017-18 the way they did from November to April, they could easily finish higher than the Ducks in the standings.
But it might be a bit early to believe the Flames are going to be better than their provincial rivals. Edmonton is armed with better firepower on offence and they have a top-10 goalie in the NHL. Until the Calgary Flames score more and find a reliable number one goalie, they won’t be lifting a Pacific Division banner to the rafters.