Why the Calgary Flames will win the Western Conference again — and why they won’t

The Calgary Flames enter the 2019-20 season as the reigning Pacific Division champions for the first time in years, and they’re ready to make a deeper playoff run under second-year head coach Bill Peters. Last year’s team finished tied with Boston for the second-most points in the entire league before falling victim to the playoffs’ crazy first round, tossed aside in only five games by the Avalanche.

This offseason, general manager Brad Treliving signed goalie Cam Talbot to a one-year deal to replace Mike Smith in net and swapped forward James Neal, who underperformed during his one year in Calgary, for Milan Lucic in a controversial summer trade with the Oilers. Otherwise, the team returns with a similar roster to last year’s, though restricted free agents Matthew Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane remain in need of new contracts.

Can Calgary remain on top of the Western Conference for another year and make a Stanley Cup run? Here are a few reasons why the Flames may win the Western Conference again this season, and a few reasons why they may not.

Why the Flames will win the Western Conference again

Only the Tampa Bay Lightning scored more goals than the Flames in 2018-19. Last year’s Calgary team didn’t rely too heavily on special teams to score, either – according to Evolving Hockey, the Flames’ 2.88 goals/60 minutes at even strength ranked fifth in the league. Young stars Tkachuk (77 points), Sean Monahan (82) and Elias Lindholm (78) broke out for career-bests while superstar wing Johnny Gaudreau flirted with the 100-point threshold. It’s possible Calgary’s young forwards are developing into offensive superstars all at the same time.

On the other end of the puck, Calgary finished with the ninth-fewest goals allowed in the league (223) last season and the league’s second-best goal differential (+62). That’s a stellar defense, and a similar defensive core returns to the Flames this fall along with a new goalie in Talbot. Mike Smith posted a mediocre .898 save percentage and allowed 109 goals over 42 games played last season. Had Smith mustered just a league-average .910 save percentage last season, the Flames would have saved 13 more goals and risen to third-best in the league in goals allowed.

Talbot suffered from a porous defense in his four seasons with the Oilers, but he’ll backstop a far stronger all-around team on the other end of the Battle of Alberta – all he needs to do to give the Flames distinct improvement at the position is be, well, average. David Rittich (45 games, .911 save percentage) accomplished that during his share of games in net last season, and adding Talbot to the mix should help even more.

The biggest mystery at the Saddledome this coming season is how newcomer Lucic will adjust to his new environment. The Oilers may have won July’s Lucic-James Neal swap, but the 31-year-old power forward will play second fiddle to the team’s established group of scorers this fall instead of the top-line role he first started with on the Oilers.

“In Edmonton, I think I put a little bit too much pressure on myself to be this leader, power forward, goal-scorer, all this type of stuff,” Lucic told Sportsnet 960 in an interview after the trade. “I think I put too much on my plate, (it was) too much for me to handle.”

Lucic doesn’t need to score 20-plus goals to keep his new team afloat in the standings. If he can play any sort of effective physical game on one of the Flames’ bottom two forward lines and contribute at least 20 points, he will have provided more value than Neal did last season at a slightly lesser cap hit. Plus, as The Athletic‘s Scott Cruickshank noted in an Aug. 21 piece, Lucic reunites with assistant coach Geoff Ward this fall. Ward was an assistant coach in Boston for the entirety of Lucic’s time as a Bruin – he joined Calgary’s coaching staff last season. Perhaps the Vancouver native working with a familiar face from early in his career will help bring back the high-energy, depth scorer that first emerged a decade ago in Boston.

Why the Flames will not win the Western Conference again

Calgary predicated its success last year on career-best seasons from a number of players. Gaudreau is perfectly capable of scoring above a point-per-game average again, but Monahan, Tkachuk and Lindholm all experienced drastic jumps in scoring from their previous career-year totals. Lindholm had never scored more than 45 points in his first five seasons before breaking out for 78 last year – is he likely to achieve 14.8 shooting percentage again this season?

Another potential victim to point-scoring regression is Mark Giordano. The reigning Norris Trophy winner surely remains a top-tier NHL defenseman, but he scored 74 points in 2018-19, far better production from a blueliner who generally contributed between 35-50 points throughout his career. “Gio” recorded more secondary assists (31) than any other defenseman last season – a difficult feat to recreate, especially for a player approaching his 36th birthday in October.

The Flames’ high-scoring campaign last season was a serious improvement from 2017-18, in which they were one of the NHL’s worst offensive teams. It’s great that Calgary scored 289 goals last year, but the pressure is on for a number of players to prove it wasn’t a mere one-year outburst.

Exterior pressures exist among the team’s Pacific Division rivals, too. The Sharks also topped 100 points last season and could just as easily replicate the feat, while Vegas returns a similar roster in its third season of NHL play. The Coyotes could play a dark-horse spoiler in the Pacific playoff race, too – a late-season push last year saw Arizona miss the playoffs by a mere four points. GM John Chayka brought in veteran Phil Kessel to aid the team’s young stars in a quest to make the playoffs for the first time since 2012. This is no suggestion that the Coyotes could knock Calgary out of a playoff spot, but the Pacific only sent three teams to the West’s playoff picture last season. Expect Calgary to find more fight in its opponents during intra-division games this season.

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