As the leaves change color and the temperatures get cooler, it is feeling more and more like hockey season and I cannot contain my excitement! For selfish reasons, autumn is a favorite of mine because it bring around a new exciting season of Calgary Flames hockey. While most don’t like the change in the season, to me opening day is like leading up to my very own Christmas and we are less than two weeks away from the puck dropping. So, what does this hockey season have in store for the Flames? Let us take a look.
With the disappointment of the playoffs last season still pretty fresh in the minds of the fan base and Flames management, it was clear the Flames needed to improve a little more to find the success that all desire. Expectations around the team are growing as the season draws closer, so the work for Flames GM Brad Treliving and Head Coach Glen Gulutzan is extremely important. With Coach Gulutzan back behind the bench for a second season, the thought is that the team can get off to a better start than last season. Without having to learn a new system and style of play like last year, this should help propel the team out of the gate. The trick for Gulutzan this season is to integrate the new faces into the lineup and direct this year’s team towards the team goals this season. Depending who you ask, may vary what to expect out of this team. However, it is safe to say that they definitely want to improve on last year’s performance of falling out in round one of the playoffs.
With the new season, also comes new faces. Arguably the biggest concern for everyone was the goaltending. Having brought in Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson last season, many thought the Flames addressed the net issues and were set. However, on paper usually works different than real life. Such was the case last season where Elliott and Johnson provided average goaltending, just good enough to make the playoffs before the wheels fell off.
So back to the drawing board for GM Treliving, who chose not to renew either guys contract, but instead looked elsewhere. Pulling the trigger on a deal shortly before the draft sending Johnson along with prospect Brandon Hickey and a 3rd round pick to the Arizona Coyotes for Goalie Mike Smith. Then, not long after, Treliving makes another move bringing in Eddie Lack from the Carolina Hurricanes in a package trade. So once again, Flames brass and the fan base believe the goaltending issues have been solved with Smith and Lack in camp. Smith has been a long time starter in the NHL for a poor Coyotes team. So the thought of him playing behind a much better defense in Calgary, makes the average Flames fan excited to see. Lack has also spent some time as a starter in both Vancouver and Carolina, coming off a tough season and a couple injuries the stage is set for a rebound season. He should provide solid backup goaltending for Smith.
So, with arguably the biggest hole on the roster filled, the Flames took another step in shoring up the rest of their roster. They brough in Defenseman Travis Hamonic from the New York Islanders. He will join the likes of Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Dougie Hamilton on the blue line, making the Flames d-core one of the best across the league. Add in the re-signing of Mark Stone and the Flames top 5 is as deep and steady as anyone else’s across the NHL. The potential of this defensive group seems to be unlimited and, as mentioned before, this will be one of the keys for Gulutzan this season, to put this group in the right situations game in and game out.
With the fan base excited over this group of defensemen, there is still the question of who fills out the 6th and 7th spots on the team. Cue the list of hopefuls. Matt Bartkowski would be the incumbent to the 6th spot, having played there after being signed around last season’s trade deadline. Hot on his tails are Brett Kulak and Tyler Wotherspoon, who both have played a few NHL games in that spot. However, it is not just a three man race, as youngster Rasmus Andersson has been sticking around in camp and newly drafted Juuso Valamaki is showing strong play. No one can stake claim to the job, yet. If I was to hazard a guess, Bartkowski and Kulak would seem to have the inside track with Andersson and Wotherspoon being sent to the AHL and rookie Valamaki sent back to junior to help his development.
The forward group remains much the same from last season as pending FA Kris Versteeg re-signed with the Flames, and RFA’s Micheal Ferland and Sam Bennett received two-year deals. All positive signs, as it allows the Flames to keep the top 6 group in tack and allow some depth further down the lineup. The biggest questions for the Flames is around Bennett and where to play him because that will effect the entire forward group.
