Calgary Flames: A Closer Look at This Year’s Battle of Alberta
As much as I hate to admit it, there are several parallels between the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers right now.
I think it’s safe to say that both Calgary and Edmonton were among the top five most disappointing NHL teams of 2017-18 in terms of expectations vs results (more on this later). Both teams are looking to skip the rebuild and win now. Both are feeling the pressure to take advantage of their “window” while their star players are still young.
There are some major differences too, including goaltending, individual star power and the spread of talent, cap space, and offseason activity.
In any case, look for both teams to fight hard for a major bounce-back.
If someone wanted to do a case study about how pre-season expectations impact a hockey team’s performance, looking at the 2017-18 Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
After coming within a stone’s throw of the conference finals in 2017, the Oilers came into last season riding high expectations. People were comparing Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl to Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin. NHL writer Dan Rosen and Matt Waymire went on the record calling them “legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.”
That narrative ended in a jiffy, as the team struggled its way to 12th place in the Western
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Conference with 78 points.
Calgary was not a cup favourite at the beginning of last season, but after acquiring Travis Hamonic, the team was generally pinged as a sure thing for the playoffs. Its D-core was consistently in the “best in the NHL” conversation, neck-and-neck with the Nashville Predators. Glen Gulutzan predicted that he would be coaching a 100-point team.
So the Flames were also dealing with high expectations, albeit not as high as Edmonton’s, and fell short. They finished one position above the Oilers in the Western Conference with 84 points.
Is it a coincidence that the team with higher expectations finished lower in the standings? Maybe, but I’m fairly confident the pressure was at least a contributing factor.
Now, the tables appear to have turned.
Barring a blockbuster trade in Edmonton between now and October, I believe the Calgary Flames will enter the 2018-19 season with higher expectations than the Oilers. I say that because Brad Treliving has been arguably the league’s most active GM this offseason, and his formerly 84-point team looks vastly improved, at least on paper. Treliving and the Flames have consistently been grouped among the “winners” of the offseason. The talk has been big, now it’s time for the new roster to walk the walk.
Meanwhile, Peter Chiarelli has been quiet, leaving last year’s 78-point roster mostly unchanged.
Given all the parallels between the 2017-18 Flames and Oilers, it’s fascinating to see Treliving and Chiarelli take an almost opposite approach to free agency and the offseason in general. Obviously Edmonton’s salary cap issues are the biggest differentiating factor there. Personally, I like Treliving’s methods better.
This Season’s Battle of Alberta
With the Flames’ new look, and the Oilers doubling down on the old roster, what does the Alberta rivalry look like for 2018-2019?
I try to avoid making concrete predictions. Or, more accurately, I try to avoid putting said predictions in writing. But today I’m going to break from my rule, because I’m realizing that nobody has a crystal ball. (Remember when 90% of the insiders were 90% sure John Tavares would stay with the Islanders?) Best to swing for the fences and miss sometimes.
Since 2016 the rivalry has leaned heavily in Edmonton’s favour, with the Calgary Flames winning only 3 out of 11 matchups, and losing 7 straight between October of ‘16 and January of ‘18. At the end of last season, things began to trend in the Flames’ favour, as they won two straight in March.
I believe that trend will continue and the Flames will win three of their four matchups against the Oilers this coming season. Calgary’s new additions will be eager to play in the Alberta rivalry for the first time, McDavid will likely be playing against an improved shutdown line, and Cam Talbot just doesn’t look like his old self.
Part of me wishes these teams could face off 8 times per season like they used to, but I don’t think my heart could handle it.