Vancouver Canucks Season Preview: What to expect from the Flames versus the Canucks

The Calgary Flames fell to the Winnipeg Jets in their season opener last Thursday night, and are looking to rebound with a win in their home opener against the Vancouver Canucks tonight. The first of 10 games against the rivals to the west, it’s time to look at what Flames fans can expect from this matchup in 2021.

Last year the teams met three times in the regular season, and the Flames came away with a 2-1-0 record. They also outscored the Canucks 11-7, but the storyline this year has nothing to do with last year’s season series.

The big news this season is that the Flames have several former Canucks on their roster. Josh Leivo, who skated with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, defender Chris Tanev, and all-start goaltender Jacob Markstrom will all face their former team for the first time tonight. Former Flames defender Travis Hamonic is now a member of the Canucks.

This is sure to be a must-watch series the entire year.

Flames vs Jets game days

Location Date Time (Mountain)
Calgary January 16 8:00 PM
Calgary January 18 7:00 PM
Vancouver February 11 8:00 PM
Vancouver February 13 8:00 PM
Vancouver February 15 8:00 PM
Calgary February 17 8:00 PM
Vancouver March 31 8:30 PM
Calgary April 8 7:00 PM
Calgary April 10 8:00 PM
Vancouver May 8 8:00 PM

With this shortened season’s unique schedule, the Flames will play four straight games against the Canucks series in early February. Because the Canucks are one of the teams the Flames will play 10 times, there are an even number of home and away games for each team, but it’s hard to say for sure what difference home-ice advantage really gives in empty arenas.

Last season, games against the Canucks were extremely, with 18 goals over 3 games. There’s no reason to assume this won’t continue again. The Flames figuratively owned Markstrom last season, but physically own him this season. The player movement between the two teams will dominate headlines and should add some spice to the already heated rivalry.

The Canucks had a much better playoff run than the Flames, and boast elite talent in Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes the Flames just don’t have. They’ll be a lot to handle but the Flames should be the favourites heading into each game.

The Canucks roster

Based on lines they used in their first two games against the Edmonton Oilers, the Canucks’ lineup should look something like this, but with Braden Holtby in goal.

Let’s take a closer look at how this matches up against the Flames roster, starting from the crease.

Goalies

The Canucks will likely start Holtby against the Flames tonight, who was signed in the offseason to replace the departed Markstrom. Holtby was once an elite goaltender but his play has dipped the past few seasons. He played well against the Oilers on opening night, however, and will be a tough goaltender to beat.

Below, using visuals from hockeyviz.com, we can see that Markstrom far outperformed Holtby last season.

Notably, Markstom seemed to really struggle with shots coming from his glove side. That’s something to keep an eye on this season. Other than that, Markstrom was an above average goaltender and though he let in four against the Jets the other night, he played well and can’t really be blamed for any of the goals. Brick walls have a hard time stopping shots from Patrik Laine.

Holtby, on the other hand, was below average last season. He allowed more goals than expected on all types of shots except backhands, on which he was actually very good at stopping. He allowed a lot of goals from all over the ice, mostly between the faceoff dots and slightly trending towards his glove side. The Flames will want to pepper him with as many shots as possible because there’s a good chance some will squeak through.

The Flames definitely seem to win the goalie matchup here, but it’s a new season and it’s tough to judge how Holtby will perform this season with a new team in front of him.

Defense

Where things start to turn in the Flames’ favour is on defense. The chart below gives an indication of just how much Hellebuyck was relied on last season. The bracketed numbers indicate the team’s league wide rank in a given category. All data is at 5v5, score/venue adjusted, courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.

Team xGA GA CA HDCA
VAN 136.34 (25) 143.81 (20) 3232.47 (19) 594.88 (18)
CGY 130.7 (18) 146.7 (23) 3250.7 (21) 562.4 (23)

The Canucks were fairly evenly matched against the Flames last season, but these numbers need to be taken with a boulder of salt considering the Canucks’ top defensive defenseman and starting goaltender now play for the Flames. The entire structure of the Canucks’ puck-stopping strategy is now in the hands of completely different different players, so keep that in mind when looking at last season’s statistics.

The coaching hasn’t changed though, and it’s likely Travis Green will employ the same strategies this season. Neither the Flames or Canucks were particularly good at stopping pucks or allowing chances last season, which definitely makes sense when you consider they averaged six goals combined per game in 2019-20.

