Following up on a popular feature I first hatched last year, here is the 2016-17 edition of my eight bold predictions.
Eight Bold Predictions for the Flames
1. Chad Johnson Wins 20 Games
When you think of back-up goalie in Calgary, you think of the guys that ran the defence gate during the time Miikka Kiprusoff was entrenched as No. 1. From that motley crew that included Joey MacDonald, Henrik Karlsson, Curtis McElhinney, Vesa Toskala and Brian Boucher, a measly five wins would have been a godsend. But Johnson is not your ordinary back-up. He had the third-best save percentage in the league after November 1 last year and he will get plenty of playing time. This is not a scenario in which Elliott will get 90 percent of the starts. I'd expect closer to a 60/40 division in playing time and when he gets hot, Johnson could string together multiple starts in a row. On an improved team, the motivated Calgary native could surprise many.
2. Power Play Finishes Top Three
On Feb. 9 last season, the Flames power play ranked 30th in the league at 14.2 percent and that was a ways back of Toronto, who was 29th at 15.1. However, after scoring 23 times on 162 chances up until that point, they scored 23 times on just 108 chances over the final two months, a rate of 21.3 percent, which was a 50 percent improvement in efficiency and got Calgary up to 22nd in the rankings by the end of the season.
They've got the personnel with Johnny Gaudreau the ring leader up front. They've got a dynamic defence. They've added a much-needed right-hand shot at forward in Troy Brouwer, which will open up more options and make the power play harder to defend. They've got a weapon in Sam Bennett, who was rarely spotted on the man-advantage last year but will be unleashed this season, and they have a fresh, new approach to the 5-on-4 this season under new coach Glen Gulutzan. Put that all together and the power play could explode this year, not implode like a year ago.
3. Daniel Pribyl Scores 20 Goals
He'll start there, but keep an eye on big Czech right winger Daniel Pribyl, who was declared healthy on Tuesday, having recovered from major knee surgery six months ago. Pribyl was the second-leading scorer in the Czech league last year behind ex-Flame Roman Cervenka. He was in the midst of a strong playoffs too when he tore up his knee. Unsigned at the time so testament to how highly Calgary's scouting staff thought of him, the Flames carried through on signing him anyway and even brought him to Calgary to be operated on by the team's medical staff. The 23-year-old will start off in Stockton but a month from now after he has gotten up-to-speed and has his timing back, etc., expect him to be a top candidate to be recalled and if he gets slotted onto the top line, he could thrive immediately.
4. Tkachuk will be a Finalist for the Calder
He's got a good shot, he's smart, he'll spend most of his time in the lap of the goalie, the edges of his skates tickling the blue paint. Plus, he's got a steadfast determination to be in the NHL and stay in the NHL. The rookie-of-the-year race should be a great one this season with Matt Murray, Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Ivan Provorov and Mitch Marner among the many candidates that could be in the hunt. But look for a driven and determined Tkachuk to put himself right in the thick of it and perhaps be one of the three finalists for the Calder should he stay in the NHL and be an integral piece of the Flames top six, which you could argue he already is.
5. Sam Bennett Scores 31 Goals
Since he didn't get the chance to showcase himself nearly as much as he should have a year ago, it's easy to forget how highly-skilled this young man is. You saw it the night of his four-goal game against Florida. You witnessed it in junior when he put up some eye-popping numbers with Kingston in the OHL. Remember his last tour with the Frontenacs when he had 24 points (11 goals, 13 assists) in 11 games. He's on a line this year that has shown immediate chemistry. He's going to get plenty of power play time, which was hard to scrape up last year. He'll get 3-on-3 overtime time, which was similarly rare last season. After a year in which he spent a third of the season immersed in learning to play center in Bob Hartley's system, he still put up 18 snipes. Entering the final year of his ELC, don't be shocked if he exceeds the 30 goals Gaudreau put up a year ago. Then settle in for another long and agonizing summer of contract negotiations.
6. Flames Will Open the Playoffs at Home
Calgary finished 21 points back of third place San Jose in the Pacific Division last season, and fresh off a trip to the Stanley Cup final, the Sharks should be better. But so should Calgary. A lot better. If they can clean-up their divisional record and in addition to bringing back some bottles of wine from Napa Valley, can actually bring some victories back from California too, the Flames could break up the vaunted West Coast cabal.
The Ducks are opening the season without restricted free agents Hampus Lindholm and Rickard Rackell. Randy Carlyle behind the bench will be a recipe for something but whether or not it's success, that remains to be seen. Can John Gibson stay healthy and be the solution in net? Meanwhile, the Kings are vulnerable too. They're older. Milan Lucic is gone. If Jonathan Quick doesn't play at an elite level, will Darryl Sutter's crew score often enough? The window is there for Calgary to latch onto one of the top two seeds in the division and wouldn't some home cooking be a great way to celebrate the return of the Red Mile come mid-April.
7. Johnny Gaudreau Finishes 2nd in Scoring
Let's run down the six players that finished ahead of Gaudreau's 78 points in 79 games ni 2015-16. While Jamie Benn is a fantastic player, last year's Art Ross runner-up might be hard-pressed to duplicate his career-best 89 points. With Sidney Crosby (85 points), there are the concussion concerns. Joe Thornton (82 points) is getting up there in age and Erik Karlsson's 82 points feels like a high-water mark for the Senators defenceman. If the emergence of the Brouwer-Bennett line can take some attention away from Gaudreau in enemy barns, an uptick in his production away from home could very well result in him being the best-of-the-rest when it comes to chasing Kane.
8. TJ Brodie Finishes Top Five in Norris Voting
Not surprisingly, defencemen are never going to get any love when the team is last in the league in goaltending and we witnessed that last year. Giordano finished 13th in Norris voting and Brodie never got a single vote. The winner was Drew Doughty with Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns as finalists. But if Calgary is, indeed, a much-improved team this season, it's with a more frequent and more positive spotlight on the Flames where voters (the NHLPA) will get a much greater appreciation for the dynamic game that Brodie brings to the rink every night. He's a lightning-quick skater, great vision, sublime passer and solid defender. As captain, Giordano will always be the face of the back-end for the Flames and make no mistake, he's playing his best hockey, but the engine back there, methodically doing his thing, is Brodie and this could be the year the rest of the league realizes that as well.
- A Day for Flames Fans to Give Thanks as Gaudreau Returns to the Fold Just in Time - It came down to the wire but star forward Johnny Gaudreau has signed a six-year extension on Monday. My column on the impact he has on the team and on the city. (October 10, 2016)
- Eight From 80 Feet: Eight Keys to the Flames Making the Playoffs in 2016--17 - My look at the keys in order for Calgary to return to the playoffs. From the PK to improving in divisional games, there is a lot more to it than just signing Gaudreau. (October 9, 2016)
- Eight Questions to Ponder as the Flames Preseason Schedule Comes to an End - Heading into the season, some questions linger that suggest tempering expectations would be prudent. Might come as a splash of cold water but here is some food for thought. (October 7, 2016)
- Under Repair: Closely Examining the Flames New Approach to the Penalty Kill - The Flames are changing up the PK. But what are they changing? What will you see differently. Players discuss the changes, what to expect, and why they like the new look. (October 2, 2016)