First-round preview: Calgary Flames vs. Anaheim Ducks

One of the toughest questions for an NHL franchise is how does one define progress? Every team has the goal of winning the Cup. But the odds are longer for the Flames than they are for the Blackhawks. The Flames come in as the underdogs against Anaheim. So if they win, but then lose in the next round, is that deemed a successful season? This is where variables like age and the competition come in.

The two best players on Calgary are Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. Gaudreau turns 24 this summer and Monahan hits 23 six months from now. That is young, but not that young. The Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets both have younger cores. The Oilers finished ahead of the Flames and are led by Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who are both younger and arguably better. (McDavid is clearly better; for Draisaitl, it is a conversation.) The Jets’ core is comprised of Patrik Laine (18), Nikolaj Ehlers (21), and Mark Scheifele (24). When that team finds a competent coach, they will surge up the standings.

In fairness, Calgary does have Matthew Tkachuk, who had a superb rookie season, and he is only 19. So a member of the Flames core still hasn’t hit 20. And while center Sam Bennett has been mildly disappointing, he is only 20, so he has time to grow. Nevertheless, the most productive players for the Flames are hitting their prime, and the sparkle from just making the playoffs will soon fade if the Flames lose in first round. The Western Conference map of tomorrow is being drawn, and with the Oilers and Jets poised to be formidable threats in the future, Calgary needs to seize the present and get some important experience.

Conversely, the Ducks’ trio of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Ryan Kesler are back in the playoffs, and with all three of the stars over 30, this is likely their last shot at capturing the Cup. Even with each player’s skills dwindling in areas where they used to flourish, they are too smart and gifted to be denied. Flickers of their younger selves in prior glory can be resurrected. Veterans on the wrong side of 30 get imaginative about how to deploy their determination.

With the Ducks, a dash of new is twinned with the old. Rickard Rakell has blossomed into a 30-goal scorer, and John Gibson posted a .924 save percentage, which is outstanding for a 23-year-old goaltender. The Ducks’ forecheck is strident and effective, but unlike in prior seasons, their possession metrics buttress the territorial advantage. The Ducks’ defensemen were a feature of the offense with coach Bruce Boudreau. That is less true now; yet even with Cam Fowler injured, the Anaheim defensive group remains very capable.

If the Ducks want to win, they need to be physical, and that means Ryan Kesler, Andrew Cogliano, and Jakob Silfverberg making life miserable for Gaudreau and Monahan. Kesler can be unpleasant and pugnacious, and if he makes it his job to browbeat those two, the Flames’ offense may fray.

Conversely, the Flames’ defensemen, not their star forwards, are the key to beating the Ducks. Flames goaltender Brian Elliot is a question mark, so to win it will be important for their defensemen to demonstrate elasticity and situational awareness in their own zone, and then transfer that speed into the transition.

The Flames want to put pressure on the Ducks’ defensemen and force them to make quick first passes or try to skate out of danger. Gibson is very good, but a young goaltender is (generally) not unflappable. Against Los Angeles a few seasons ago, Gibson withered in the pressure cooker.

So the Flames’ defensemen need to be assertive, but there is a risk of them being too audacious. Defenseman T.J. Brodie can be a catalyst – for good and bad – when he tries to be overly aggressive. Calgary needs him to put the puck on the star forwards’ sticks on neutral-zone regroups and in the offensive zone. Brodie should be instinctual, but not overcommit. He has good recovery speed, but the Ducks have a potent counterattack, and a more conservative Brodie will serve the Flames’ wingers and centers well.

Quick-strike scoring evolves naturally for the Flames’ forwards. The personnel dictate that because they are opportunistic. But a more buttoned-up approach with a lead, namely one that stresses retrieval and territorial advantage, will help the Flames mitigate the defensive weaknesses and the physicality of the Ducks. It would also put a strain on the Ducks’ aging superstars. There is nothing wrong with salting away the game, and the Flames would be wise to remember that.

Even though Fowler is absent, the Ducks can’t afford to play three on five on the rush or cycle. They will need to exploit gaps in the Flames’ transition defense. The Ducks’ defensemen need to contribute some playmaking to the offense. If the Flames are squeezed in their own zone, they will surrender pucks. In the end, the Ducks have a better team defense, and their offense has several scoring options even if the big names go cold. Experience and depth will carry the Ducks through.

Ducks in seven

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