That said, what lies ahead for the Calgary Flames will not be one of those signature seasons like we saw in 1985-86, 1988-89 or 2003-04. More so, it's the other, less talked about signature seasons that this year may come closer to mirroring.
Does anybody remember 1997-98?
Under the guidance of coach Brian Sutter, backstopped by the goalie tandem of Dwayne Roloson and Rick Tabaracci, and featuring the likes of Andrew Cassels, Jim Dowd, Ralph Macchio-lookalike Marty McInnis, Tommy Albelin, Cale Hulse and a 20-year-old kid named Jarome Iginla -- who scored all of 13 goals, that edition of the Flames was statistically the worst team in Calgary's history finishing 26-41-15 for 67 points.
As we get underway and face the very real possibility that this season will turn out a lot more like 1997-98 than the glory days from the decade before, here is your 10-step survival guide to help get you through the winter.
1. Keep Your Eyes Affixed on No. 13
Maybe the debut of Theoren Fleury over 25 years ago. Maybe. That's the last time the Flames line-up featured a young player as exciting, skilled and creative with the puck as 21-year-old Johnny Gaudreau. However, save for the fact neither are tall enough to ride the Calaway Park log ride without an adult, they are two very different personalities and two very different players.
Similar in stature but at least 20 pounds heavier, Fleury was stronger, sturdier and had a playing style that was more aggressive and edgy. Where Fleury would shove you down, slash you, and then steal the puck. Gaudreau is more the quiet, pickpocket type. One second you have the puck, the next second you don't and No. 13 is long gone.
Search for 'Johnny Gaudreau' on YouTube and you get 4,530 results, and that's a much bigger number than it was at the start of September. He's played one career NHL game yet he's already reached the point where you expect him to do something electric every shift and if he doesn't, you're almost left disappointed. What? No new videos on YouTube? Must have been a lousy period for Gaudreau. Truth is, if he was generating scoring chances every shift, he'd be a candidate for the Hart Trophy, not just the Calder.
'Worth the price of admission' is an overused and cliche way to describe a player, but not with Gaudreau. He is exactly that and more. Every night, count on a few shifts where he'll do something spectacular that will have you on the edge of your seat, if not out of your seat -- and thank goodness. Considering the Flames have just one player on the roster that scored 20 goals last year and only four that reached 15, Gaudreau is going to be counted upon to spark the offence and while that's a big load to put on his small shoulders, I don't doubt he will deliver.
2. Relish One-Goal Losses
While sometimes they may do things that make you scratch your head, NHL general managers -- generally speaking, are not dumb. A good GM is not just thinking about what his team will look like this season but also what it could look like next year and also the year after that.
Publicly, expect to hear all the right things this year from Brad Treliving and Hartley -- a desire to improve in points, to make the playoffs and yada yada yada. But take a close-up look at the Flames roster this season and compare it to other teams in the Western Conference and reality sets in. This team just does not have the same talent.
Don't get me wrong, there will be plenty of 'try' in this bunch, just like last year. They will play hard, battle from the opening drop of the puck to the final buzzer each and every night and I wouldn't expect anything else from a Hartley-coached team. But I'm just not sure how many games they'll actually win. The Flames played 49 one-goal games last year and won 25 of them. But subtract last year's leading scorer in Mike Cammalleri and some of those overtime/shootout wins may not get to extra time this year. Those one-goal regulation losses may be become two-goal setbacks.
Set your bar at 35 wins (last year's total) at your own peril. If I were you, I'd consider counting the number of close games instead and be prepared to extract the positives from those. Not only are close games exciting to watch as a fan, lots of player development can occur also. Learning how to defend a lead in the late going, how to win the important face-off in the final minute when you're down a goal. It's all good experience and lessons that will help down the road.
3. Keep Your Eye on the Prize
If the best you can hope for with the talent you have is to languish in the bottom third of the NHL's standings, this is a good year for that because the consolation prize for finishing last or next-to-last is as compelling as it's been in quite some time.
