As a welcome reprieve from a year ago when the battle in the Flames goal crease was all anyone in Calgary was talking about, this year there is no such drama.
Alluding to the three-goalie nightmare with Jonas Hiller, Karri Ramo and Joni Ortio, general manager Brad Treliving said after the season that it's something he'd never do again.
True to his word, training camp opened this week without a hint of mystery in net. Calgary traded a second round pick for Brian Elliott. He will start. They signed veteran Chad Johnson as a free agent. He will back-up. Top prospect Jon Gillies has fully recovered from hip surgery. He will start in Stockton.
But fret naught, there are still many other training camp battles going on that will give you several topics to roll-up the sleeves and debate the next time you're hanging out at the pub.
Five Training Camp Battles
1. Who will play with Gaudreau and Monahan?
One guy is waiting for the Brinks truck to arrive and the other is recuperating from a strained back. That said, I would be shocked if Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan aren't side-by-side, just like old times, when the Flames open the season October 12 in Edmonton. What's quickly become an age-old question though is who will be on the starboard side.
Best Guess - Alex Chiasson
Acquired from Ottawa in the summer in exchange for Patrick Sieloff, the 25-year-old comes to Calgary seeking a fresh start after a couple down years with the Senators. While behind the bench here is assistant coach Dave Cameron, the same guy he struggled under, also behind the bench is the coach whom he's had the most NHL success with in Gulutzan. Aware of the upside with the 2009 second rounder, who scored 19 goals in 86 games in a season-and-a-bit as a rookie, can Gulutzan's presence along with being back in the West be the tonic? At 6-foot-4 and 208 pounds, there's plenty of size there and he has shown an ability to finish. Given the nominal acquisition cost, what a find it would be if it worked out. Chiasson's thrifty $800,000 salary would also nicely off-set the big dough to be earned by his linemates.
Other Candidates - Micheal Ferland, Hunter Shinkaruk, Chris Higgins, Linden Vey
Dark Horse - Daniel Pribyl
comparing his style to former NHLer Robert Lang.
While he may not open the season in that spot, he could very well end up finishing the season there and if so, what a free agent signing he could turn out to be.
2. Who will play with Bennett and Brouwer?
With Gulutzan declaring on Friday that he would like to keep Bennett and Brouwer together for a while to see if they can build some chemistry, that begs the question of who might end up playing alongside them.
Best Guess - Micheal Ferland
With Ferland you get some decent hands -- although he's struggled to score at the NHL level thus far -- and a good hockey IQ. Of course, you also get some edge and physicality too and after a year in which that element of his game would come and go, perhaps Brouwer's presence and his outspoken reputation would help get Ferland's game to the next level. One guy, who knows very well what Ferland's upside is would be Gulutzan. After all, he had an ice level view of his impactful playoff series against the Canucks two years ago. In need of a new contract after this season, the motivation should be there for Ferland and should he land this role, what a golden opportunity it would be.
Whether it's next week, next month or next year, imagine the amount of shit-disturbing that would go on with a Tkachuk-Bennett-Brouwer line.— Darren Haynes (@DarrenWHaynes) September 23, 2016
Other Candidates - Lance Bouma, Chris Higgins, Hunter Shinkaruk
Dark Horse - Matthew Tkachuk
You know he's going to get a lot of playing time in the pre-season. If he can play the same surly, agitating and impassioned game as he displayed at the Young Stars Classic last weekend in Penticton, he also could make it hard for Gulutzan to pull him out of the line-up. While there is still some junior in his game, Calgary could really use someone that goes out and pisses off the opponent. A mature young man off the ice, there is no doubt that he could make the jump. It could be argued that since the AHL is not an option, sheltered minutes in the NHL would also be best for his development given he has already dominated at major junior.
3. Who will play with Backlund and Frolik?
Continuing the theme of partnerships, I will assume Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik will be linemates again because why not. They've shown great chemistry in the past and are a vital part of the Flames middle-six. An additional luxury with Frolik is he could also easily slide over to his natural side of left wing so that further opens up the list of possibilities.