The most notably statistic here is Vancouver’s 25th ranked xGA, which points to the Canucks giving up a lot of chances against and relying on their goaltender to make saves. It makes sense, and is why Markstrom was a hair away from being a Vezina finalist last season. If the defensive strategy and structure remain relatively similar, the Flames should be able to exploit the Vancouver blueline and get good chances against Holtby. It’s on them to finish those chances.

Through two games this season, the Canucks have allowed 3.32 xGA/60, good for 25th in the NHL. Things seem to be fairly consistent from last season to this season.

For the Flames, their new look top four will include Rasmus Andersson on the top pair with MarkGiordano and ChrisTanev replacing TravisHamonic on the second. Andersson had a fantastic game against the Jets and looks to be more than ready for top pairing duties. Tanev was solid as well, and had a great first game in a Flames uniform. There’s no doubt he’ll have an extra jump to his step when he faces off against his former team tonight.

Forwards

The Canucks have incredible talent up front in Pettersson, Bo Horvat, and Brock Boeser, but the forward lines thin out after that. Rookie Nils Hoglander looks like he’ll be a good player in the league but beyond that, there aren’t many game changers on the Canuck’s forward corps.

Team xGF GF CF HDCF SH%
VAN 127.59 (15) 141.1 (16) 3041.7 (19) 587.15 (16) 8.58 (11)
CGY 132.1 (8) 132.8 (20) 3250.8 (6) 586.3 (17) 7.69 (22)

The Canucks were, by almost all counts, a very average offensive team this season. They finished right in the middle in xGF, GF, and HDCF, and really didn’t shine in any particular offensive category.

With the departures of Leivo, and most notably Tyler Toffoli, the Canucks are thinner on offense this season. Throw in the fact that J.T. Miller is out of the lineup due to COVID protocols, the Canucks are really not the offensive threat they were at their 2019-20 peak.

The Canucks were a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of offensive process stats, like Corsi and high danger chances, but benefited from the 11th highest shooting percentage in the NHL. There’s no guarantee, but if that number dips to around league average or below, they could struggle to score goals this year. Hoglander and a rejuvenated Boeser might even things out but the Canucks shouldn’t really be an offensive juggernaut this year.

The wild card is Quinn Hughes. He’s not showing up in the defense section because his strength is on the offensive side of the game. When he can do things like this, you always have to be on your toes.

The Canucks have an elite offensive threat from the blueline and that’s something the Flames will need to hone in on. Letting Hughes wheel and deal will be disastrous for the Flames, and they’ll need to put forward a concerted effort to contain Hughes tonight, and the next nine times they face the Canucks.

Last season, the Flames created a higher number of expected goals but failed to convert, posting a below-average shooting percentage. Gaudreau looked great in Game 1, Elias Lindholm looks like a natural center, and with a more balanced lineup the Flames should have the edge on forward. The only real issue up front against the Jets was the play of the fourth line.

The Flames would be wise to shuffle the fourth line in tonight’s game, because both Milan Lucic and Joakim Nordstrom were absolutely horrendous at 5v5 in the game against the Jets. Sam Bennett got beat up in the faceoff dot and didn’t have anything close to a good game until he was moved to the wing next to Mikael Backlund.

Don’t be surprised if Derek Ryan centers the fourth line tonight, Nordstrom doesn’t play, and Bennett is on the wing.

What to expect

The Flames appear to have the edge on paper, but there are too many wild cards to really get a read on this year’s matchup against the Canucks.

If Pettersson and Hughes come out flying, the Flames could be on their heels from the get go, and it’ll be tough to recover. If Markstrom is solid in net and the Flames’ forward lines are rolling, then it could be a really long night for the Canucks.

Everyone will be tuned in to see how Tanev and Markstrom play against their fomer teams.. Both players were huge parts of the team both on and off the ice the past few seasons, and it will be an emotional game for both of them.

For the Flames, suiting up against Hamonic will be odd after he spent the past three seasons in Calgary, and hopefully this player movement will just add fire to the rivalry.

Flames Canucks hockey is always-must watch, and it’ll be the nightcap on Hockey Night in Canada.

It’ll be a fun Saturday.

Photo credit: Sergei Belski