The Flames have come a long way from floundering about in desperation to make the playoffs. They’ve come a long way from their lacklustre goal of only making eighth place, under the guise of “anything can happen,” as if a 35-year-old Jarome Iginla and 36-year-old Miikka Kiprusoff could do what the 26- and 27-year-old versions did. They’ve come a long way from both no postseason and poor draft picks, a team mired in mediocrity with no direction.
They may not go all the way this year, but this should be the first season in which they actually start contending.
2013 lockout season
This was the beginning of the end for the previous iteration of the Flames. Starting this season, the Flames were still going for it, hence the additions of Jiri Hudler and a new up tempo coach in Bob Hartley, and… No. No, this wasn’t going to work out.
And so the fire sale began. Jay Bouwmeester was shipped off for a first round pick (Emile Poirier), Mark Cundari, and Reto Berra. More importantly, Jarome Iginla was traded for a first round pick (Morgan Klimchuk), Ben Hanowski, and Kenny Agostino.
The returns from those trades weren’t important. What was important was that the Flames had committed to a rebuild by getting rid of two of their higher profile players, including the face of the franchise. Better returns would have helped increase the pace of the rebuild, but it was more important that it was happening to begin with.
And they did nail it with one first round pick: Sean Monahan. With his drafting, the Flames finally had someone who could develop into a number one centre, and the rebuild was officially underway.
It’s one thing to say you’re ready for your favourite team to rebuild, and it’s another thing to actually watch them go about it. Sure, the promise of the future always hangs overhead, but in the meantime, you’re going to be subjected to some very bad hockey for six months.
And make no mistake: the 2013-14 season was a bad one for the Flames. Even if it was by design, it was still something that 35-40-7 team had to go through, resulting in the highest pick in franchise history.
But even as the season slogged on, the foundations of today’s Flames started to emerge. Monahan earned an NHL spot immediately, and while it didn’t seem he should have played the full season in the big league, he still performed admirably and set hope for the team’s future with his play. Mark Giordano burst onto the scene, looking like a player who not only should have represented Team Canada at the Olympics, but a genuine Norris contender. Johnny Gaudreau made his NHL debut, and Sam Bennett was drafted.
Off the ice, there was an important switch, too: Jay Feaster was out, and by season’s end, Brad Treliving was in.
The second year of the rebuild brought with it more bad hockey, more hope for the future, and a surprise playoff appearance thanks to some league-average goaltending and league-best shooting.
Before the season started, there was some question of whether Gaudreau would be in the NHL or the AHL. It seems ludicrous to think of now, but back then it was a debate – at least until Gaudreau silenced all notions of that in the preseason and then for good early on in the regular season. Most importantly, he proved to have chemistry with Monahan, while Giordano continued to look like his breakout 2013-14 self, and suddenly, the Flames had the beginning of a foundation.
The bonus playoff appearance was nice, but what was even better was Treliving’s realistic assessment of his team. Yes, they were in a playoff position; no, they weren’t likely to do anything with it. So he sold at the trade deadline, acquiring picks, and directly leading to the turning point of the rebuild.
It was one thing to have a couple of budding young, talented forwards and a really good defensive pairing.
It was another thing entirely to scoop up a freshly turned 22-year-old defenceman already displaying signs of number one, Norris candidate upside.
For all of the good the Flames had been slowly building since starting their rebuild, acquiring Dougie Hamilton kicked everything into overdrive. Drafting Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington – who have still yet to make their NHL presences felt – was just the cherry on top, en route to re-stacking what had been a dismal group of prospective defencemen. But getting Hamilton signalled the Flames were almost there.
The Flames targeted Michael Frolik to kick off the 2015-16 season, and with two solid additions, they were off – to wander the desert, waiting for the chance to cast off poor contracts. It was like the 2013-14 season, but further along: young talent establishing itself, old mainstays finally getting the respect they deserved (looking at you, Mikael Backlund), but still stuck at the bottom of the league.
