The 2016-17 season looks to be one of transition for the Calgary Flames. No, they aren’t ready to contend – not yet. At the same time, they need to move up from the bottom of the barrel. High draft picks are only fun in June; for the other 11 months of the year, they’re a miserable reminder of just how much your team of choice has failed.
The goal this year should be to be on the playoff bubble. Preferably inside the playoffs – and it’s possible – but at least being just on the outside looking in would be a sign of improvement. It wouldn’t carry the baggage of hopelessness like it did at the start of the decade, either; not now that this team actually has a collection of good young players and prospects.
It’s a big ask, though. This is a team that finished in the bottom five in the standings the season before. We’re asking them to ideally jump up 10 slots or so.
Here are five players who could be key in that happening.
When you’re a team’s most expensive free agency add, being a key player in how the season turns out is a given. Soon to be the third-highest paid forward on the team – assuming Johnny Gaudreau, you know, signs at some point – Brouwer, 31, is likely about to enter the downswing of his career. That said, he should still be good for at least 30 points; could probably hit 40 if things go well.
Here’s the real question with Brouwer: where does he slot in? Does he take over Jiri Hudler’s old role of filling out the right side with Gaudreau and Sean Monahan? Does he take over Hudler’s other old role of helping out younger players by playing on Sam Bennett’s wing? Does he get bumped further down the lineup?
If Brouwer has a good year and is one of the Flames’ top offensive players, chances are the Flames are going to be looking pretty good themselves. If he doesn’t, then that’s a rather expensive price tag to be carrying.
When we boast of the Flames’ newfound depth at centre, Bennett is a major part of that conversation. He’s only played one NHL season, but we’re fully anticipating him to be a top two centre in this lineup – and a key part in adding more impact offence to the Flames’ top scoring lines.
Before, Bennett had to contend with Bob Hartley, who had previously demoted him in favour of Lance Bouma in the playoffs and played Markus Granlund over him in the regular season. Bennett put together a solid rookie year with 36 points over 77 games – including that one awesome four-goal game – but even then, it felt like he was being severely under-utilized and we were only seeing glimpses of his potential as a result.
Bennett should absolutely have a better season this year. We’ll see how Glen Gulutzan chooses to use him and what linemates he ends up with, but Bennett’s transition to a surefire top-two centre will be key in the Flames’ transition to contender status.
Micheal Ferland shot at 3.3% last season. He has good underlyings, and was even able to, for the most part, keep up with some of the better players on this team. He’s 24 years old, he fills the role of functional toughness, but the kid just could. Not. Score last season.
Though he certainly showed flashes of skill and soft hands. There’s more to Ferland than met the eye in 2015-16. He probably can’t always be the Ferland we saw in his first playoff series against the Vancouver Canucks, but if we can get that guy every now and then with the rest of the year being occupied by a steady, physical player, then nobody’s going to complain.
This will only be Ferland’s third season. He’s probably not a 3.3% shooter. There’s every reason to expect more from him, and if he’s able to put it all together this season, then that’s just another young player the Flames can rely on for the foreseeable future.
Personally, I’m in favour of placing him with Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik on an all-Mike shutdown line that can score, but it’s easy to see a positive turn in his fortunes landing him a spot alongside the offensively talented forwards a little younger than him, too.
Dennis Wideman is probably never going to score 50 points again. He’s 33 years old, he’s now got a mess of official-related baggage to carry, and he doesn’t look to be much more than a powerplay specialist on a team that already has three defencemen, all younger than him, that we probably can reasonably expect 50 points from this season.
But just because he’s redundant on this team now doesn’t mean he has to have as awful a year as he did in 2015-16. For the first time, he failed to score 20 points; he also shot a career-low 2.7%. The 8.7% he shot at when he had a 56-point season in the Flames’ playoff year wasn’t the real Wideman, but the flip side should be true, too: why would we assume the 2.7% guy is who he is?
Wideman still isn’t an ideal player to have on the Flames at this point in time. His contract is too expensive and he’s part of the logjam holding back the growing line of prospects trying to work their way in. But if the Flames can’t get rid of him – and if they could, surely they would have by now – then we can at least hope for a good season from him.
Worst case scenario, it would definitely help at the trade deadline, at least.
Let’s save the most obvious for last!
The Flames had the worst goaltending in the league last season. Brian Elliott had a .930 save percentage. He had a .934 SV% at even strength; he was .906% on the penalty kill. The best the Flames could offer in 2015-16 was a .917 SV% from Karri Ramo at even strength and .860% on the penalty kill.
Even a moderately good Elliott drastically improves the Flames’ fortunes, and Elliott has been a notably good player for years now. Elliott may not be the most important player to the Flames as they work to become contenders – not with his expiring contract, not to mention the part where he’s 31 years old – but for success in this season alone, he’s probably the most important of them all.