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NHL

It’s Getting Harder To Spot A Flaw In The Flames

Calgary Flames salute the crowd
Derek Leung/Getty Images

The NHL trade deadline is still over a month away, but I wonder if any of the league’s upcoming moves will turn out to be as impactful as the Montreal Canadiens (the reigning Stanley Cup runners-up!) trading Tyler Toffoli to the Calgary Flames for some future assets on Monday. Last year’s leading scorer by 11 goals for—I have to say this again—the reigning Stanley Cup runners-up got into his first Flames game on Tuesday against Columbus, and after about 50 minutes in a Calgary uniform he had already contributed the final blow of a 6-2 smacking.

Even if it wasn’t all that necessary to secure the win, this was still a good first impression. Johnny Gaudreau flipped the puck skyward from his own defensive zone, and Toffoli outchased a couple of unsuspecting Jackets defenders to pick up possession at the opposite circle. From there, he patiently glided across Elvis Merzlikins in the crease and neatly backhanded the puck past the line. The capacity-limited crowd sounded twice as large when they went nuts for this one.

Like everyone else in Montreal, Toffoli has had a bit of a comedown so far this year, but as a consistent 20-goal scorer with fantastic underlying analytics in every season of his career, his arrival in Alberta is perfect timing for both individual and team. Not only does he already have existing friendships with a handful of Flames, plus a prior relationship with head coach Darryl Sutter (sometimes a bad thing but I guess not in this case), but Toffoli’s well-rounded play shores up a slightly top-heavy forward unit on a team already playing contender-level hockey.

The Flames, frustrating enough to face earlier in the season, have become absolutely terrifying over the past month. They’ve won nine of their last 10, and they’re doing so by emphatic scorelines. The average final score in these games has been 4.5 to 1.7, with multiple 6-0s, 5-2s, and even a 7-1.

The stereotype of a Sutter team is that they play a bruising style that prizes defensive discipline, and that’s certainly a major part of the story here. The Flames are fifth-best in the league at preventing shots, and when they do give them up, their formidable goalie tandem of the confident, comfortable Jacob Markstrom and the able young backup Dan Vladar are making saves at a higher rate than anybody but the Rangers. (Calgary’s ten shutouts on the year is four higher than the next-best contestant, too.)

As it turns out, being able to dig a moat around their own net provides Calgary’s offense plenty of room to express their own talents, and Sutter’s been able to get the most out of several guys who’ve been around the franchise for underwhelming recent seasons. Andrew Mangiapane is enjoying a breakout year as the most dangerous threat on the second line, and their top trio is the most suffocating in all of hockey right now: Matt Tkachuk is on pace for new career highs and has a Corsi percentage that beats every regular NHL player save Patrice Bergeron, while Gaudreau and Lindholm are first and third in the league in plus/minus, showcasing just how effectively the Flames’ best players have been able to impose their will on their opponents’ best players.

The Toffoli acquisition, at zero short-term cost, adds a third line to the mix that, in a best-case scenario, kickstarts the dormant Sean Monahan, or at the very least takes a little pressure off of the V.I.P.s. In addition, and this is a little less fun to think about, one of the key reasons why the Flames have been able to rise to first place in the Pacific is that they’ve been remarkably lucky to avoid any injuries or health-related absences from all of their top guys. The trade for Toffoli provides some insurance in case those fortunes change at a particularly inopportune time.

I feel like a goof making any kind of prediction about a tournament as random as the NHL playoffs, but honest to God, in a Western Conference that would become total anarchy if the Colorado Avs get eliminated, no other team makes me believe in their Stanley Cup chances more than the Flames. They have strong defense, infuriating goalies, and star-caliber forwards, and the closest thing they have to a flaw—offensive depth—has been shored up before it became anything more than a mild concern.

With the Leafs being cursed, and also having to get through both Florida teams and the Hurricanes, plus the Oilers looking so shaky and top-heavy, the Flames really do stand out as Canada’s best hope for breaking that Cup drought this time around. Of course, there’s a history of heartbreak in Calgary as well—going out in five as the top seed in the West in 2019; losing Game 7 of the Finals in 2004—but up and down the roster, few other teams anywhere on the continent make me feel as confident in their ability to win in high-stakes situations. Now the Flames just cross their fingers and hope they can stay in this groove for a few more months.