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Calgary’s off-season will determine how successful this past season really was

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Photo credit:Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Pat Steinberg
6 months ago
There aren’t many worse kicks to the gut for Flames fans than losing to the Oilers, especially in the first playoff series between the two since 1991. But despite the sour way Calgary’s 2021-22 season came to an end, you don’t have to squint to see positives over the course of 94 meaningful games. This past season has a chance to be a real step forward for the Flames, but so much of that hinges on what happens this summer.

The positives

“This team has taken some big steps,” said general manager Brad Treliving at the team’s final media availability of the season. “Nobody wants to hear it, but you have to keep knocking on the door. You keep tweaking, you get the group back, and you get that experience.
“This group now goes into next year with an experience of winning a round. Winning a game seven. Going into an overtime of a game seven. You have to live it, so now they’ve got that in their toolbox a little bit. To me, it feels different, you take the experience from it, you take a step back and you find out how you can make yourselves a little bit better.”
I think there’s a lot of truth in that statement. Calgary’s first round series with Dallas was anything but easy and it took perseverance and belief to stick with it and eventually prevail. That was never more on display than in game seven when the Flames wouldn’t allow themselves to be goalie’d en route to Johnny Gaudreau’s series winner. Those are experiences the team can draw from in the future.
Similarly, Calgary can learn from their second round difficulties against the Oilers. While the opposition deserves plenty of credit, the Flames were never able to apply their brand of hockey against Edmonton and it showed. Once the team digs in on why that happened, and we all have our own theories, there will be lessons to apply down he road.
Individually, I thought 2022 was Gaudreau’s best playoff showing to date. He had 14 points in 12 games, of which only three were recorded on the power play. For me, Gaudreau was Calgary’s best player in the Dallas series before his performance became more intermittent vs. the Oilers. It wasn’t a perfect spring, but it was a step forward.
Gaudreau wasn’t alone. I thought Elias Lindholm, Rasmus Andersson, Andrew Mangiapane, and Dillon Dube, all young and important pieces going forward, had generally strong postseason bodies of work. Mikael Backlund was an absolute beast starting midway through round one. And Jacob Markstrom can take positives and learn lessons from his first real playoff experience (the 2020 bubble just wasn’t the same).
The Flames accomplished good things under Darryl Sutter this season. It started with the foundation laid during the regular season. It continued into the playoffs more than it ever has with this core, but it also ended in disappointing fashion. No, it wasn’t ultimately a successful season, but it also wasn’t an abject failure, at least for me.
If Calgary had a run of the mill summer ahead of them, I think we’d be talking more about some of the steps taken going into next year. But that isn’t the case, and as such, it’s hard to fully classify this season until some major questions are answered.

The mitigating circumstances

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You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned anyone’s contract status so far…until now. Gaudreau is just over six weeks away from being able to call his shot as an unrestricted free agent. If he opts to sign elsewhere, Gaudreau’s building block postseason won’t mean much of anything for the Flames. No matter which way you slice it, what happens with Gaudreau is the first domino that needs to fall.
Gaudreau once again sounded very positive when asked about his future in Calgary over the weekend, and I once again take him fully at face value. I think he’d like to stay if the teams can agree on a fair number reflecting market value. I don’t think Gaudreau is set to hold the Flames ransom, but I also don’t think we’re talking about a “hometown discount” either.
If Johnny signs back, my belief is the chances are much higher for pending restricted free agent Matthew Tkachuk to do the same. And if those two things happen, we’ll be talking about Calgary running it back and seeing if this core group is able to use this season as a step forward. The team will have to make sacrifices on the fringes, but ultimate playoff success always hinges on any team’s central group of players.
But what if Gaudreau walks and Tkachuk signs his one-year qualifying offer and starts preparing an eventual exit? While I don’t think that’s the most likely scenario, it’s also one that can’t be ignored. In that case, the Flames would be taking a step back and falling out of a contending window for a little bit. That’s when it would become much harder to sell me on 2021-22 being a stepping stone for future success.
Calgary has an important next few months ahead of them.

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