It feels a little weird to see the Calgary Flames atop the Western Conference standings. After winning their only Cup in 1989, Calgary has won just four playoff series: one in 2015, and three on their Cinderella run to the Cup final in 2004, when they were propped up by goalie Miikka Kiprusoff and winger Jarome Iginla, two superstars at the absolute peak of their powers. In between, the Flames have lost in the first round 11 times.
This time, though, seems different. Like their provincial neighbors in Edmonton, the Flames are reaping the benefits of picking near the top of the draft year in and year out. But unlike the Oilers, Calgary has managed to surround their tentpole forwards—Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk—with a reliable supporting cast. This season, under first-year head coach Bill Peters, the Flames finished with 107 points and 289 goals scored, both tied for second in the NHL behind the super-juggernaut Tampa Bay Lightning. The Flames’ first-round opponent, the Colorado Avalanche, has the worst record of any playoff team, and barring a 2004 Stanley Cup final rematch with the Lightning, Calgary will have home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.
Even though the Flames haven’t made a serious Cup challenge in 15 years, this club fits the bill of a contender: Calgary has not only a formidable top scoring line, but also forward depth to spare, like last year’s champs Washington and runners-up Vegas, and the Penguins the two seasons before that. Mark Giordano stands out as Calgary’s elite no. 1 defenseman, but the Flames also can throw multiple quality pairings at opposing forwards, like the 2016-17 Predators or 2011-12 and 2013-14 Kings. And if things get chippy, Tkachuk is a world-class pest. If their goaltenders cooperate, the Flames should stick around for a while.
If they do, expect to see a number of soft-focus features on Giordano. At 35, the Flames’ captain is their longest-tenured and oldest player. He was a late bloomer, and he didn’t play major junior hockey until he was 19, went undrafted, and didn’t become an NHL regular until he was 23. Giordano kept developing through his late 20s, until he became one of the top defensemen in the NHL. Earlier this decade, Giordano was a contender for the Norris Trophy and a spot on the Canadian national teams for the 2014 Olympics and 2016 World Cup, but injuries and bad timing kept him from making the squads. He also missed Calgary’s 2015 playoff run through injury and hasn’t been on the winning side of a playoff game since 2007.
This year, Giordano has had the best season of his career, scoring 74 points, a career high by 18. With Giordano on the ice at even strength, the Flames have had 57.1 percent of the total shots, blocks, and missed shots (known as Corsi, a good proxy for puck possession). That’s the eighth-highest total in the league among players with at least 60 games played. If Giordano is ever going to win the Norris, this is the year.
But the Flames aren’t just a sentimental favorite, a way to end Canada’s 26-year Cup drought or pick up a ring for Giordano or veteran winger James Neal. They pack some serious offensive firepower, led by two electrifying and completely dissimilar young American forwards. The first is Gaudreau, a winger from Carneys Point, New Jersey. Gaudreau fell to the fourth round of the 2011 draft in part because he was only 5-foot-6. Since then, he’s won the Hobey Baker Award (the Heisman Trophy of men’s college hockey) at Boston College, scored at least 60 points in all five of his full NHL seasons (including a team- and career-high 99 this year) and grown all the way to 5-foot-9.
Gaudreau is small even for a normal adult man, hilariously so for an NHL player; during All-Star weekend in 2015, then–Blue Jackets center Ryan Johansen brought a small child out to help him with the Breakaway Challenge, which Jakub Voracek (who’s 6-foot-2) parodied shortly thereafter by plucking Gaudreau off the line to do the same move.
But Gaudreau isn’t just a novelty act, he’s genuinely one of the quickest, most skilled, and most dynamic players in the game, capable of creating, seeking out, and weaponizing open space the way a great soccer player would.