Best Guess - Lance Bouma
Bouma provides a physical presence that would nicely complement the two Europeans and on a line that would also be tasked out with some difficult shutdown assignments, he is better equipped than some of the other candidates to take on that type of role. Entering year two of a three-year deal, this is a big season for Bouma. The 26-year-old needs to get his season off to a positive start and re-establish himself as a key ingredient on this team. He also needs to stay on the ice and out of the trainer's room, which has been his biggest challenge.
Other Options - Lauri Korpikoski (PTO), Michael Ferland, Garnet Hathaway, Hunter Shinkaruk
Dark Horse - Chris Higgins (PTO)
While his previous stint in Calgary was a while ago, he left a good impression and he could be the type of veteran Gulutzan sees as important to have around to complement all the youth.
4. Who will play D on the 2nd pairing beside Hamilton?
Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie make for a formidable top pairing. While both are left shots, Brodie prefers playing the off-side so it works out well for the two workhorses. That leaves Dougie Hamilton on the second pairing and the question of who rounds out the top four.
Best Guess - Jyrki Jokipakka
But for now, my money is on Jokipakka getting the first look. The 25-year-old was a pleasant surprise when he came over from Dallas in the Russell trade. There is more jam and physicality to his game than I was expecting. The 6-foot-3 Finn can also move the puck and was a coveted addition to the Finnish World Cup team.
Other Options - Dennis Wideman, Tyler Wotherspoon, Jakub Nakladal (unsigned)
Dark Horse - Kris Russell
Whether or not there is enough money in the vault is probably the biggest question with Russell, an Alberta guy through and through, who loves the city. There is an affinity for Russell as well within the front office. While he's regularly ridiculed by the advanced stats community and there are holes in his game, he also has shouldered a lot of playing time over the years. You cannot discount the pivotal role he played in helping the Flames overcome the loss of Giordano and get into the playoffs in 2015.
5. Who will be the 7th Defenceman?
Clarity finally on Ladislav Smid leaves the Flames with six defencemen on one-way contracts so there is room for a player to join the mix and compete with Deryk Engelland for minutes on the third pairing.
I spoke with Wotherspoon last month after he signed a one-year deal, he talked about the excitement of getting a fresh start under Gulutzan, who knows him from his WHL days. He also talked about the turning point in his season last year, which ultimately led to a promotion to Calgary and a strong showing with the Flames.
Now waiver eligible, staying in the NHL is entirely on his shoulders. If he plays well in camp and shows that after 162 games logged in the AHL, he is ready for big league employment, his cheap $625,000 contract would be ideal for the cash-strapped Flames. If Calgary chooses to send him down, maybe another team decides to take a shot at him.
Other Options: Nicklas Grossmann (PTO), Brett Kulak, Kenney Morrison, Jakub Nakladal (unsigned)
season-ending wrist injury. Last year, his season began with a separated shoulder and assigned to the ECHL to get back up to game speed, he let that affect his game and he ended up spending three months buried in Adirondack.
But he's back, he's healthy, he's confident again after overcoming last year's "mental depression" as he called it and he got September off to a great start with a solid showing in Penticton. With Gulutzan wanting his defencemen to be pushing up ice and very involved in the play, Culkin's two-way game would fit in very well.
- Training Camp Primer: Ten Players to Watch from the 66 Attending Training Camp - To provide some semblance of order to the 66 players invited to Flames training camp, I break them into 20 groupings and identify a player to watch in each group. (September 22, 2016).
- FF80F Podcast: Episode 6 - Ryan Leslie Guests in a Wrap-up From Penticton - Bringing great insight as usual, the host of Flames TV and I weighed in on a bunch of Flames prospects including Matthew Tkachuk, who we had an extended talk about. (September 21, 2016)
- Penticton 2016: Flames 4, Canucks 3 - Six Post-Game Impressions with Quotes - A great finish to the Young Stars as Ryan Lomberg had a game of a lifetime that had everyone talking about this young player. Hot-tempered Dillon Dube stood out also. (September 18, 2016)
- Penticton 2016: Oilers 4, Flames 3 - Six Post-Game Impressions with Quotes - Matthew Tkachuk (a Costco-sized container of piss and vinegar) was surly again. We got a first glance at 6-foot-7 Stepan Folkovsky, who Ryan Huska described as "interesting". (September 17, 2016)