It wasn't Calgary's most successful season, they've been to the Stanley Cup final three times before.
It wasn't the Flames most dominant season, they were a franchise-best 54-17-9 in 1988-89 including a 32-4-4 at the Saddledome.
But in terms of heart-stopping, edge-of-your-seat, high-five-a-stranger calibre of entertainment, it's got to be near the top, if not at the very top.
Heck, I get paid to be at the games and there have been many seasons over the last decade-and-a-half in particular where most nights even I felt ripped off. But not this year. Rarely this season did a fan head to the Saddledome and not get full entertainment value.
In the first of a two-part recap of the 2014-15 season (Part 2 - Ten Storylines That Defined the Year can be read here), I begin with a look at 10 players that made an impact this season. This isn't Calgary's 10 most valuable players. If it was, Mark Giordano would be at the top of the list. More so, it's 10 players meeting my own fairly loose criteria of guys that took bigger strides than I expected, caught my eye or had a bounce-back season.
Ten Players That Made an Impact
1. Johnny B. Really Goode
Just think, Johnny Gaudreau could have played for Boston College this season. And after starting the season with no points in five games and spending game six as a healthy scratch, it looked like maybe he would end up playing in Adirondack for a while.
But coach Bob Hartley stuck with the kid and once he got back in the line-up, the barely-5-foot-9 constant highlight reel never came out with Hartley heaping more and more ice time on his shoulders as the season went on. Gaudreau ended up tied with Ottawa's Mark Stone for the rookie scoring lead with 64 points and is a finalist for the Calder for top rookie. He added nine more points in the playoffs and four times Mr. Clutch scored with the Flames goalie pulled for an extra attacker.
Gaudreau is as creative a player as the Flames have had in 25 years and this was only year one. Going back eight months to when he put on a show in Penticton at the Young Stars tournament, who knew his season wouldn't end until mid-May after playing a total of exactly 100 hockey games (including Penticton and the pre-season). This comes one year after he topped out at 49 games. It was very impressive production for someone whose workload doubled. Heck, it was darn impressive without that qualifier.
2. Exciting Year for Boring Monahan
If you asked back in September, many would have said they'd be perfectly content if Sean Monahan simply repeated his numbers from his 2013-14 rookie season when he notched 22 goals. Well, there would be no sophomore jinx, that's for sure. Instead, the Flames sixth overall pick in 2013 stood out from the rest of his draft class by sniping 31 goals.
Put together as a line in early February, Monahan, Gaudreau and Jiri Hudler pretty much stayed together from that point forward and were the hottest line in the NHL over the final two months of the season.
On the season, Monahan averaged 19:37 in ice time, most of all Calgary forwards and over 90 seconds more than the next guy on the list (Jiri Hudler, 18:00). It's easy to forget with the heavy workload Hartley gave him that when next season begins, he'll still only be 20 years old.
Monahan's ability to score the big goal is another reputation he is starting to forge for himself. This season, nearly half of his goals (15) came in the third period or overtime and his eight game-winning goals were tied for third in the league behind Alex Ovechkin (11) and Max Pacioretty (10).
3. Ferland Crashes onto the Scene
The potential to be an impactful all-round player was always there for Micheal Ferland. The toughness he had in spades -- just search for "Ferland" on YouTube for some of his finer moments. He's a big, thick kid at 6-foot-1, 225 pounds. You got a taste of his offensive upside when in his final full season of major junior, he scored 47 goals in 68 games for Brandon. Plus, he's smart.
It seemed Ferland realized all of this potential all-of-a-sudden in the opening round playoff series against Vancouver in which he was a human wrecking ball while also contributing a couple goals. He had 40 hits in the six games against the Canucks, winning him praise city-wide. While it won't be his number next season (FYI - His Wheat Kings number was 27), it didn't stop rabid fans, who just had to have a No. 79 Ferland jersey and there were plenty of them flying off store shelves.
