Ten years ago, the Calgary Flames were fresh off a Northwest Division banner and a bitter, disappointing, probably unjust exit in the first round to the Anaheim Ducks. The latter part sound familiar?
Ten years ago, expectations were sky high and the excitement in the city surrounding the team was palpable. Sound familiar?
Ten years ago was also probably the last time the collective fanbase of the Calgary Flames was as excited about the prospect of their team heading into a season.
Sure, the starts of the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons were succeeding playoff berths, but the grind of losing out in the first round in disappointing fashion was beginning to wear on an ever growing slice of the fan base. An argument can be made that the offseason addition of Jay Bouwmeester in the summer of 2009 jolted the excitement to levels that could challenge what we’re seeing now, but even then, that was an old, veteran group with an established ceiling, whereas this year’s rendition of the Flames is young and bubbling with potential.
As recent as 2015-16, there was a familiar buzz in the city after the Flames surprised the league and snagged a playoff spot before winning their first playoff series in a decade, but the analytically-inclined faction of the fanbase wasn’t buying the hype and predicted stormy waters ahead (a cat-5 hurricane was in fact what awaited).
As I write this, on Oct. 4, 2017, I don’t believe we’ve seen a more united excitement across the entire fan base since Oct. 4, 2007 when the Philadelphia Flyers rolled into the then much-less talked about Pengrowth Saddledome.
Generally, a team’s offseason work can heavily dictate the hype surrounding it entering the season, and the Flames did a heck of a lot.
They remodeled their goaltending – again – by bringing in a bonafide starter in Mike Smith and essentially taking on half of Eddie Lack’s contract for free from the Carolina Hurricanes. Many – myself included – laid a chunk of the blame for the Flames’ unceremonious sweep from the playoffs at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks at the feet of Brian Elliott. Elliott was a significant factor in the Flames actually qualifying for the dance, but his porous, unconfident performance sunk a competitive team that actually looked like it could hang with the vaunted and feared Ducks.
Is Mike Smith the solution? Maybe. If anything, he represents the hope that another collapse won’t happen.
Smith has put up many an incredible performance with a sulking Arizona Coyotes over the past few seasons (every time he played the Flames, it seemed), and his strong numbers against the Pacific Division continuing would be a huge boon for a Flames team looking to lock down a divisional playoff spot and then make their way through it en route to the Cup.
Eddie Lack, on the other hand, was a once promising backup in Vancouver and seen as the goaltender of the future in Carolina when he was dealt there following the Canucks’ first round loss to the Flames. Things didn’t go as planned though, as the Hurricanes thought Lack would do better playing at the top of his crease instead of his usual deep stance, and that resulted in a lot of crease swimming and goals against. The Flames believe they can get Lack back to the form he was in the last time he played for a Pacific Division team, but only time will tell.
The search for a number four defenceman has gone through Kris Russell, Dennis Wideman, Deryk Engellend, Jyrki Jokkipakka, Michael Stone and, finally, seems to have fallen on Travis Hamonic. Not bad, friends. The Flames took out a second mortgage on their farm in acquiring Hamonic for a 2018 first and two seconds from the New York Islanders on the second day of the draft, but the Isles’ ex-pivot looks to be the perfect compliment to a T.J. Brodie who has been subjected to a trove of inferior partners since being separated from Mark Giordano. Brodie-Hamonic have looked good through the preseason and offer the chance for the Flames to throw two first pairing quality duos at Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
Hamonic was Brad Treliving’s marquee offseason addition until Oct. 2, when he sent Flames nation (and FlamesNation) into frenzy by inking living legend Jaromir Jagr to a one-year deal. The significance of the Jagr deal is less in the fact that Jaromir friggin’ Jagr will pull a Flames sweater over his head and play ice hockey for them, but rather shows the team has finally abandoned the Troy Brouwer experiment.
