Remember how the season started?
Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau – two of the most prominent faces of the rebuild – needed new contracts. Their entry-level deals were over, and aside from one luck-filled, unsustainable year – Gaudreau’s rookie year, as a matter of fact – their team had little to show for it.
And there they were: the first player drafted under the rebuild, and the most exciting prospect for years, up for well-earned raises. They were certain to become two of the highest-paid Flames, but until the exact numbers were known, the Flames’ cap structure – one that would be dictated for seasons to come – remained a mystery.
They took their sweet time, so the Flames got down to business in other ways. Matthew Tkachuk was selected with the sixth overall pick. There was a culling of restricted free agents, with only four making the cut, including the two aforementioned big names. Two brand new goalies were acquired, as was a high-priced forward, all by July 1. And then it was just a matter of sitting back and waiting: waiting for the season to start, waiting for those four RFAs to get their new deals, waiting to see how things would play out with a new coach.
Monahan got his contract done with time to spare in August. Gaudreau waited until two days before the season started, taking a contract that matched his captain’s to a tee.
And then, one day before the season started, they added their final piece: Kris Versteeg, Europe and then Edmonton-bound, who had completely inexplicably not been signed until the 11th hour.
One minute into the season, Nicklas Grossmann gave the puck away.
A little over half a minute later, Alex Chiasson scored the Flames’ first goal.
And then they lost. They returned home to host another Battle of Alberta, and lost. They went to Vancouver, and picked up their first point of the season without even scoring a goal themselves.
Tkachuk, still vying to prove he was a full-time NHLer in his first season after being drafted, scored his first NHL goal. The Flames won. Then they lost two more times, Brian Elliott made what at the time was called a “season-saving” save to prevent a dramatic last-second loss, and finally, eight games into the season, Calgary had its first decisive victory. This was, perhaps not coincidentally, the first time Tkachuk found himself playing on a line with Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik.
But for a team looking to turn the corner on its rebuild, filled with new hope in the form of a new coach, new goaltending, and a growing core, a 4-6 start in the first month was disappointing. Just two regulation wins, four losses to teams that had been at the bottom of the barrel the previous season, and straight up unwatchable hockey. Nothing was going right, and worse yet, everybody seemed to have taken several steps backwards – including the supposed core of the franchise. Two players – Backlund and Frolik – were worth a damn; everything else was a disaster.
How early is too early to fire a coach? What if the coach seems to have completely broken all of the young offensive talent? What if the coach is forcing the few good defencemen he has to play with the three worst possible options at his disposal? The special teams are among the worst in the NHL and they’re taking more penalties than everybody else. Ten games in and we know it’s over, this is a lost year – but worse than that, because the Flames would have to go completely back to the drawing board for 2017-18, and starting from square one two years in a row was going to hurt, a lot. Two members of the core were already on their next contracts; it’s not as though you have all the time in the world here.
Tkachuk officially made the NHL and celebrated with two goals in a 3-2 win. The Flames were then outscored 17-4 over their next four games.
And then Minnesota went and broke Gaudreau’s finger, and the season was officially over.
Eastern road trip click
Without their top offensive player, and near the bottom of the standings and in just about every stat, the Flames headed east for a six-game road trip. And then things kind of started to come together.
Not all at once. Their special teams were still horrific, after all. But they stopped getting blown out, they started winning close games, and they had a tidy little 3-2-1 record to show for it. Not the best thing in the world – certainly not enough to make them relevant again, not with how far behind they’d put themselves – but significantly better. Monahan ended up on the fourth line for a couple of periods, and Chad Johnson had completely taken the starter’s reins by this point, but they were actually watchable again.
Followed by a six-game win streak, featuring an unexpectedly early Gaudreau return, in which it looked like he hadn’t missed a beat. And the Flames pushed themselves up from a lottery team back into bubble position, and the world had stopped ending.
The win streak was snapped, but for the most part, December was good, winning nine games and losing four. They didn’t have it together yet – they were negating their own blowouts by getting sloppy and scored on for no reason at the end of games – but maybe it was safe to scoreboard watch again.
By this point, the idea that Tkachuk might have been sent back to junior was laughable; he wasn’t just playing alongside two exceptional two-way players, but he was elevating their games, too. The Flames found a new top defence pairing as well; Glen Gulutzan, married to the idea of the left-shot T.J. Brodie playing the left side, relegated him to whatever scrap that was possible (Dennis Wideman, namely, who was still being blamed, almost a full year later, for the Flames’ awful penalty differential). This allowed Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton to play together: and the Flames’ prized acquisition from the 2015 draft started looking like what he was supposed to.
The calendar year didn’t end on the highest of notes, but it did end on an optimistic one.
There was a game in which the Canucks broke the Flames.
Vancouver had been expected to be one of the worst teams in the NHL from the very start of the season. Calgary should have been able to beat them easy, right? And yet they couldn’t – even though time and time again, they deserved better fates – because Ryan Miller seemingly was able to stop every single thing that came his way. No matter how much better the Flames played – and they played much, much better – they couldn’t score. They couldn’t beat the Canucks. They, in their once-again-realistic quest to make the playoffs, couldn’t pick up two much-needed points.
The downfall was not linear, but approaching the All-Star Break, it happened. Gaudreau was their representative only because he’s Gaudreau; it was difficult to name anybody else worthy. (Backlund, the clear-cut Flames MVP to that point, would have been an option, but he’s not a name the way Gaudreau is.)
Halfway through the season, and it was back to the garbage they’d played under Gulutzan at first, only now without any early season or new coach excuses.