The best part of the story though is he did it all after turning his life around and overcoming a booze problem. Ferland's inspiring story came to light late in the regular season when the 23-year-old proudly announced he was celebrating one year of sobriety.
4. Jooris out of Nowhere
Was there a player on this year's team that better epitomized Calgary's unexpected success than Josh Jooris? Undrafted, a late bloomer signed less than two years ago by the Flames at age 23 after three years at Union College, Jooris' pro career started off innocuously enough scoring 11 goals over a full season with Abbotsford in the AHL. This year, Jooris first put himself on the map by standing out in Penticton at the Young Stars tournament. He followed that up with a strong NHL pre-season.
The shirts the players wore at training camp read 'Always earned, never given', a slogan that became one of the mottos of the season. Jooris was a prime example of that philosophy in action. His body of work in September bumped him to the top of the AHL call-up list and when that call came early in October, Jooris joined Calgary and never looked back, staying in the NHL all season and scoring 12 goals and picking up 24 points.
5. Bennett Barges Way Into the Line-up
They kept Sam Bennett out of the NHL line-up as long as they could. After rehabbing from shoulder surgery, they sent the 18-year-old back to the OHL to re-join Kingston where he lit the league on fire with 11 goals and 24 points in 11 games.
When the Frontenacs were ousted in the first round of the playoffs, Bennett re-joined Calgary and waited. Then he practised and he waited some more. The Flames patiently waited for the right time for his NHL debut, which finally came in a meaningless game in Winnipeg to close out the regular season. Did I say meaningless? Well, maybe not. That afternoon, Bennett showed enough that Hartley decided to make him a part of his playoff line-up at the expense of Mason Raymond. Not surprisingly, he would never come back out and thanks to Calgary advancing to the second round, that resulted in the burning of the first year of Bennett's entry-level contract although as I wrote here, that's not necessarily the doom and gloom scenario that some make it out to be.
Throughout the playoffs, Bennett was one of Calgary's better forwards operating on an effective line with Mikael Backlund and Joe Colborne, The configurations got shuffled come games 4 and 5 in the Ducks series to get Lance Bouma and Ferland back in the line-up and perhaps to Calgary's detriment, Bennett was dropped to the fourth line with Mason Raymond and Brandon Bollig. It may be the only time Bennett will be a fourth liner in his NHL career. He is going to be a star in this league and I'd expect a big rookie season from him.
6. Brodie's Career Taking Off
First in on the forecheck. First back on the backcheck. Repeat.
What a player TJ Brodie has become, effortlessly skating miles every night and always poised and never in a panic when the puck's on his stick. His ability to evade a pressure forecheck with his nonchalent tight turn is pure art. For two-thirds of the season, he formed one of the league's best D pairings alongside Mark Giordano. As a left-handed shot playing on the right side, it's not easy but he makes it look that way.
When Giordano went down, it was a big change. First, Brodie shuffled back to his natural side although when you haven't played that side for a few years, it's not exactly 'natural'. In doing so, he picked up Deryk Engelland as his defence partner. You've heard the expression, "Even their similarities were different." Well, no disrespect to Engelland but the phrase applies here in comparing Brodie's old partner to his new partner.
Suddenly, if Brodie jumped up into the rush as instinctively he'd normally do, he had to worry about leaving Engelland as the lone guy back. Think of it this way. As a parent when you go on vacation, it's just different if you leave your fourth-year university student at home versus your kid who just turned 16. The change obviously created a drag on how dynamic Brodie could be, as well as influenced which end of the ice he spent a majority of his time in. That said, testament to Brodie's overall abilities was how serviceable Engelland became over that period in raising his average ice time by over seven minutes and adequately taking on a much bigger role.
7. Maturing of Russell
Watching Kris Russell try to defend Ryan Getzlaf last series was like watching a steer wrestler and given his rodeo background (he owns a bull named 'Red Mile'), it should surprise no one that the Russell would be pretty good on the rodeo tour as he fared OK all things considered when forced into that unenviable battle, in which he gives up six inches and 45 pounds to the talented Ducks captain.