The battle at center this season has a new wrinkle to it. With Sean Monahan and Mikael Backlund both back as the 1-2 punch, it leaves spot 3 and 4 open. Many believe veteran Matt Stajan will continue to serve as the teams 4th line center. One then could easily give the 3rd line role to Bennett, but cue Mark Jankowski, the Flames top pick in 2012. Jankowski looks ready to make the jump to the NHL and is expected to. So, where does he fit? The battle at camp is ongoing and a move to the wing for Bennett has not be totally ruled out. It’s expected Ferland will return to the top line with Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau. It is also expected that the $3M line of Backlund with Michael Frolik and Matthew Tkachuk will remain together. This leaves veteran forwards Versteeg and Troy Brouwer, tryout invites Tanner Glass and Joesph Cramarossa, youngsters Curtis Lazar, Spencer Foo, Emile Poirier, Marek Hrivik, Ryan Lomberg and camp surprise Dillion Dube all battling to fill out the bottom 6. With final cuts yet to come down before writing this article it is hard to say who will make the cut. Best bet is Versteeg and Brouwer join Bennett on the 3rd line, while Stajan or Jankowski will center line 4. Again, that is just my best guess from what has been heard and seen at camp. Time is now for someone to step up, if they really want it.
Where will the goals come from? Great question. There are spots available and battles to fill them, but the Flames will still continue to lean on that top line featuring All-Star Johnny Gaudreau. Gaudreau led the team in scoring last season with 18G, 43A for 61pts in 72 games, while missing 10 games last season due to an injury. He will be joined by number one centerman Sean Monahan, who was second on the team in scoring with a team high 27G, 31A for 58Pts in 82 games. Monahan also led the team with 17 power play points. The Flames are also hoping that Mikael Backlund can continue to put up solid numbers. Backlund finished with 53 pts (22G, 31A) in 81 games, good for third on the team. Secondary scoring will be important to team this season with Forlik, Tkachuk, Bennett and Ferland up front expected to contribute.
The defense will also be counted on. It’s no secret that teams that get back end production, tend to find better success. Hamilton, Gioradno and Brodie have all had offensive success. Hamilton led the Flames D in scoring last season, gathering 13G, 37A for 50 Pts in 81 games. Giordano wasn’t far behind with 39Pts (12G, 27A) in 81 games. Brodie who had a down season will be the X factor on the back end, having a career year two seasons ago as e managed just 6G, but added 30A for 36Pts in playing all 82 games. The goals for this group will be there if they put forth the effort to capitalize on their chances and hard work. Coach Gulutzan will also hope Versteeg can catch last year’s magic again and Brouwer can regain his form after a disappointing 2016-17 season.
All these moves and the exciting young players make the upcoming NHL very intriguing. However, all this will be for nothing if the Flames are not competitive. Playing in the tough pacific division, they will still have to contend with the Ducks, Sharks, Kings and Oilers. All big, tough, but fast teams. GM Treliving has maintained, throughout the offseason, that his goal was to make the right moves and bring in players that will help them compete with the likes of these foes. The Flames are not loaded with the sexiest list of players, but they are loaded with a tons of heart and soul.
The Flames are hoping to turn back the clock and find magic they had in 2015, where hard work and a never give up attitude was enough to get them to round 2 of the playoffs. Or the magic of 1980s, where the Flames were up against the powerhouse that Edmonton used to have and the Winnipeg Jets high flying team. It wasn’t easy then and it will not be easy now for Calgary. Every team is improving and trying to out battle the next, that isn’t new. The Flames have a chance early this season to set the tone. With an opening day match on October 4th in Edmonton against the hated Oilers. That game will be followed by the Jets on the 7th, leading to a game most Flames fans have circled on the calendar in Anaheim against the Ducks and the streak of 28 games no wins. Needless to say, there is a chance early this season the trick will be to be ready and take those opportunities.
Renewed optimism and an energetic hopefulness will lead up to the puck drop on the season. I can’t help but be caught up in it myself. October 4th is just around the corner, jerseys have been washed and ready. Buckle up Flames fans, because the ride will not always be smooth, but you bet it will be fun. Let’s Go Flames!!!
Photo Credits: Fanthem