Welcome to the Calgary Flames 2023/24 Season Preview.
A year ago, the Calgary Flames were entering a season that came following a summer highlighted by unprecedented change to the roster. Coming off of a 2021/22 campaign as parts of the most productive season for a forward line in Flames history and the best line in the NHL, wingers Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau sought stateside opportunities; Tkachuk was dealt to the Panthers in a first-of-its-kind sign-and-trade, while Gaudreau took the Flames to the final hour before inking a long-term deal in… Columbus. Also lost that off-season was long-time fan-favourite Sean Monahan. Incoming were free agent signing, Nazem Kadri, and former Florida Panthers, Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar.
Despite the departures of superstars, most fans were of the opinion that then-GM Brad Treliving (who’s now replaced Kyle Dubas in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ front office) had himself a pretty decent summer. Some had even dubbed the off-season the “Summer of Brad.” For the most part, hockey pundits held the belief that the Calgary Flames were as good or better on paper entering last season than the 111-point team from the year prior.
Among the fanbase, trust levels in head coach Darryl Sutter were high as well – the Flames had just won the Pacific Division in the regular season and had beaten the Dallas Stars with a thrilling game seven overtime goal by Gaudreau before losing to none other than the Edmonton Oilers in the second the round. Sutter’s accomplishments and trust from Flames’ fans were recognized with a Jack Adams Award in June. Management seemed to reflect that trust as well, as Sutter accepted an offer to extend as Calgary’s bench boss through the 2024/25 season on October 8, 2022 – not even a year ago.
Unfortunately for the fan base and everyone involved in the Calgary Flames organization, the season we expected in 2022/23 was not what was delivered. Before the halfway mark, the fan base was already turning on Sutter, frustration with goaltending was mounting, the power play was underperforming, and the newly acquired former Panthers were failing to meet the high bar set for them upon their arrival in Calgary. While some in the C of Red held out hope the narrative would shift in the Flames’ favour, the themes from the season’s first half were only amplified and augmented by a drop-off in production from Kadri, reluctance of the team to inject youth – like Jakob Pelletier and Matthew Phillips – into the lineup, and strange player deployment that was highlighted by Milan Lucic and other fourth liners hopping over the boards in critical moments, while Jonathan Huberdeau was stapled to the bench. Sutter even sent Nick Ritchie out for a vital shootout attempt that could have kept the Flames’ playoff hopes alive (Ritchie did not score, in case you missed it).
Ultimately, the Flames missed the playoffs by three points, falling from a divisional powerhouse to a laughing stock in only one season. Fans were audibly fed up (to put it lightly) and were demanding change in the form of new coaching staff, a full rebuild, meaningful opportunities for prospects (notably goaltending prospect Dustin Wolf), and an overhaul to the team’s playing style, which had been characterized by high shot volume and strong five-on-five play, but that lacked east-west puck movement, creativity in the offensive zone, and speed.
Shortly after a locker clean-out day that featured noncommittal statements from cornerstone Flames, Mikael Backlund and Elias Lindholm, the changes began.
Treliving, who had run Calgary’s front office as the club’s general manager since 2014, left in a “mutual parting of ways,” although the truth might be that Treliving realized the mess piling up under his desk and decided to seek a fresh start elsewhere.
After what felt like an eternity, the Flames braintrust led by President Don Maloney, announced the promotion of assistant general manager Craig Conroy to the GM’s seat. In between Treliving’s departure and Conroy’s hiring, Maloney also dismissed Darryl Sutter, just six months after his multi-year extension and 11 since his Jack Adams win.
With Conroy taking the reigns, fans started to uncover their buried seeds of passion. The former Flames’ captain taking over as GM represented a fresh start – at least from his position down – and fans were eager to see Conroy’s decision-making impacts on the club. He said the right things, too: commitments to getting younger, naming a captain, bringing in the right coach, and making tough decisions in order to avoid repeats of the Johnny Gaudreau situation.
In his first couple of months at the helm, Conroy added legendary Flame Jarome Iginla to his staff as a special advisor to the general manager, promoted Ryan Huska to head coach, brought in Dan Lambert and Marc Savard as assistant coaches, and traded last season’s highest scoring Flame, Tyler Toffoli, to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for a younger forward in Yegor Sharangovich and a third round draft pick. He’s also doubled down on naming a Flames captain before the beginning of the regular season.
While Conroy’s done lots right, the summer cooled off quickly for him. Calgary has six returning players set to become unrestricted free agents next summer: Elias Lindholm, Mikael Backlund, Nikita Zadorov, Chris Tanev, Noah Hanifin, and Oliver Kylington. The expectation was for at least one of the players to have their future established before training camp, yet here we are with all of the aforementioned in Calgary and with none of them extended (although Backlund may extend soon). It’s possible that no decisions were made on these players because Conroy’s focus was on adapting to a new role and aligning with Huska and his coaching staff, because there was no trade market for players Conroy may have considered moving in the off-season, or because players like Lindholm and Backlund chose to return for camp before re-engaging in extension talks. Regardless, patience could be the right move with the UFAs; even though the summer was “boring” in terms of trades and signings, Conroy hasn’t misstepped.
Under Ryan Huska and his coaching staff, the mood has been elevated at the Saddledome and three games into the pre-season (including a split-squad pair of games versus the Kraken), that mood is reaching beyond the walls of the arena and into the fan base.
Where fans had serious expectations at this time last year, they now have hope and curiosity. There’s hope for a more entertaining brand of Flames hockey fuelled by forward-thinking coaches and available roster spots for young players. There’s curiosity as to who the team’s captain will be, how a Flames lineup with plenty of bounce-back candidates will recover as a whole, and what will happen with the slew of players in need of jobs – in Calgary or elsewhere – next season.
The 2023/24 Calgary Flames have genuine potential to be a playoff team next spring, but in order for that to happen, the on-ice product needs to outshine the lacklustre results of too many games last season. During this preview series of articles, we’ll dive into the following topics on a more granular level in order to understand how each could contribute to a return to the Stanley Cup playoffs for the Calgary Flames*:
*If the text below is red, the article has been published. If the topic is black, we’ll have it available soon.
An early look at standout games on the 82-game 2023/24 Calgary Flames calendar: special events, divisional matchups, and more… Read more →
For a springtime playoff berth to be in the cards, the power play under new assistant coach Marc Savard may be a paramount piece of the puzzle… Read more →
This piece takes a look at why the current iteration of the Calgary Flames has the toolkit to produce better results with the following formula: youth x mood = energy… Read more →
Calgary Flames coaching staff
Calgary Flames goaltending
What would ideal forward lines look like? Read more →
With the opening night roster set, what forward lines can the Flames deploy? Read more →