Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Flames Keep Getting Better, Expectations Keep Getting Greater

The 2015-16 NHL season in Calgary is going to be different.

Really different.

Not necessarily in a bad way, mind you. In fact, it should be different in a very good way. But the season, this team, there's just going to be a different feel.

Last year's Flames had a unique charm about them that we won't see again in this city for a very long time, if ever. They were an adorable, easy-to-root for, hard-working bunch that rolled up their sleeves and went balls to the wall every game. What they lacked in overall skill, they made up for in try and heart.

Last Year's Likeable Lot

There were multiple contributors to the charm of the overachieving 2014-15 team.

First, there were the club's many effervescent personalities. To name just a handful, there was coach Bob Hartley with his daily quips. little Johnny Gaudreau with those cheeks that every grandma wanted to reach out and pinch, Jiri Hudler and his impish grin, the battered and bruised shot blocking extraordinaire Kris Russell, and leading the gang was the always engaging captain, the Mr. Everything, Mark Giordano.

Secondly, there was their entertaining style of play. Fast and physical on the forecheck, quick transitions up the ice, defence continually jumping up into the rush. Sure, there were also countless fire drills in their own end but more often than not, they somehow found a way to survive and hey, there's nothing more exciting than sheer panic and angst. Of course, who could forget how exhilarating it was to watch their never-say-die third periods that made every final 20 minutes an endless ride on a heart-stopping roller-coaster.

However, colourful characters and thrilling action aside, the biggest part of their charm was their unexpected success. Calgary was the underdog team that overcame long odds. The Flames were the nerds that kept finding a way to defeat the jocks.

To start the year, the Flames were dismissed and kicked to the curb by almost everybody. Most predicted they would finish in the bottom three overall. The odds of ending up with Connor McDavid were better than making the Stanley Cup playoffs. Personally, I had them finishing 27th as a best-case scenario.

As Calgary kept winning, they became the subject of much scorn from the burgeoning advanced stats community for defying all statistical logic and winning games despite being badly outplayed. They rarely had the puck it seemed, yet it rarely seemed to matter. As the victories piled up, it galvanized the fan base, who embraced their inexplicable success and rallied against the Corsi advocates determined to discredit them.

In the end, it was a magical year in which veterans like Lance Bouma and Dennis Wideman had career seasons, unheralded guys like Josh Jooris had breakout years, and even a guy like Deryk Engelland, who had legions of critics, eventually won over many of his doubters.

Heightened Expectations

When you win when you're not supposed to, those wins taste extra sweet. You savour them and you celebrate them. But that was last year's team.

That season, that team, that's long gone now. Suddenly -- in the span of five days -- the expectations have been raised and raised significantly.

Expectations were always going to go up this season anyway because regardless of how narrowly Calgary squeaked into the playoffs last year, when you go two rounds and make it to the final eight, there are expectations that accompany that.

But now those expectations for this season have gone up exponentially after these two very significant acquisitions.
  • Dougie Hamilton, acquired from Boston on Friday, comes in as the team's highest paid player making $5.75 million annually on a six-year deal. Sure, he's only 22, but it's not his birth certificate that will be judged, it will be his on-ice performance and it will be scrutinized heavily given his monthly stipend.
  • Today, another big acquisition was made in the signing of free agent right-winger Michael Frolik to a five-year deal for an average annual value of $4.3 million. It wasn't a bumper crop of UFAs this summer but for me, Frolik -- 10th overall pick by Florida in 2006 -- was the best forward available and now he needs to live up to that hype and validate his rich deal.

"We want to be in a situation where more is expected," said general manager Brad Treliving on Wednesday afternoon. "When you take a good player like Dougie and you add him to a defence that has good players, the expectation is the group is going to be better."

When I asked how his expectations have now changed, Treliving didn't get into specifics in terms of standings or anything like that, but when you add two pieces like that to a team coming off a season in which they made the post-season, making the playoffs again will be the baseline for where expectations begin this year.