In case you've been living under a rock the past couple years, there are two potential franchise-altering players up for grabs in the 2015 NHL Draft and interestingly, both kind of have connections to the Flames:
- Connor McDavid - The 6-foot-0 centre used to play minor hockey in Ontario on the same team as Sam Bennett. Just imagine how good those teams must have been. He is entering his third year with the Erie Otters after being granted 'exceptional player' status in order to play in the OHL at age 15 (just the third to receive such distinction -- John Tavares and Aaron Ekblad the others). Last year as a sophomore, McDavid finished fourth in league scoring with 28-71-99. Making that feat even more remarkable is he played a dozen less games than the players ahead of him.
- Jack Eichel - The 6-foot-1 centre, is entering his first year at Boston University. Also on that same campus for his first year after two seasons in the AJHL is Flames 2014 third round draft pick Brandon Hickey, a defenceman. Last weekend, the two combined to set up a goal in the Terriers first game, a 12-1 win in which Eichel had five assists and Hickey finished with three helpers. For all the viewing that will occur this year, I'd expect the book on Eichel to be pretty thick by year's end.
While the revised NHL draft lottery rules mean getting first pick is hard -- finishing dead last only gets you a 20 percent chance of picking first, the availability of more than one generational-type player means win or lose the lottery -- literally, will still feel like winning the lottery -- figuratively.
One other draft-eligible player getting a lot of attention is 6-foot-3 defenceman Noah Hanifin, who is in his freshman year at Boston College. Treliving admits that defence depth is an area of great need for the organization so Hanifin is another name to follow closely this year.
4. Scoreboard Watching Begins Now
Calgary is going to win its fair share of games. Coaching for a contract, you know Hartley is going to conjure up some magic with this team and they'll once again overachieve. For you extremists so fixated already on next year's draft that you cringe with every Flames victory, you'll be able to enjoy and celebrate them a little bit more and do so guilt-free if the other teams Calgary is 'chasing' are also winning.
As a pastime, scoreboard watching generally becomes more popular later in the season but really, you should get into it this year right off the hop. Those wins the Sabres and Hurricanes might sneak this weekend could end up being huge come the end of the year.
Here are five teams, all threats to finish last, which you should be passionately rooting on this year.
- Buffalo - They were last a year ago and most experts feel they've gotten worse.
- Carolina - Jordan Staal's broken leg has lowered the Hurricanes into the 30th place mix.
- Ottawa - This is the 'Woe Canada' era in the NHL and Ottawa could be in trouble this year.
- Winnipeg - Some nice pieces are in place but they've got to get decent goaltending.
- Florida - Are developing a nice team but at the end of the day, they're still the Panthers.
The 'advantage', if you will, for Calgary is the strength of the Western Conference. The Flames could have a better team than a few teams in the East yet could finish behind them in the standings.
5. Cheer Your Ass(ets) Off
So far, the arrival in Calgary of right-winger Devin Setoguchi for a mere $750,000, has been greeted with about the same adulation and support that the $470,000 giant blue ring got when it was installed on that overpass over Deerfoot Trail.
However, given his alluring resume -- eighth overall pick, only 27 years old, one 30-goal season, two more 20-goal years, he's probably not going away anywhere for a while.
If you're a Flames fan, the best case scenario is Setoguchi resuscitates his career, builds up value and makes himself a trade chip at this year's trade deadline. You're probably not going to get much for him but the more draft picks you can acquire, the more bullets you have come draft day and sometimes it's through quantity of picks that you can unearth that occasional late-round steal.
Other pending unrestricted free agents at year end, who could be flipped at some point for a draft pick (and/or prospect) include:
- LW Curtis Glencross
- G Karri Ramo
- D Raphael Diaz
- D Corey Potter
- RW Brian McGrattan
6. Closely Monitor the Core Pieces
Let's face it, there are a handful of players on the Flames season-opening roster, who will not be around when this team returns to the playoffs in a couple years. OK, maybe a couple of handfuls. You can guess who some of those veteran players are.
Meanwhile, the Flames are grooming a solid core group of young players to lead this team back to respectability. These are the guys you want to see have excellent years in 2014-15. So keep an eye on Sean Monahan, Mikael Backlund, TJ Brodie, Lance Bouma and Joe Colborne, and hope you see each of them take another giant stride forward.