Gaudreau’s elite finesse game is in contrast with what you might see on Calgary’s second line from 21-year-old Tkachuk. Tkachuk’s father, Keith, scored 538 regular-season goals over his 19 NHL seasons as an All-Star power forward, but is known just as much for accruing 2,219 minutes’ worth of penalties in his NHL career. If you search “Keith Tkachuk highlights” on YouTube, the first result is his induction video for the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. The next nine results that show any game action are all fight videos. In the past three seasons, Tkachuk père has unleashed two of his large, rowdy sons on the NHL, like a cross between the Sutters and the O’Doyles.
The elder of the two is Matthew, the no. 6 pick in the 2016 draft. As a rookie, Tkachuk scored 48 points but made headlines by elbowing Kings defenseman Drew Doughty in the mouth. Two years later, Doughty is still pissed, and Tkachuk is a nearly point-a-game player as part of the 3M line with Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik. Tkachuk has figured out how to modulate the more physical and dirty elements of his game and evolved from goon to agitator. This is not his father’s NHL; fighting is on the decline, careless elbows draw suspensions, and only six players took even 100 penalty minutes in 2018-19. Even so, Tkachuk wasn’t one of the 50 most penalized players in the league this season. (His 19-year-old brother, Brady, a rookie winger for the Ottawa Senators, took 75 penalty minutes this season to Matthew’s 62.)
But one of the Flames’ strengths is their depth. They’ve built a core of elite talent around existing veterans who survived the lean years earlier this decade: Frolik, Backlund, and Giordano’s defense partner T.J. Brodie weren’t good enough to carry the team on their own, but they’re excellent supporting players. Neal might win the Western Conference with his third team in as many years after signing as a free agent from Vegas this offseason, while the Flames picked up second-pairing defenseman Travis Hamonic from the Islanders for three draft picks in 2017.
The Flames are the only team in the NHL to have five 70-point scorers this year: Gaudreau, Tkachuk, Giordano, and Gaudreau’s linemates Monahan and Elias Lindholm. The first four of those players are Flames lifers—Tkachuk, Monahan, and 22-year-old forward Sam Bennett were all top-six picks, in fact—but Lindholm was part of what might go down as the trade that put Calgary over the top.
First, the trade before the trade: In June 2015, the Flames plucked defenseman Dougie Hamilton from the Bruins for three draft picks. Hamilton was excellent in his three seasons in Calgary, averaging 46 points while posting monster possession numbers. But this past offseason, they sent Hamilton and two other players to Carolina for a pair of former no. 5 overall picks, both of whom were formerly coached by Peters: Lindholm, a center, and Noah Hanifin, a defenseman. Hamilton had another good year in Carolina, which is in the postseason for the first time in a decade. But the 24-year-old Lindholm, playing with Gaudreau and Monahan, goosed his career high in points from 44 to 78 and posted the best possession numbers of his life. Hanifin, 22, set new career highs in points (33) and assists (28), despite starting more shifts in the defensive end than at any point in his career.
For all the Flames’ skill and depth up front and on the blue line, the one position that could sink them is goaltender. Two goalies split playing time about evenly for Calgary this year. The first is 37-year-old veteran Mike Smith, a 2014 Olympic gold medalist who’s famous for his ability to handle the puck. You might remember him holing out from 200 feet at All-Star Weekend in 2017.
Unfortunately, Smith isn’t that good at stopping pucks anymore; in 2018-19 he posted a save percentage of .898, good for 45th out of 50 NHL goalies with at least 1,500 minutes played this season. If Calgary makes a run this postseason it will most likely be with 26-year-old David Rittich between the pipes. Rittich is better than Smith at this point in their careers, but not by much. His regular-season .911 save percentage is in the bottom half of likely playoff starters, and it represents the best performance of Rittich’s career; the 42 starts he made this year make up almost three-quarters of his career NHL action. And while Rittich posted a .918 save percentage in his first 30 games, he has just an .898 save percentage in his past 15. Playoff goaltending is a chaotic proposition, and it’ll have to be for Calgary to win the Cup with a pedestrian pair of netminders.
Or maybe we’re in store for an exciting, goal-packed run through the playoffs for a team full of outrageously entertaining players. If nothing else, Calgary ought to stick around longer than it—or any Canadian team—has in years past.