Future looks bright for young, rising Flames after playoff run
Sure, Calgary was sent packing for the summer after dropping Game 5 to the Ducks on Sunday night. But Anaheim is a team in its prime, built to win the Stanley Cup now. The Ducks were supposed to win. The Flames weren’t expected to reach the playoffs this season, let alone advance to the second round. This was a team that dressed seven rookies over the course of the postseason and still managed to knock off the Canucks before giving the Ducks all they could handle in Games 3, 4, and 5. And they did it all with their best player and captain, Mark Giordano, on the IR list.
This was the sort of playoff run that every young team needs to grow on. But now that it’s over, what's next for the Flames?
Despite being in the middle of a rebuild, it shouldn’t be a particularly challenging summer for GM Brad Treliving. His toughest call will be determining what to do with Karri Ramo. The 28-year-old began the season as the backup to Jonas Hiller, but finished it off as the team’s starter for the final four games of the playoffs. Not a bad way to head into unrestricted free agency. He’s proved that he can be a serviceable part of a tandem and could mind the shop until prospects Joni Ortio or Jon Gillies are ready to step into the breach ... if that’s something that Ramo is interested in doing. He may choose to pursue a more significant opportunity, either elsewhere in the NHL or in Europe. Or the Flames could say thanks and look for a cheaper alternative.
Ramo would be a nice player to have on board, but the team wouldn’t be seriously damaged if he goes elsewhere. That pretty much says it all about the state of the team’s caretaker goaltending. Neither Ramo nor Hiller is the solution long-term nor are they capable of carrying the team deep. That’s fine for now, but it is something that needs to be addressed moving forward.
The league’s highest-scoring defense will return virtually intact next season. That’s a mixed bag.
After years of virtual anonymity, Giordano emerged as a the favorite to win the Norris Trophy until an arm injury ended his campaign. At 30, he’s just entering his prime and has the potential to anchor this blue line corps for years to come. Both he and Kris Russell, who led the league in blocked shots, have one year remaining on their current deals. Look for both players to receive contract extensions after July 1.
T.J. Brodie, Dennis Wideman and Deryk Engelland are signed to multiple-year deals. Brodie looks like a core piece for the future, but both Wideman and Engelland could regress next season. An upgrade to either or both would be ideal.
The Flames would like to see Tyler Wotherspoon or Patrick Sieloff step up next season. Wotherspoon is a classic defensive defenseman. Sieloff is a banger with some offensive upside. Both will audition for a role on the third pair.
Calgary made considerable strides up front, going from the 23rd ranked offense in 2013-14 to the seventh best this season. A lot of that success is due to the new look top line. The trio of Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and Jiri Hudler was the league’s most dangerous down the stretch run and should be a force for years to come. Monahan’s 30-goal sophomore season has him on the verge of stardom. Gaudreau did what he does best—prove doubters wrong—and added a dash of playmaking flair. Hudler enjoyed a career year, energized by skating with the two youngsters.
Sam Bennett arrived just ahead of the playoffs, and the fourth pick of the 2014 draft delivered on his hype. He might not be Doug Gilmour, but he’s a reasonable facsimile. The energy, courage and net drive he added made the Flames a more dangerous team. He could be Connor McDavid’s top challenger for the Calder Trophy next season. Joe Colborne also impressed in the postseason, showing more courage and puck hunger than he ever did in Toronto. That fourth round pick that the Flames sent the Leafs in exchange is looking like a bargain now. Still, Calgary would be better served if he were moved into a bottom-six role and replaced on the second line by a proven winger with more offensive upside.
The Flames have five RFA forwards who need new deals. Mikael Backlund emerged as a solid two-way presence and should be locked up long term. The same goes for Michael Ferland, who might have been the team’s MVP in its first-round win over Vancouver. His physical presence provides an element of menace that every contending team needs. Lance Bouma is coming off a career-best 16 goals and looks like a reliable third liner. Josh Jooris and Drew Shore will be useful depth options.
Wingers Emile Poirier and Kenny Agostino could make the jump next season. Neither is certain to add much to the offense, but both would bring the element of speed that’s needed in Bob Hartley’s system.
Speaking of the coach, that might have been Hartley’s finest season behind the bench. He showed a deft touch with his younger players, helping them build on their failures and giving them every chance to succeed. He did a nice job managing the workload of his goaltenders. He even found the wayback switch on Wideman, who reverted to being an offensive dynamo after looking all but washed up the year before.
That’s not to say that Hartley pushed all the right buttons, though. Calgary’s possession numbers were terrible, and while the Flames overcame their tendency to chase the puck this season that’s not a recipe for long-term success. Neither was their reliance on late-game comebacks. Made for fun viewing, but they need to spend more time as the hunted and less as the hunters.
There's still work to be done, but it’s hard to complain about a season that offered more fun than Flames fans have enjoyed in years. And with the core group they have in place, the best is yet to come.
The numbers game
• At 8-1 the Ducks are on the best nine-game postseason run in franchise history. They are also one of only two teams in this year’s playoff field that have yet to lose at home. The other: their Western Conference Finals opponent the Blackhawks, who are also 5-0 in their own arena.
• A California-based team is in the Western final for the sixth straight year and tenth time in the past 12 seasons. Since 2003, only the Blackhawks (five times) have reached the conference finals more often than the Ducks (four). Five others have reached the third round three times in that span: Red Wings, Kings, Flyers, Penguins and Sharks.
• The Rangers forced a Game 7 when trailing 3-1 in a best-of-seven series for the third time in their history. The first was in the 1939 semi-finals where they fell in seven to the Bruins. Last season they completed their comeback by ousting the Penguins. New York also won a Game 6 when facing elimination on the road for the third time. The others: the 1994 conference finals vs. the Devils, and the 2012 first round vs. the Senators. The Blueshirts are now 13-3 in their last 16 postseason games in which they've had their backs to the wall. During the last two years they’ve prevailed in seven of their last eight such games.
• Could Mike Babcock choose to coach the Toronto Maple Leafs next season? Sure, but only if he's really intrigued by the idea of a challenge.
• Elliotte Friedman lays out the three favorites to land Mike Babcock and shares 29 other mind grapes in this week’s 30 Thoughts column.
• The Senators signed hotly pursued free agent goaltender Matt O’Connor over the weekend. Here’s what that means for the future of UFA/second-half hero Andrew Hammond.
• Talk about going coast to coast: A man is trying to raise funds for charity by stickhandling across Canada.
• Is the ice lousy at this time of year? Sure ... but you won’t believe what it takes to keep it this good.