Look. The Flames have grown a ton from this time a year ago. They’ve turned into one of the better possession teams in the NHL, and it’s all been through replacing lesser players with better ones, seeing the young talent they already have grow and thrive, and of course, a coaching change played a bit part in the team’s resurgence – and it became especially obvious once the calendar flipped over to 2017.
On paper, it looks like the Flames are poised for a big season.
Let’s take a moment to wonder just how high they can go if the stars align.
If everything goes right…
… then Mike Smith should, at the very least, keep up his performance from the past couple of seasons. In 2016-17, he posted a .914 save percentage on a very poor Arizona Coyotes team; the season before that, he clocked in at .916. Keep in mind, the Flames, with Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson, posted an average save percentage of .907 throughout the most recent season. If you want to dream really big, though, then Smith doesn’t stop there – he reverts back to his performance in 2011-12, when he was 29 years old, started 67 games, and had a save percentage of .930. That’s a really big ask, and it’s probably not going to happen – it’s only happened the one year – but if everything goes as right as it possibly can, well, this would be a big step forward.
… then Eddie Lack will return to his Vancouver Canucks form. Lack went from a .917 save percentage over 82 games for the Canucks to a .902 save percentage in 54 games for the Carolina Hurricanes. That’s a steep drop, but the division of it is obvious: new team, drastically worse performance. If the Flames can help him rebound from that, then they would have a very solid backup goaltender on their hands; one who could aid Smith throughout a season that should see him play a starter’s workload.
… then Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton do just what they did in 2016-17. Actually, they can probably one-up it now that they should be starting this season as a pairing. Did you enjoy 50+ point Hamilton? Well, with more ice time (and powerplay time in particular), that can easily go up. And Giordano doesn’t seem to be feeling the burden of age quite yet – and he’s only one season removed from a 50+ point year of his own.
… then Travis Hamonic turns out to be the perfect partner for T.J. Brodie, seeing them both rebound from what were pretty much career-worst years, if not close to it. It has been a very, very long time since the Flames have been able to boast a proper top four. Poor contracts and the lionization of overrated players have done their part to make it so. If this pairing reaches its potential, though, then the Flames enter the season with perhaps the strongest top four in the NHL.
… then Michael Stone, like Hamonic, rebounds. It’s a new season, it’s a full season on his new team, and though he may cost a bit much for a fifth defenceman, if all goes well, he should make a case to be the strongest fifth defenceman in the league.
… then Brett Kulak is prepared for full time NHL duty and slides in alongside Stone seamlessly. He’s more than shown in previous NHL stints that he’s ready for a proper chance to hold a regular spot in the lineup. Suddenly the Flames have six puck-moving, mobile defencemen to regularly rotate between. They haven’t had that… maybe ever, actually?
… then Micheal Ferland turns out to not only be the perfect complement for Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, but develops into a proper first line forward in his own right. It sounds as though he’s finally going to get the chance to prove himself, no longer shunted to the fourth line. No; he’s proven he has chemistry with the Flames’ two highest-scoring forwards, something both the eye test and the underlying numbers agree on. The 14.2% shooting percentage may be a bit much to hope for to repeat, but it’s not as though he’s ever been unable to put up high numbers alongside better players – just ask former Brandon Wheat Kings linemate Mark Stone about that. Stone was clearly the better player, but Ferland still scored 96 points in 68 games once upon a time.
… then Johnny Gaudreau’s hands are left alone by opposing players. Because slashing is still illegal in the sport of ice hockey.
… then Matthew Tkachuk, Mikael Backlund, ad Michael Frolik keep doing their thing. Actually, scratch that; Tkachuk was a rookie this past season. He stands to get better, and could bring his linemates up with him – after all, that trio already boosts one another regularly as it is. Can you imagine the 3M line being even stronger? It’s certainly possible.
… then Sam Bennett has his breakout season. Bennett was touted as a potential first overall pick in his draft year, and every time he’s played in the NHL playoffs he’s been enthralling. It’s just a matter of finding him the right linemates, now, and him taking his chance and running with it. He may have to fight to earn more ice time now, but if he can do that and build on what he’s accomplished so far – well, who’s going to object to a third line centre with 40+ points?
… then Troy Brouwer rebounds into a 40-point guy in his own right. Scoring-wise, 2016-17 was the worst season of Brouwer’s professional career, with just 25 points scored. That’s not good enough. But if he’s able to go back to the player who would, at the very least, hover around the 40-point mark, then the Flames are doing a much better job of getting their money’s worth – and the lineup is stronger for it.
… then Matt Stajan has another 20-point year. Stajan’s career probably has not gone the way originally envisioned when he was brought to Calgary, going from first line centre to fourth. But he did eclipse the 20-point mark this past season for the first time since 2013-14. If he can do that again, well, how’s that for a fourth line guy?
… then Curtis Lazar develops into the player the Flames felt was worth taking a significant flyer on. They like the player a lot; if he turns into someone not just defensively responsible, but someone capable of putting his enthusiasm to good use and – maybe not scoring three points every four games as he did in his limited stint after being traded to the Flames this past season, but somewhere over the 20 points he scored in 2015-16 – then that’s an investment the team is probably pleased to have made. The more first round picks from 2013, the merrier.
… then whatever prospects make the team not only prove they deserve to be in the NHL, but turn out to be effective contributors in their own right. If we’re really pushing for the best possible scenario, then they’re contributing the same way Tkachuk did in his rookie season.
What is the ultimate optimal, but still realistic, outcome for this season?
Quite frankly, if absolutely everything goes right – or most things, at least – then it’s a Stanley Cup. If the Flames made all of the right moves this past season and throughout the offseason, then they have genuinely turned themselves into a contending team, starting a couple of weeks from now. You couldn’t have said that about any recent seasons. Sure, steps were made to get to this point – but they were only steps. Now, they might be there.
If you want to dream big with a strong helping of sentimentality, then here’s one last detail for you: Jarome Iginla captains Team Canada to a gold medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics. The Flames sign him to a one-year contract after he wins but before the trade deadline, ensuring he’s eligible to play for them during the postseason. The Shift 2.0 happens, except this time, it’s him scoring the Cup-winning goal on home ice. Giordano doesn’t even bother with the pretence of skating up to claim the Cup, just sends Iginla up. And that’s the final moment of his career: Iggy, in a red Flames jersey, standing centre ice in the Saddledome, Stanley Cup at long last hoisted above his head for the first time, beaming that iconic smile of his as the entire building cheers for him.
… But that’s only if, you know, absolutely everything goes right. Everything. Everything. So uh, take notes, guys.