Backlund, Brodie, Bouma and Colborne are also restricted free agents after this season so the incentive to perform well this year is very high for them. Backlund and Brodie in particular -- both entering the second year of modest two-year bridge contracts, could both be looking at really rich paydays next summer so we'll see if they can pick up where they left off last season.
7. Cheer on the Adirondack Flames
I noted the other day that the average age of the Flames roster to start the year is 27.6, which is the exact same as last year. Someone quipped that doesn't sound like a rebuild and while I get the point, the reality is, and what I told him, is that the rebuild is happening, just not in plain view. The construction is going on two times zones to the East in Adirondack. At some point, just like moving a house, they'll jack it up, load the rebuild on a flatbed trailer and move it to Calgary.
Before we get into what -- by Calgary standards, is an embarrassment of riches toiling for the baby Flames this season, let's do a refresher on what the Flames prospect landscape looked like not that long ago.
Here is what the Flames AHL roster looked like five years ago in 2009-10. You may want to cover your eyes. If you're in the middle of eating, grab a bucket.
There are some decent players there if journeymen are your thing, but in terms of franchise building blocks, future NHLers, there was not much there. Backlund was the lone legitimate NHL player to emerge from that entire group assembled under the watch of former Flames general manager Darryl Sutter.
On the flip-side, the Flames prospect landscape has changed significantly. If you look at Adirondack's roster this year, there are 12 Flames draft picks on it and we're not talking about 7th and 8th rounders like David Van Der Gulik and Cam Cunning. There are two first round picks in Sven Baertschi and Emile Poirier, three second round picks in Tyler Wotherspooon, Patrick Sieloff and Markus Granlund. All of the above are all highly regarded. Let's not forget about other guys packed with potential too like Bill Arnold, Max Reinhart, Michael Ferland and Brett Kulak.
There is no guarantee of immediate win-loss success with this group in Adirondack as the AHL is a man's league and you don't just stroll in there, fresh out of major junior or NCAA and dominate, that's one of the myths of the AHL. Teams with experienced players tend to rise to the top. But the baby Flames are going to have a highly skilled and exciting team to watch and as the year goes on, I'd expect the frequency of wins to only increase and by the spring, this team could be poised for a long Calder Cup run and wouldn't exposure to high-stakes playoff hockey be a good learning opportunity for the future.
8. Be the Guardian of "Always Earned, Never Given"
It was the motto we heard about all training camp -- "Always Earned, Never Given". While many fans wanted to see this concept enforced to the letter as soon as training camp wrapped up, it was not a surprise to see a guy like Setoguchi -- freshly signed to a $750,000 deal but also the most popular target of fan disdain, be given a bit more time to get his game back after going pointless and minus-2 in five pre-season games.
Given the glaring lack of scoring pop on the Flames, expect management to show some patience and provide a biggie-sized audition to Setoguchi in hopes the 27-year-old former top 10 draft pick can figure things out and resurrect his career.
But should he squander away his regular season opportunity when it comes, or if anyone else should flounder, who will 'earn' that next call-up? This will be a situation to monitor all season long.
Will it be Josh Jooris, the hard-working winger and surprise of training camp? Or, will it be Sven Baertschi that gets another shot? Perhaps it's Markus Granlund, who might well have made it anyway if not for his concussion. Along with Michael Ferland, those four are probably the front runners right now but if that call-up doesn't come until mid-November, September performance reviews aren't going to get it done alone, they'll have to keep earning their way to the top of the resume pile through their play in Adirondack's regular season games, which begin Oct. 10.
Meanwhile in Calgary, will we see opportunity and ice time go to those that 'earn' it and not be 'given' to others? It can be viewed as encouraging that it seems to have started off that way so far with Setoguchi and David Jones the two scratches for the season-opening game against the Vancouver Canucks. The scratches for the next night in Edmonton was also reassuring.
Scratching Wideman has silenced the "Always Earned, Never Given" cynics faster than the 13th man penalty in that Grey Cup hushed Rider fans.There will be several opportunities to 'earn' ice time and increased roles throughout the year. Can Matt Stajan get off the fourth line by earning a top nine role? Will Lance Bouma earn more playing time? Will Joe Colborne earn a top-six scoring role or be relegated to a checking line? Will Paul Byron earn the right to stay in the NHL and not be squeezed out by a call-up?
