One of the familiar tropes in the NHL is the “poor ol’ Canadian team.” Lord Stanley’s chalice hasn’t been parked north of the border in 29 years, and there must be a reason for it. After all, the first two Great Bettman Lockouts were somewhat based on the fact that Canadian teams couldn’t have their income in Canadian dollars and their expenditure be an obscene amount of American dollars and survive. But the story goes that any Canadian team can produce a contending team short-term, but as soon as anyone hits free agency, they’re going to head south. Or maybe they aren’t up to the challenge of playing in the pressurized atmosphere of a Canadian city where hockey matters, and at the first opportunity they’ll flock to be just a face in the crowd somewhere in the U.S. (though a very rich one). And of course, the Canadian team will soon collapse, and have to pick up the pieces for another brief charge years down the road (unless you’re Toronto, where it’s definitely just the latter). They just can’t run with the big dogs for long, y’see. Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Tampa — they can have the dynasties, but The Seven are just plucky background pieces.
The Calgary Flames have said, “Fuck all that.”
Because the Flames were supposed to have been ruined. When Johnny Gaudreau decided that anonymity in Columbus was preferable and Matthew Tkachuk decided he didn’t want to be cold anymore (giving some credence to the idea that players just don’t like it in Canada), the Flames’ time as genuine Cup contenders looked like it had come to an end after only a couple seasons, if not just last year. There was a lot of talk around the Flames would have to blow it up, cash in on players like Andrew Mangiapane or Jacob Markstrom, and start over.
And then the Flames might have actually gotten better now.
The first step was punting Tkachuk and his Energize Bunny yap down to South Florida and getting Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar in return. Huberdeau is more of a replacement for Gaudreau than the garbage Tkachuk son, but is coming off his own 100+ point season and is only a slight drop as a playmaker from Johnny Hockey. The kicker is that the Flames also got Weegar, a nifty puck-moving D-man that they were in need of. Maybe they traded the best player in the deal, but they got two for one and two who will be on the top line and possibly top pairing for their team.
Today, the Flames completed their instant remaking with the signing of Nazem Kadri, for the mind-boggling bargain of $7 million per year for seven years. Kadri almost certainly expected more, as he’s not only one of the best checking centers in the league and coming off a championship but can also put up 87 points as he did with the Avs last season (proving that bidding against Lou Lamoriello just isn’t that hard). While he can be a headache at times, he’s certainly one of the more unique players in the league given the dominance he can show on both sides of the ice.
It gives the Flames a bit of a different look, as they will now be a force down the middle instead of just the top line. Kadri’s addition pushes Mikael Backlund (the best player in the world according to some close friends who don’t get out much) to a third-line center role which he’s far better accustomed to. Backlund won’t be required to score at all as a pure checking center, and whatever points he does provide will be a bonus. Elias Lindholm-Kadri-Backlund would be the center depth that will be envied by most teams around the league, and certainly the Pacific Division, which still blows chunks and can easily be won by the Flames again.
Andrew Mangiapane will likely bump up to the top line to finish the chances Huberdeau creates, and seeing as how he’s coming off a 35-goal season on the second line where he didn’t play with anything near the natural playmaker that Huberdeau is it’s a role he probably can fill pretty ably. Tyler Toffoli will likely bump up to the second line to flank Kadri on the opposite side of Blake Coleman, though just the combination of Coleman and Kadri will be one of the most annoying lines to play against anywhere. The Flames might be a little light on the wings in the bottom six, but bottom six wingers are a dime-a-dozen come the trade deadline. They’re the middle relievers of hockey.
The long-term outlook isn’t much worse. Huberdeau re-upped, and Kadri is in for seven years. They’ll need to lock in Weegar and Lindholm, or similar players, soon. But they’ll lose Lucic’s anchor of a salary after this season, and other cap hits like Chris Tanev’s or Coleman’s or Nikita Zadorov’s or Toffoli’s are either movable in the next two seasons or come off the books anyway. The big trigger will be moving Markstrom to let Dustin Wolf take over in the crease, and another playoff beer barf from Markstrom will probably only hasten that process.
Sure, the Flames still probably lack a true No. 1 D-man, which was something of an issue when they couldn’t keep Connor McDavid on a leash in the second round. But again, the Pacific is dogshit, and being strong down the middle is probably more important than having a cracking top line. The Flames went from utter despair to division favorites and Cup contenders again within a month, and look at least as strong as they did last season.
Y’see? Being in Canada doesn’t mean you have to raise the white flag at the first hurdle.