Salim Valji: Calgary Flames embracing identity shift as season opener looms

The Calgary Flames might not be the most fun or entertaining team to watch this season, with lots of dumping-and-chasing, puck battles in the corners, and stifling neutral zone play expected, but as they start their first full season in the Darryl Sutter 2.0 era, the coach has made one guarantee.

“Honest and hardworking,” Sutter responded, when asked about what the identity of his team.

After another disappointing season, many in the hockey world expected general manager Brad Treliving to move on from a core that included Mark Giordano, Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm, and Noah hanifin.

The franchise lost Giordano to the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft and brought in complementary depth pieces Blake Coleman, Trevor Lewis, Brad Richardson, Nikita Zadorov, and Erik Gudbranson.

Like the Los Angeles Kings, with whom Sutter won two Stanley Cups, these Calgary Flames will be tough to play against. What does that entail for a smaller forward like Gaudreau who might not fit the traditional Sutter mould?

“He is hard to play against,” the coach emphasized. “If he uses his speed, tries to score, great work ethic … That’s what he’s really good at. He has been one of the best players in training camp in terms of hanging onto pucks and being a high-volume guy, a possession guy, good in his own zone. He’s been all of those. That’s what you want, and that’s what you expect.”

Gaudreau, who will start on a line with Lindholm and Tkachuk in the season opener in Edmonton on Saturday, knows that while he won’t be physically intimidating, he can be tough to play against in other ways.

“It’s making plays on the ice, being smart in my own zone,” he said after Tuesday’s practice. “I’m obviously not going to kill anyone or hit anyone too, too hard. But like Darryl says, keep your stick on the ice at the right time when you’re going in on the forecheck, things like that. Backchecking. Working hard. Just trying to help your team win games.”

Key to the Flames’ hopes in a wide-open Pacific Division will be two mainstays returning from off-season surgeries.

After an 82-point campaign in 2018-19, Monahan’s production has fallen off a cliff. In the two seasons since, he’s combined for 76 points in 120 games. This week, he spoke about the hip pain he started experiencing six games into last season and how he’s feeling after surgery in the spring.

“It doesn’t hurt anymore,” he said.

His life away from the rink has improved as well thanks to the procedure.

“It was walking, sitting, anything really, but I’m pretty happy it’s fixed…I don’t know if anybody’s ever 100 per cent [healthy]. You want to get as close as you can to that, but for me it’s been a while.”

On the back end, Hanifin was in the midst of a breakout season playing with Chris Tanev when his season ended prematurely with a shoulder injury.

With Giordano now in Seattle, Hanifin will be relied on even more at even strength and get time on the second power-play unit. He will start the year paired with Rasmus Andersson, another 24-year-old blueliner the Flames are counting on.

“[Sutter]’s pushing me to play the game that got me to this level, which is being aggressive, skating, using my feet,” Hanifin said. “Not just sitting back and worrying about making a mistake or anything. It’s just being aggressive, being assertive, playing the game fast, and using my skating.”

To have a chance at the playoffs, the Flames will need to improve on how they’ve started in recent seasons. Since 2011-12, their October winning percentage of 0.495 is their lowest of any month.

Given a tough road schedule to start the season, including games in Washington, New York, and Pittsburgh, Calgary can’t afford to return to the Saddledome at the end of the month already needing to make up ground.

“I can’t remember once since I’ve been here we’ve had a good start and put us in a good spot the first 10 or 15 games,” Tkachuk said.

“Maybe we’ve just got to bear down and realize how important those first 10 games are to get off to a good start and make sure you’re feeling good,” Gaudreau added. “In the past we haven’t done that. It would be great for our team to finally do that and get a good start instead of trying to catch up.”