So this is how it ends.
Not with the quiet deflation met 11 months ago, an acceptance at having been bested by a superior opponent while clinging to life with the skin of teeth. Rather, with personal bests across the board and smiling, youthful faces living out their dreams and getting a shot.
The latter is much more pleasant, but much more hollow. It shows a promise of a future: a future already met by the former. We already lived it. Not for long, but we did. And in comparison, this is cheap.
Two steps forward, one step back. This season was the step backwards. It was coming, it was expected, but that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.
The Flames could not possibly repeat the success they did last season. The most optimistic went with it, of course, but even those on the more pessimistic side of things figured it had to at least be possible. A division title? Absolutely not. A playoff appearance? Entirely likely.
At least until Sept. 21, when the season ended before it even started.
In a meaningless pre-season game, T.J. Brodie broke his hand. In doing so, he unwittingly established himself as the Flames’ most valuable player. By the time he was able to return to game action just over a month later, he met a team in disaster: two wins, three goalies, no wait they finally waived that guy, no wait the other guy got injured the waived guy has to come back now, and also, everyone is bad.
Brodie stepped on the ice. Brodie was immediately the best player on said ice. Brodie continued stepping on the ice for a team that had already wasted a month, he and Johnny Gaudreau the only ones truly worth watching. Gaudreau, the new favourite around town, a smaller, high-skilled left winger taking the place of a bigger, high-skilled power right winger.
Gaudreau, who was scoring. And… still scoring. And… didn’t seem to stop scoring? Every game, there was a point. If he missed a point one game, there would be two the next. And then most of the season was already gone, the Flames being forced into acceptance of failure, and he was still doing it. It wasn’t a hot start, it was a sophomore player announcing himself as one of the top offensive threats in the entire sport.
But still, one of the top young forwards and one of the top young defencemen weren’t enough. They weren’t enough to overcome bizarre player usage, horrific special teams that barely ever got their acts together, over-expensive depth players who hurt more than helped, and season-killing goaltending.
Instead, the Flames were forced to trade away some faces familiar over the past three, four years. David Jones, Kris Russell, and Jiri Hudler all moved on, bringing back picks and a prospect and two Finns: one, an older guy who would turn into a feel-good story; the other, Kevin. Dennis Wideman was effectively gone as well, a bizarre and damaging collision with a linesman causing seemingly endless off-ice drama. While it didn’t technically end his season – an injury three games into his delayed return did – it might as well have.
This opened doors. Jakub Nakaldal’s presence could no longer be ignored, and he showed himself a superior depth option. Tyler Wotherspoon perhaps earned himself a contract extension by being the same. A player like Derek Grant showed he could be every bit as effective as any other fourth liner, for a fraction of the cost others boasted. Garnet Hathaway did the same; Kenny Agostino and Freddie Hamilton suggested they might be able to do even more. The Markus Granlund-Hunter Shinkaruk swap upgraded a player who had been taking up Sam Bennett’s spot at centre to a player who may be able to score more one day, maybe a day as early as next season.
And amidst it all, Joni Ortio – abandoned in the press box for the first month of the season, then to the bench for the second month, and finally, to the AHL until just before the trade deadline – was finally given a chance at consistent starts. And though he didn’t always perform, he looked like he might have more to show. He cemented himself as the best possible option, which isn’t exactly saying much, but it’s something. It just took until the season was dead to get to that point.
Perhaps one of the greatest shames of the season was that it took so long to experiment. Trying new combinations or prospects was basically unheard of until the season was already over.
New acquisitions weren’t always well-used. While there was a great deal of excitement over Dougie Hamilton and Michael Frolik in the off-season – because they were both the exact players the Flames needed, and getting Hamilton in particular was so out of left field, so much better than could have been expected – Hamilton was buried after a rough start (one that the entire team had) and Frolik could occasionally be found at the bottom in regards to ice time, not to mention being practically banned from the power play. The very two players the Flames absolutely needed, and they weren’t being used properly.
What was perhaps most bittersweet was the two longest-tenured Flames put together full campaigns and career years to go with them, and have nowhere to go from there. Mikael Backlund played 82 games for the first time ever, and he nearly scored 50 points while doing it. Mark Giordano stayed completely healthy for the first time since his named started entering the Norris Trophy conversation, passed the 50-point mark, and has nothing to show for it. He missed the playoffs last season, and he doesn’t get them this season.
With the right moves, the Flames can easily be back in the dance next season, and maybe even have something to show for it. They have one of the top forwards in the game, and a handful of other quality guys surrounding him. They have one of the best defencemen in the game, and a formidable top three that just needs a little further rounding out.
They need goaltending, which is easier said than done. Quite frankly, they need a new coach. They need to find a way to expunge the awful depth contracts that take up way, way too much cap and roster space.
It’s going to be a long, busy summer. The last one was productive, though. This one can be, too – and if executed correctly, can make a huge difference for the 2016-17 season.
So hopefully we’ll get fewer hollow feelings. It’s time to move forward.