Not much was expected out of the 2014-15 season. It was the second year of a much overdue rebuild, and really, just about anything that came out of it would have been great. A high draft pick? Awesome, that would help the Flames’ rebuild. A challenge for a playoff spot? Not bad, give the kids some confidence.
… An actual playoff spot? Winning a round? You really couldn’t have asked more of the team. That wasn’t just success, that was pure majesty.
Did it raise the stakes for this season, though? Or are the expectations for the still-rebuilding team the same as before?
Are playoffs a requirement?
We weren’t expecting the playoffs last year – they just happened. Since the entire point of a rebuild is to show progression, does that mean it’s a step back if the Flames fail to qualify for the postseason? In order to be a success, does this season have to build directly on the previous one?
Or, since the Flames are still very much in a rebuild – half of their top six consists of guys who are 22, 21, and 19 years old, it’s still a rebuild – is simply continuing to grow enough? Is the season still satisfactory if the team can’t match their position in the standings from 2014-15, as long as they seem to be playing better hockey?
What if the Flames miss the playoffs, but guys like Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, T.J. Brodie, and Dougie Hamilton post career years? That’s part of the future core of the Flames, and in order for this team to have continuous success, in all likelihood, they’re going to have to continue to develop.
Making the playoffs is great! Making the playoffs is preferable to not. But making the playoffs isn’t the ultimate goal – winning the Stanley Cup is. The 2014-15 Flames were a pleasant surprise, but only the hardest of diehards thought they would actually have a realistic chance at the Cup.
You can’t simply aim to make the playoffs at all costs. That’s what previous management groups in, and that’s what finally forced the Flames into a long-delayed rebuild: the idea that simply placing eighth in your conference (which is really a terrible goal to aspire towards; who takes pride in being eighth?) would lead to success is foolhardy.
Success is regularly being the best in the league. The Flames are still building towards that. They’re still in a position to grow. And they still may grow yet – even if they take a step back in the standings.
Is just growing enough?
All that said, it’s still undeniably going to feel like a step back if this team doesn’t make the playoffs. They did everything they needed to in the offseason to improve, and set themselves up for success in both the short and long term.
At absolute minimum, the Flames failing to qualify for the postseason would be disappointing, for fanbase and players alike. Players building on career years and the team improving its possession metrics are all desirable outcomes, but without the tangible step forward of at the very least making the playoffs again, it will probably feel somewhat hollow.
Yeah, you flirted with scoring a point per game; yeah, your corsi was above 50% throughout the year – what does that matter if you have nothing to show for it? Where’s the thrill in taking a step forward if you don’t get to play bonus hockey into the months of spring?
Last year’s Flames were a serious corsi anomaly relative to where they finished, especially with their second round appearance. If their possession stays exactly as it is, you can’t realistically expect another second round appearance. Since the stat started being recorded, the Flames are the first of 240 different team incarnations to have that terrible a possession metric and actually win a playoff round. You can say they’re the exception to the norm, but when you have a case of one vs. a case of 239, it’s just common sense to go with the latter.
If, however, you are a positive possession team, your chances of advancing through the playoffs are higher than not. And advancing through the playoffs is more important than simply making them; setting yourself up to win rounds for years after is even more important.
Basically: making the playoffs is important. Growing as players and as a team is more important.
What constitutes as growth?
Improved corsi, for one thing. Winning as a team and scoring goals even without a shooting percentage at the top of the league. Learning to suppress shots against and take less of a beating by not being forced to block so many shots.
In 2014-15, the Flames were the 28th team in the league in shots per game with just 27.5. (The Chicago Blackhawks were at the top with 33.9.) You need to score goals to win, and the Flames are going to need to get more shots on net to keep up their goal scoring pace.
The Flames were also the 12th best team in the NHL in shots against per game with 29.2. But: they were the second worst corsi against team in the league, giving up 51.13 shot attempts per game. A lot of those shot attempts came as a result of blocked shots. And while blocking shots is all well and good, what’s even better is not having to block shots. A drop in all types of shots against, period, is absolutely crucial for this team to grow, and have a hope of being a perennial playoff team, let alone contender.
Finally, simply seeing the young players on the team get better is essential. Sean Monahan went from 34 points in his rookie season to 62 in his sophomore: where can he go from there? Johnny Gaudreau scored 64 as a rookie: how much does he improve on that? What does Sam Bennett have in store?
You need evidence your young guys are developing into elite players. With that, improved defence and more reliable offence should come, and with that, meaningful playoff runs – even if they don’t formulate as soon as 2015-16.
Would you be happy with that?
No playoffs would suck. Especially when you take into consideration that the Pacific Division is not great, and the top three teams in a division automatically qualify for the playoffs, the Flames failing to make the postseason would really, really suck.
But – seeing the future of a core develop is always exciting. No matter how disappointing your season ends, as long as there’s promise for the future, it’s not a complete loss; after all, that’s how the Flames’ 2014-15 season ended.
You always prefer playoffs to not, and it’ll definitely hurt if they don’t make it. But they weren’t expected to last year. They aren’t expected to be favourites just yet.
As long as the future still looks bright, though, we’re probably good. The 2015-16 season should be a successful one based on that alone.