Some teams, you expect to get to the playoffs no matter what. For the editions of the Flames prior to this rebuild, for example, playoffs were an expectation. Those were teams built to sneak into the post-season in the hopes of something more happening. They were rosters put together in hope of capturing the spirit of 2004.
For them, there was no other alternative. There were no prospects, only aging players. There was no hope on the horizon, only a desperation to recreate it. And they failed. They never made the post-season, and their expectations went unfulfilled until finally, the teams were destroyed and reassembled.
A team in the midst of reassembling is not expected to make the playoffs (though it would be nice). There are other more realistic, more pressing things the Flames need to accomplish in this new year.
Play the kids
The Flames of old were, well, old. No prospect could make the team because no prospect was good enough to play in the NHL, a particularly sad state of affairs when you looked at an NHL team that couldn’t even make the playoffs when that was its only goal.
The Flames of today are young. Johnny Gaudreau, 22, is now their most prolific player. Sean Monahan, 21, is right behind him. Dougie Hamilton, 22, was the star acquisition of the off-season; T.J. Brodie, 25, a bit older than the rest, playing out his early years as one of two kids (Mikael Backlund alongside him) who could actually make the NHL team at a younger age.
There are no issues in three of these four getting ice time: Brodie, Gaudreau, and Monahan have long since established themselves as top players, destined to lead the Flames to a brighter tomorrow. After a rough start, Hamilton looks to slowly, but surely, be on the same path.
So that leaves the rest. Sam Bennett should be a top six player – likely a first liner – throughout his career, so there’s an expectation to give him those minutes accordingly. Markus Granlund, should he cement his position as an NHLer, will not be a fourth liner, and needs to play minutes above such a station. Micheal Ferland may be a fourth liner, or he could be more, and the only way to find out is to play him. Josh Jooris could be a solid depth player who may be able to do more, but we’ll never know if all he does is sit in the press box.
That’s the number one expectation for the Flames this year. Playoffs would be nice, but they are not a requirement. Growing a team is the number one priority, and that’s done through the addition of young, prominent talent. We’re just now starting to see Bennett and Ferland get those minutes, just as we’re just now starting to see Granlund declare himself a full time NHLer, but still waiting for Jooris to once again be a lineup regular.
This isn’t a time for pressure, it’s a time for experimentation, for having fun. Leave the pressure to the older teams of the NHL. For now, give the kids their shot, find out what you’ve got.
Add more kids
The Flames have a big problem: neither their top six, nor their top four, nor even their goaltending, really, is complete.
Gaudreau, Monahan, and Bennett should be locks for the future of the top six, but after that, it’s in massive question. You hope Ferland can make it in that position, particularly due to needing more talented players of his size and physicality, but it’s not a guarantee you can rely on. Granlund has the scoring at the AHL level, but has yet to show it in the NHL, another question mark. Remember Roman Horak? He made the Flames as a 20-year-old, but now, he’s playing in the KHL. Absolutely nothing, nobody is for certain.
Jiri Hudler is likely as good as gone: he’ll soon be 32, he’s an upcoming free agent, and the Flames can’t afford to keep him (and his declining play, for that matter). Joe Colborne, soon to be 26, has been given numerous chances to prove he is a top six forward and has yet to establish himself. Backlund, 26, and Michael Frolik, 27, will best be used in shutdown roles, not as prominent scorers.
There’s a complete lack of kids up front. Can Emile Poirier or Morgan Klimchuk, former first round picks, one day take the reins? Are Kenny Agostino, Freddie Hamilton, and Bill Arnold, a trio of 23-year-olds near the top of scoring on the Stockton Heat, legitimate future options? Drew Shore, 24? Turner Elson, 22?
Probably not. Barring the lottery, the Flames are currently in line to select fifth overall at the 2016 NHL draft. Wherever they pick, they’ll need to make that pick count, because they can’t afford another miss. Monahan and Bennett were easy, home run picks; trading for Hamilton was a brilliant, successful move. That’s three first round picks for the Flames that have now paid immediate dividends, and the 2016 pick needs to be up there with them.
The backend is a touch more promising, if only due to the freshness and hope of this most recent draft. Brodie and Hamilton should be able to form a top pairing for years upon years. Brett Kulak, 21, made the Flames out of camp. Oliver Kylington, 18, is already playing professionally in North America. Rasmus Andersson, 19, amazed and astonished everyone at Flames camp until he got a contract. Brandon Hickey and Adam Ollas Mattsson, both 19, are currently representing their countries in the World Juniors.
It’s one thing to list off prospects, though, and it’s another for those prospects to actually make it. If even just one kid makes it, though, then the Flames should be set, as long as Mark Giordano continues to play at, at minimum, a respectable level.
Get a goalie
This has been a mess all season long. To start 2015, the Flames took a pair of veterans – Jonas Hiller, established NHL starter for years, and Karri Ramo, KHL returnee who had improved enough to stick around in North America – and got league-average goaltending from them.
To end 2015, they both bottomed out, at least until Ramo got to start several games in a row and appear at minimum competent again. But it’s likely neither is the long-term answer.
It’s possible the Flames already have their goalie in the system. Joni Ortio, 24, has had an up-and-down season unfortunately marred by healthy scratch after healthy scratch and the victim of inept asset management, but he’s two years removed from being on the AHL’s all-rookie team, and one year removed from being an AHL all-star. Jon Gillies, soon to be 22, took Providence College to an NCAA championship, and looks to be on the right path, season-ending injuries aside. Mason McDonald, 19, is currently representing his country at the World Juniors as well, just as the two goalies listed before him did years ago.
But none of the three are guaranteed to make it, and the Flames will likely, at minimum, need a stop gap. It’s possible they find a stop gap-to-starter, but dreaming of it is easy, and actually finding somebody is harder. They’ll definitely need to get a new face in net, though.
Time to be young, scrappy, and hungry
Playoffs would be nice, but what the Flames need to focus on for 2016 is continuing to build a young, talented roster that should be able to compete for years to come. They need to identify the diamonds in the rough they may already have, and acquire the ones they don’t.
If they can’t make any steps in that direction, it won’t be a good year, simple as that. But they’ve done it successfully over the past few years, so it shouldn’t be an issue.
Those are the expectations for 2016, though. Keep building the team. Anything else is a bonus.