The Calgary Flames will enter next season as one of the favorites to finish last in the league. The club lacks offensive fire power, will probably be playing kids at key positions and its goaltending is a complete enigma. If everything breaks right, the Flames might be competitive night-to-night, but it’s much more likely to be a long, painful winter here in Calgary.
Which doesn’t mean there won’t be reasons to watch. Ironically, I’ve found a lot of fans are actually more interested and optimistic about the team than they have been in a long time, if only because this year represents a new dawn which has been too long delayed. The overall record won’t matter as much as the development of certain key pieces.
With that, here’s what I’m looking forward to this year:
– Watching TJ Brodie
The kid went from possible NHLer to possible top-two NHLer in the space of 40-games last year. His development over the last 12 or so months has been incredibly rapid – in fact, one of the steepest curves we’ve seen out of a blueline prospect of his age in a long time.
Brodie has his bridge deal and I’m willing to bet he’s at least top-3 on the back-end in terms of points and ice time this season. In fact, if he somehow manages to take another step forward, he’ll do better than that.
– Mikael Backlund emergence
If he can stay healthy, Backlund is poised to put together a career best season and finally establish himself as a primary contributor. He’s already the best two-way center on the team, so all he needs is to stay out of the infirmary and put a few more points on the board. It will be very interesting to see how Bob Hartley deploys him this year.
– Sven Baertschi development
Sven had an up-and-down first season, but it ended with him putting together a seven game point streak and lookin much more comfortable at the NHL level than he did on his initial foray in January. While the wings will be somewhat crowded in Calgary to start the year (Glencross, Cammalleri, Hudler, Jones, Galiardi, Stempniak), there’s no question Baertschi is perhaps the most naturally talented offensive player amongst them.
It’s easy to forget that Baertschi hasn’t even turned 21 years old yet (he will in October) and that last year was essentially his 19-20 year old season, year most prospects spent in junior hockey. For him to simply make the team and play a regular shift will mean he’s ahead of most player’s development curve, let alone if he plays a top-six position. Keep in mind Claude Giroux (my personal "hopeful" comparable for Baertschi) played in just 42 games as a 20-21 year old and scored 27 points (0.64 PPG).
That is my benchmark for Baertschi – if he can match or exceed around 0.60 PPG this year, it will probably be a really good season for the kid (who is still technically a rookie BTW).
– The debut of Corban Knight
I don’t really know what to expect from the college stand-out, so I really just want to see how he handles himself against NHL competition. I am assuming he’ll make the team out of camp and that he’ll play a "two-way" role from the outset, but beyond that, who knows…
– What can Feaster get that the deadline?
The Flames are almost certainly going to be sellers again at the trade deadline. They liquidated all of their "big ticket" items last April, but they still have some guys who might bring in a few useful futures, performance depending. Mike Cammalleri could land another first rounder if he can put together a strong season. With an expiring contract and 25-30 goal pace, Cammalleri should be one of the most sought after rentals on the market.
After him, guys like Lee Stempniak and Matt Stajan may attract some interest. If either guy has another good season the Flames may try to re-sign either or both, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they decide to move on to greener pastures. If so, Feaster should put them on the auction block.
What are you looking forward to this year? Share in the comments.