Nobody has ever billed Russell as a top pairing NHL defencemen, you don't get that calibre of player in a trade for a fifth round draft pick like the Flames dealt in adding him from St. Louis a few years back. Yet thrust into that role unexpectedly for the final two-and-a-half months of the season, he performed admirably alongside Dennis Wideman on the second pairing-turned-first pairing that logged upwards of 27 minutes seemingly every game.
This season, the 28-year-old had a letter added to his jersey and not unlike the transformation that happened when Giordano got the 'C' one year prior, the selection of Russell as an alternate captain brought out the best in him as a player and person. Undersized nearly every time he's on the ice, he made up for it with his quickness and determination, never mind his fearless commitment in setting a NHL record with 283 blocked shots. Off the ice, he took on more of a leadership role, became more personable with the media and became a voice frequently heard after games in post-game interviews. Russell was Calgary's Masterton nominee for his dedication to the game and its his DNA that the Flames pattern themselves off.
8. Bouma Breaks Out
Two goals fewer than Sidney Crosby, Joe Pavelski and Jordan Eberle. One back of Phil Kessel, Jeff Carter and Ryan Johansen. Even with Marian Gaborik, Mike Cammalleri and Daniel Sedin. When it came to even-strength goals, Lance Bouma's 16 -- as the above list would suggest -- was perhaps as unexpected as anything that happened with the Flames this season. Remember, Bouma had scored only six goals in 121 NHL games prior to this season.
Add in his 264 hits, which was 7th in the NHL (and on a pace to finish top four if he doesn't miss the last part of the season to injury) and his willingness to selflessly throw any body part in front of shots and you have a player made up of leadership material, who garnered a cult-like following for his improbable clutch scoring (four game-winning goals) and rambunctious style, all in a season he made a mere $775,000, which was less than every Flames regular other than Paul Byron and Raphael Diaz.
9. Hudler's Huge Season
What a year for Jiri Hudler, who led the NHL in even-strength points with 60, one more than Jamie Benn, five more than Ryan Getalaf, six up on John Tavares and seven better than Sidney Crosby. This is no small accomplishment. It's the Art Ross Trophy, only better in my eyes as it's without being aided by cheap goals that come on the man advantage. Overall, Hudler's 31 goals and 76 points were career highs and also led the team.
Hudler's importance came on and off the ice. On it, he was the team's MVP over the final two months after Giordano's injury. In being named the NHL's second star of the month for March in collecting 23 points in 15 games, he had nine multi-point games. It was the second-most point in a month for a Flames player in the last 20 years.
Just as important as his contributions off the ice was his responsibilities off it as he was given the task of mentoring two of Calgary's brightest stars in linemates Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau. As the wise old veteran playing with the couple of young pups, Hudler thrived with the added responsibility and became not just one of the Flames top players, but also one of the NHL's best -- mischievous grin and all.
10. Rejuvenated Wideman
For the longest time, the $5.25-million Dennis Wideman is earning annually as the club's highest paid player was the subject of much criticism. In his first two seasons, people felt he did not play anywhere near the level one would expect from a player collecting that big of a cheque. The most redeeming part of his game in some pundits' opinion was the fact he shoots right.
It would be a bounce-back season for Wideman, although the rebound did not start immediately. Bob Hartley scratched him in the second game of the season. But he got going after that and ended up putting up the best offensive numbers of his 10-year career. Sixth in the NHL with 16 goals, fourth with 56 points, Wideman was a huge piece of the very effective style of play Hartley had the team playing, which hinged greatly on the defencemen, counted on to quickly distribute the puck up ice and also to join the rush as a second wave of attack.
Not only was Wideman a big part of the offence, he took on a bigger role in the dressing room as a veteran presence, who brought some levity to the team with his dry sense of humour, perhaps best exemplified by his memorable cell phone prank on the media on trade deadline day.
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