The thing, though, was that they weren’t playing particularly badly. Well, they were a couple of times, but then they’d put together a good period on the road, get scored on once, and completely unravel from there. And then it happened again.
And then there was a train, some beer, an overtime win, and two breaks. Elliott took over for Johnson, seemingly for good. By that point, they were treading water – but still, just barely on the cusp of a playoff spot.
They still were not perfect, but they were doing better. Their roster was starting to take proper shape and make a little more sense. The defence was about as good as it was going to get, Elliott looked like the goalie everyone had initially thought he was, but the forward lines still needed some blatantly obvious shuffling.
Two weeks prior, while playing on the fourth line, Micheal Ferland stripped Sidney Crosby of the puck and scored. Two weeks later, he was moved up to the first line, and he scored twice in a game in which the Flames blew a 4-1 lead – and then came back to win it, 6-5, in overtime.
Over the course of their next 10 games, the Flames faced three teams who would ultimately actually make the playoffs. But they beat them all. And it didn’t matter who the wins came against: points were points, and the Flames had just collected 23 in a row and were suddenly all but a lock to make the playoffs. They even had a positive goal differential, waiting until early March to finally get there after an entire season in the red.
All that from a dicey contract situation, a new coach, and a complete revamping of the Flames’ net. There were still obvious faults: the bottom pairing was a disaster zone, that big free agent signing had turned out to be a massive swing and a miss after all, Sam Bennett was reduced to making opposing players bloody rather than scoring goals. But they weren’t unwatchable any longer, not on the ice as they finally started getting rewarded for their play, nor off it as Hamilton became a serial photobomber and interview harasser.
And finally, in the last game in March, the Flames roared out to a 5-2 win and clinched a playoff spot, becoming one of the few teams that could have that terrible a start and still turn it into a playoff-caliber season.
This was still, however, a young team.
Tkachuk was suspended for an errant elbow to Drew Doughty’s face, and the Flames gave into the Kings’ antics the next time they met a week and a half later, and were thoroughly embarrassed. They faced what would be their playoff opponents twice before they knew the final standings of the season, and though the games were close, they were once again embarrassed, either by horrible errors as their bad depth’s luck finally ran out, or by more inane antics.
The regular season ended as it began: with a whimper. Sure, there was promise of at least another four games, but they were limping towards them, their worst players at their worst and their best players mostly struggling to keep their heads above water.
The culmination of the entire season ended with them drawing the worst possible playoff matchup. The Flames were victims of the loser point – four was the fewest anybody had in the NHL over the course of the season, between them and Colorado – but they also brought it on themselves. Their horrible start to the season hurt them. Their January of surrender hurt them. Every time they fell asleep against a clearly inferior opponent hurt them. Every time they messed around with inadequate players on their top lines, or two goalies who couldn’t decide if they wanted to be good or not, hurt them. They had a chance at home ice in the playoffs and every single mistake came back to bite them and prevent it from happening.
And though they put up a good fight against the Ducks, it wasn’t enough. But there was still growth. Goaltending was inconsistent, but special teams kept them in it. Their weak depth destroyed them, and it was a mixed bag as to which of their best players actually showed up.
They were what we thought they were: a young team slowly, but surely, finding their footing, with clear holes in the roster, but ones that could be fixed. They would just have to be eliminated before that process could resume.
There are going to be worries, founded and not. They are going to be guys that seem like they’re sure things, and some will be, and some won’t.
But here’s what they have.
They have a young core, most still under the age of 25, but most of whom are already getting paid. They have a handful of savvy veteran leaders: ones who have earned that reputation through years of sweat and toil for this club and this club alone (Giordano, Backlund), and ones who have complemented the team well and shown up when needed. They have a solid foundation and a young coach who has spent an entire year working with them to improve their play as a whole, to ensure that they could look like a team that could make the playoffs on the regular, and not just by fluke.
They also have the opportunity to walk away from many of their bad contracts. Their present worst one – Troy Brouwer – will remain but for something incredibly fortuitous happening, and that will be their biggest problem, providing they don’t create another for themselves. (The ink hasn’t even been dry for a year yet; it’s not out of the question.) They have the opportunity to have yet another fresh slate in net; whether they’ll take it remains to be seen, but it’s there.
They have obvious holes to fill. Get a real top four defenceman. Get an actual top flight winger. Get a starting goalie.
They have opportunities to do that. The expansion draft will make for an unusual offseason. Make another smart trade. Be cautious on the free agent market. Maybe actually leave a spot open for a prospect or two who will undoubtedly be better than a default veteran you already know will be bad.
The Stockton Heat had a season just as bumpy as the Flames’; they, too, will be playing in the playoffs, and maybe it’ll be a time for someone to get a head start in setting a good impression for September and hopefully October.
So what was this?
This was a season for growth.
Tkachuk’s progress was more obvious than most, going from question mark to a pest who could be trusted in difficult situations. Hamilton was right up there with him, while Ferland showed so much more potential than he had before. Gaudreau and Monahan looked worth their new contracts even with a disastrous start, Backlund finally got his dues, Frolik had a near career season, and Giordano and Versteeg were invigorated as the year went on.
Brodie and Bennett stumbled, but improved personnel could take care of that on its own.
This season was a necessary stepping stone. It was a frustrating one almost every step of the way, but it brought with it a ton of promise for the future. Everyone’s another year older, another year wiser; it’s easier to construct potential lineups now and find the promise of success in them than it was this time a year ago, when thumbs were twiddling and all that could be done was to blindly guess as to who could fill the much more pronounced holes this team had.
This is a team with a lot of good pieces in place that just needs a couple more.
A first round sweep means nothing in the long run, so don’t fuck this up.