— Darren Haynes (@DarrenWHaynes) October 9, 2014
9. Appreciate the Small Things
If you look at salary by position, Flames forwards with a payroll of $27.4-million are ranked 30th while their goaltending duo ranks sixth with a combined salary of $7.4-million. Thus, it's no surprise that the consensus is that Calgary will struggle to score goals but will also get solid goaltending from the duo of Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo.
Anticipating a lot of 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 games, take this season as an opportunity to evolve how you watch a hockey game. While there may not be many goals scored, there are plenty of other noteworthy things happening throughout a game that will give you some insight into who is playing well, who Hartley has confidence in, etc.
Here are just a few suggestions of what else to watch for on any given night:
- Which line and defence pairing is put out against the other team's No. 1 line? How do they do? In some match-ups, a good shift isn't necessarily getting chances, it's preventing or limiting chances against.
- When Calgary gets trapped in its own end, what defence pairing is out there? What forward line is it?
- Who is sent out to take important face-offs late in a period or in the game? Are they winning them?
- If there's a 5-on-3 penalty kill, who is tasked with the responsibility of being the lone forward? You know that guy is highly trusted by the coaches.
- Are offensive players creating offence? Perhaps Gaudreau has just one shot on goal but did he set up four or five other chances that may or may not have resulted in an actual shot on goal?
- Are blocked shots coming five-on-five (i.e. A by-product of being hemmed in your own end) or are they while you're on the penalty kill, which changes the context entirely.
10. Stay Calm and Rebuild On
There are going to be points this winter where the Flames are going to drive you crazy with their play, their personnel decisions, their line combinations, their player usage, etc. A steady diet of losing and/or offensive futility is only going to cause additional wear and tear.
What you need to keep reminding yourself is that next year will be different and while that phrase may have rung hollow in seasons past, how can it not be different next year?
There are going to be some really talented players that will be arriving in Calgary next training camp, all of whom will have no intention of ever leaving. We're talking about Bennett, Poirier, Granlund, Ferland, Baertschi (if he's still in the organization), Wotherspoon and Sieloff and that's just a start.
While it will be easy to get caught up in the moment as this season unfolds, realize that how this season unfolds will have little bearing on what the expectations will be heading into next season when making the playoffs starts becoming a legitimate possibility. Could a team featuring some of that aforementioned group of talented prospects plus the likes of Gaudreau, Monahan, Backlund, Brodie and Giordano be an 8th place team in 2015-16? Why not.
So keep the big picture in mind, don't get too hung up on the current picture, and keep reminding yourself that the future remains bright and the Red Mile will be returning sooner than later.
- Always Earned, Never Given: The Challenge of Walking the Talk - The players talked about it. Bob Hartley talked about it. This year, you need to earn a job on the team because you won't have a job given to you. I exam a great slogan but the difficulties in applying it.
- Bennett, Gaudreau and Monahan: Be Excited About the Flames Bright Future - These are exciting times in Calgary and my message to all those long-suffering hockey fans is enjoy it, damn it. As you'll see from Flames trios in past years going back to 1980, Bennett, Gaudreau and Monahan make up the most exciting forward trio in over 25 years so enjoy it!
- Desperate for McDavid: 12 Things That (Mostly) Need to Happen for the Flames to Get Him - A look at a variety of scenarios that should they all/most occur this season, will make Calgary a virtual lock to land phenom Connor McDavid in the 2015 NHL Draft.
- Huska and the Role of the AHL: Preparing Players for the NHL - Johnny Gaudreau looks like he's ready. Markus Granlund says he's ready. Sam Bennett thinks he's ready. But are they? Ryan Huska explains there's more to being ready than just on-ice skills. Also, Granlund, Michael Ferland and others talk about what they've learned about the AHL.
- Meet New Flames Radio Voice Derek Wills - Derek's long journey to the NHL has been anything but easy. He's been rejected, left on the curb by Claude Julien, and in the early days -- with his Dad and Grandma paying his costs, he resorted to buying his own air time and creating his own play-by-play job. Meet Peter Maher's successor and appreciate his 20-year journey to the NHL.