Said experiment should’ve been scrapped last December, frankly, but they stuck with it up until the end of the preseason. The effects on Sam Bennett and the power play by just taking Brouwer off their wings should be substantial – think: addition by subtraction – but substituting them with a puck possession and distributing wizard such as Jagr should only impact them positively. Bennett’s accent into a consistent offensive threat and play driver would completely change the dynamic of the Flames’ attack for the better.
The additions are one thing, but the Calgary Flames’ growth last season was truly something to behold and should be the chief cause for optimism.
The Edmonton Oilers probably had the most stark improvement from season-to-season, but the Flames’ exponential in-season improvement was second to none. After starting the season 5-10-1, they went an outstanding 40-23-3 the rest of the way. For those keeping score at home, that’s a 103-point pace. Decent. Not to mention they ended up as a top 10 possession team for the first time since… a long time.
A team “coming together” is an old, and frankly overused adage, but it really applied to the 2016-17 Flames. After a chaotic, unwatchable first month and a half, the team finally clicked into Glen Gulutzan’s progressive system, and gains were made in possession, special teams and all-around performance. Gaudreau and Monahan were stabilized with the arrival of china shop resident bull Micheal Ferland, and the 3M line established themselves among the league’s most effective shutdown lines. Along with the evolution of the Giordano-Hamilton pairing into one of the league’s best, there was a lot to like about the Flames.
Yet, there were still holes and inconsistencies. One third of their third line was a conveyer belt of players as they tried to find someone to mesh with Versteeg and Bennett, and the third pairing was a travelling sideshow all year.
In theory, it now seems like the cracks in the Flames’ foundation have been sealed. Jagr should bring competent stability to the third line and the power play spot previously, and inexplicably, occupied by Brouwer, and Michael Stone’s demotion to the third pairing opens the door for him to bounce back to a capable version of himself we once saw in Arizona, against softer competition. Brett Kulak completing his morphing into an everyday NHLer would be the cherry on top.
But the rest of the group, the ones who were with the team last year, are all poised to pick up from where they left off last season, if not even take a step forward. There weren’t a lot of percentage spikes or unsustainable anomalies that carried the Flames to the playoffs last year that suggest impending doom like the 2014-15 season did.
Micheal Ferland shot higher than usual, but he’ll also presumably be playing first line minutes for more than 21 games this year. Matthew Tkachuk scored well for a rookie, but did so with an average shooting percentage – plus he plays with possession lords one and two. Outside of Mark Giordano entering the precarious waters of mid-30s hockey, there aren’t a whole lot of red flags surrounding the incumbent Flames group that qualified for the playoffs right now, and they only appeared to have improved on that this summer. That is a real exciting prospect.
There’s more than one way to skin a cat (don’t do that though) just like there’s more than one way to sink a hockey team. The Flames could be caught up in a distracting locker room scandal and fall apart. They could be floored by the injury bug or the wheels could fall off Mike Smith and not come back on Eddie Lack. The Flames could all collectively quit hockey in search of true enlightenment in the Himalayas. There really is no end to what could go wrong.
But the reality is, every team faces a similar set of debilitating possibilities, it’s just some have a more extensive and realistic list than others. For the first time in a long time, the Flames won’t need a miracle to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs. They’ll need a curse not to. They’ve assembled a formidable roster built on the backs of young, budding stars and supplemented it with capable veterans – for the most part. They’ve achieved a roster stability required to compete in today’s NHL, and have proven a buy-in to their coaches’ preachings.
Are they Stanley Cup contenders? Maybe. That’ll be decided by just how well the additions fuse into the group and just how well paper translates to ice, but for the first time in a long while, it’s not out of the question.
The Flames are a team on the rise that, at least internally, sees a window opening to compete for a Stanley Cup. They started a rebuild on the back of a five-year plan, one that has required countless extensions in countless other markets, and on the eve of the beginning of that fifth year – in which, if the plan is executed properly, should mark the beginning of the competition window – they just might be entering it.
We spent the summer speculating on what this season might hold, and finally, it’s time to hand it a pen and let it write itself. So, I invite you all to fasten your seatbelts, secure your table trays and ensure your seats are in an upright position, and enjoy the ride.
We are ready for takeoff.