It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
This season was supposed to be one of modest expectations. One where the Flames, having bottomed out in the race for McDavid, began to take a few shaky steps back up the Western Conference ladder. A year where the org would still be considered sellers at the deadline, where the management would still be sorting through hopefuls and fringe NHLers.
Instead, the cardiac kids defied prognosticators and analytics alike to emerge as the NHL’s unlikeliest Cinderella story last year, held up by the magic of late period comebacks and OT heroics.
The incredible outburst of unexpected success revived a flagging fanbase and restored some luster to the Flames franchise. The question is, can the Flames manage to build on their 2014-15 and become legitimate contenders?
Even Brad Treliving admitted before the 2014-15 season started that goals would be hard to come by. The Calgary Flames were supposed to be one of least dangerous groups in the league.
Instead, Johnny Gaudreau happened. The calder finalist joined Sean Monahan and Jiri Hudler and the trio found magic together. Hudler and Monahan finished with career bests across the board. Gaudreau filled dozens of highlight reels.
Their potency seemed to spread to the rest of the club. Josh Jooris and Lance Bouma were suddenly double digit scorers. On the back-end, TJ Brodie, Mark Giordano, Dennis Wideman and Kris Russell all set career highs. More on them later.
This year, Sam Bennett and Michael Frolik join the fray up front. Bennett is a highly skilled, but still very young prospect. The 19-year old is expected to grow into a difference maker at some point, but hoping for it to be this year might be a little optimistic. More realistically, Bennett will need asome seasoning before he starts to crack skulls.
Frolik, on the other hand, was one half of Treliving’s efforts to improve the Flames possession game this season. The former Blackhawk has been an above average possession winger forever and his addition should help shore up what is Calgary’s most glaring and undeniable weakness – keeping the puck at the good end of the rink.
Despite boasting one of the hottest forward units in the league and a half dozen career high offensive performances, the Flames were nevertheless underwater in terms of goal differential at even strength in 2014-15.
That’s because the club was grossly outshot at 5-on-5.
In fact, only two teams were worse at it – the Buffalo Sabres and Colorado Avalanche. The Flames unforeseen potency allowed them to overcome this typically sizeable roadblock, but the club will only be a real contender when it doesn’t have to rely on rope-a-dope and counter punching to win. The modern NHL landscape is littered with past teams who figured they’d found the formula to outscoring bad puck control, only to be run over by the regression truck down the road. For an object lesson, see: Maple Leafs, The.
Calgary’s improvement on this front doesn’t just land on Frolik’s shoulders, however. Mikael Backlund is the Flames resident “possession guy,” but natural development may improve the roster organically otherwise. Gaudreau, Monahan, Jooris, Michael Ferland and maybe Lance Bouma are all candidates to take a step forward. If Bennett is at least competent, Calgary might have more than one line of forwards who can push play forward for a change.
Gone are Curtis Glencross (traded at the deadline) and Paul Byron (recently lost to waivers). Glencross would have been a notable deletion three years ago, but his decline has been marked and steep. Treliving got out of the Glencross business at exactly the right time.
Byron is a bit more of a loss – he was Calgary’s fourth best player in terms of puck control over the last two seasons and one of the few guys out of the bottom six who could put that on his resume. It’s probable the club will be able to fill his roster spot without too much problem, but having him leave for nothing is still less than optimal.
The Dougie Hamilton acquisition was the other half of Treliving’s plan to improve Calgary’s possession. The addition is a difficult one to overstate. The Flames organizational depth on the back end seemed to start and end at Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie (with apologies to Kris Russell and Dennis Wideman), with Gio as close to the back nine of his career as he is to his peak.
Now the club has the kind of guy who can anchor a top pairing set to enjoy his best years in Flames colours. Hamilton’s addition also takes the weight off of Calgary’s exceptional first pairing and may help push Wideman and/or Russell a bit further down the depth chart.
Some may take umbrage with the latter point given the pairing’s apparent success in Giordano’s absence to end the season, but the truth is they rode the Gaudreau-Monahan-Hulder wave, which helped them outscore their faults. Though Wideman is still a capable offensive defender and Russell is certainly above average at blocking shots, the duo together gave up the most shot attempts and chances against of any pairing on the team last year.
This is significant because they were given probably the friendliest circumstances of any regular duo on the team, but were still overrun south of the redline. Which is why, when asked, I tell people Wideman and Russell are perfectly good combination – providing they are the Flames third pairing. I’d break them up otherwise.
Things get shakier beyond them. The bottom end of the rotation could prove to be Calgary’s weakest area this season, particularly if Ladislav Smid is healthy enough to return to active duty. He, along with Deryk Engelland, represent an utter black hole of ineffectiveness on the back-end. Although both players are committed warriors and favourites of the intangibles crowd, neither of them is above replacement level at either end of the rink. Each guy can deliver a check and is willing to block pucks with his face, but neither can skate, pass or handle the puck at the level required by defenders in the modern NHL. It’s off the glass and out, or panic and pray.
Given that Smid may not play again, however, there’s a chance that it will instead be Engelland + partner this season, however. That partner is currently set to be surprise training camp stand out Brett Kulak, who suddenly represents a new bright spot amongst other pinpoints of light including Brandon Hickey, Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington. We don’t yet know if Kulak will last the year with the club, but his package of skills can be called “Brodie-esque,” which is encouraging. If Kulak’s emergence isn’t merely a product of the exhibition season, Calgary’s defence depth might improve via prospects from below as well as from Hamilton from above.
Here’s where things get weird. The decision makers had a clear succession path laid out heading into 2015-16, with veteran Jonas Hiller signed for one more year and youngster Joni Ortio set to spend his first waiver eligible season as his back-up.
For reasons still somewhat opaque to us, the team decided to retain Karri Ramo as well, resulting in a crease crowded with an unseemly three headed goaltender monster – a situation which still hasn’t been resolved and was one of the antecedents to losing Paul Byron on waivers.
There are a lot of theories about why Treliving needlessly complicated matters by re-signing Ramo: from the coach and team souring on Hiller for a variety of reasons, to the decision makers preferring the younger Fin for performance related reasons. What we do know, however, is that Hiller was the better goalie last year and has always been the better goalie.
Aside from the blueline depth and poor puck possession, this is the other area that could threaten to sink the Flames season. Ramo has always been a run-of-the-mill puckstopper and Ortio, while promising, is completely untested. If the team opts for that duo, they are likely setting themselves up for a year of average or worse puckstopping. Excellent to elite teams can get by with middling netminding, but the Flames aren’t there yet.
It’s a year of both big question marks and great promise. There are numerous reasons to be excited and optimistic as a Flames fan. It’s been years – decades? – since the club boasted such an impressive array of young talent. The organization has a handful of elite or potentially elite players at both forward and defence. We might be witnessing the emergence of a post-Iginla era that promises to altogether overshadow the previous epoch.
That said, there are reasons to be wary as well. In the history of the modern NHL, no other Cinderella team who made the playoffs with similarly lousy outshooting numbers managed to replicate the feat. That means what Calgary is trying to do – avoid regression and take a step forward after donning the crystal slipper – hasn’t ever been done in the 30-team league. It’s a tall order.
Buckle up Flames fans. Things are finally interesting again. Way ahead of schedule, to be sure, but keep in mind there might still be a bump or two left in the road.