Not that the Flames couldn’t be productive. They once again sold at the trade deadline, but the real meat came in the offseason, with the firing of Bob Hartley, the addition of Glen Gulutzan, and the drafting of Matthew Tkachuk. The coaching change represented a Flames team getting ready to take the next step forward, while there was no predicting just how good their latest sixth overall pick would be.
The season started poorly, as the team took its time to adjust to Gulutzan, and he to them. Kris Versteeg came in, but the defensive pairings were a mess. Hudler was gone, and there was no suitable winger for Monahan and Gaudreau. Much of the progress made over the course of the rebuild had stagnated, with the two players the worst off being T.J. Brodie and Bennett.
But then they adjusted to Gulutzan, and started playing his system. Chances against went down, as the Flames went from one of the teams that gave up some of the most corsi events against to one that gave up some of the fewest. A linemate for Monahan and Gaudreau appeared to have been found. Tkachuk helped boost Backlund’s shutdown line to unbelievable levels. Hamilton stepped in next to Giordano and elevated the pairing to a level Brodie hadn’t quite been able to.
They made the playoffs. They lost quickly, though this was a much better lineup put together than the one from 2014-15.
And with that, many of their poor contracts expired, and it became possible to fill in the remaining holes in the roster: primarily by paying big for Travis Hamonic, and waiting around for Jaromir Jagr.
Look at where you are, look at where you started
Here is a rough approximation of a standard lineup from the 2013 lockout season (it’s been a while, I know these players appeared in most of the games but the lineup is a bit of guesswork).
|Alex Tanguay||Mike Cammalleri||Jarome Iginla|
|Curtis Glencross||Matt Stajan||Jiri Hudler|
|Blake Comeau||Mikael Backlund||Lee Stempniak|
|Roman Horak||Roman Cervenka||Tim Jackman|
|Sven Baertschi||Steve Begin|
|Mark Giordano||Jay Bouwmeester|
|T.J. Brodie||Dennis Wideman|
|Chris Butler||Cory Sarich|
Now, here’s roughly the lineup we can expect this season, or at least something rather similar to it, once all of the pieces fall back into place.
|Johnny Gaudreau||Sean Monahan||Micheal Ferland|
|Matthew Tkachuk||Mikael Backlund||Michael Frolik|
|Kris Versteeg||Sam Bennett||Jaromir Jagr|
|Matt Stajan||Mark Jankowski||Troy Brouwer|
|Tanner Glass||Curtis Lazar||Freddie Hamilton|
|Mark Giordano||Dougie Hamilton|
|T.J. Brodie||Travis Hamonic|
|Brett Kulak||Michael Stone|
Backlund, Stajan, Brodie, and Giordano have been present throughout the entire turnaround. Over that time, Backlund and Giordano grew into elite players, Brodie grew from a rookie to a responsible defenceman, and Stajan fell from being one of the team’s top players to a depth role on the fourth line.
Three of those players were homegrown talents. Another six have joined them; seven, depending on Jankowski’s status (I am very much positive he will be back rather soon; in the meantime, Garnet Hathaway fills in). A handful of smart free agent signings – Frolik, Versteeg, Jagr – have supplemented them, while some key trades – Hamilton, Hamonic – have helped solidify the lineup.
It hasn’t been a perfect rebuild. There have been some obvious missteps along the way, some unfortunately recent. But once they committed to tearing the old foundation down and putting a new one up, the Flames made notable progress, year by year.
Going into the 2013 lockout season, this team thought it could make the playoffs. Eighth place in the conference was an acceptable goal, because a decade-old philosophy said that as long as you got in, anything could happen.
Going into this upcoming season, this is a team that should make the playoffs with ease, and should contend for home ice. They are above an eighth place finish. They are on the path to sustainable, repeated success. That’s what these past five seasons have been about – and now we’re here.