"We told our team this at locker clean-out day. I talked about how we all have to be better and it starts with me," Treliving said. "What we accomplished was nice but ultimately it was just a step. The fact that we had the season we had is going to raise expectations, that's just human nature and we can't shy away from those."

Organic Improvement

In addition to the new personnel, expectations for this season were naturally going to rise anyway given all the talented young players on the team that are at the stage of their career in which they should only be getting better.
  • Gaudreau scored 24 goals as a rookie, can he score 30?
  • Monahan scored 31 goals as a sophomore, can he score 35?
  • Lance Bouma went from 5 goals to 16, can he repeat that?
  • Can Micheal Ferland and Sam Bennett pick up where they left off in the playoffs?
  • TJ Brodie and Mikael Backlund have gone from making $2.125 million and $1.5 million respectively to cap hits of $4.65 million and $3.575 million. Can they keep getting better?
  • Karri Ramo re-signed for $3.8 million after making $2.75 million the past two seasons. Will he be more consistent? 

Fair or not, the bar gets raised when you have a good season both for the team and the individuals. Where bad seasons are dismissed as blips, good seasons become the new standard to which performance is measured.

"This is what happens when you want to be good. There's more expected and there is more pressure," said Treliving. "We have to start living like a team that wants to be good."

A Game-Changing Summer

Coaches and managers on every NHL team say the same thing every year. "We expect to win," they'll solemnly declare. "This season will not be a success if we don't make the playoffs." Treliving and Hartley were consistent with that message leading up to and throughout last season and while I rolled my eyes when I heard it in September, what else are they going to say?

You just have to know that with expectations also comes a dose of reality, whether it's admitted publicly or not. Why did Hartley win the Jack Adams Award last year despite barely making the playoffs? Because that's how little was expected in reality from last year's team.

However, with these two moves the Flames have made in the last week -- the addition of $10 million worth of salary to the team payroll, the expectation to win in this city just got very real, very fast. This time when I hear, "We expect to win" this September, there will be no snickering.

The pressure on this team this year will be greater than it was a year ago. Calgary has transitioned into a new phase in the rebuild where expectations are higher, criticism will be sharper, and tolerance will be less. Close losses won't cut it. Constantly falling behind won't cut it. Losing streaks won't cut it. And most importantly, not making the playoffs won't cut it, nor should it.

With the depth of this defence core, with the a team payroll suddenly much closer to the cap ceiling than the cap floor, this has been a game-changing summer.

"I think those expectations are a good thing," said Treliving. "To me, that means you found good people and the people you already have, have had success so there should be expectations."

Will the pressure to win make this season any less entertaining? It shouldn't. I doubt fans will complain if Calgary spends more time in the offensive zone firing pucks on net and less time chasing around their own end. It will just be different... and if all goes well, much easier on your heart and on your fingernails.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.


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1 comment:

  1. See, I can see why the expectations will be higher, but higher than what? As you say, last season, most Flames fans expected to finish in the bottom 5 finish. Sure, there were some who felt we would do better. But whatever your expectations, I think we can all agree that last years group overachieved massively to get into the 2nd round of the play offs and thats still probably selling it short. Last years roster and management were supposed to finish 27th at best. Signing Hamilton and Frolik will obviously raise expectations, but we'll still have almost all of the overachieving core pieces from last season, regardless of those additions. They haven't suddenly turned into a play off lock roster after 1 good season.

    For me, a realistic expectation of the team, should everything go to plan, is to once again compete for the play offs. I don't feel yet though like we are at a level where the play offs are the minimum achievement and missing out on them this year constitutes a failure, regardless of what the management expect and declare in interviews.

    I'm not a subscriber to all these advanced stats lovers who say "Corsi says you'll regress, so thats what will happen for sure, look, it happened with Colorado and Toronto", but at the same time, its going to be very hard to repeat last years success. Teams will be out to shutdown the JG-SM-JH line. Teams will pay more attention to Gio and Brodie. Teams will not underestimate us as so many did last season. I don't see teams racing into 2,3 and 4 goal leads against us only to surrender them on a regular basis.

    I think the expectations from the fans should be to just enjoy the ride. Don't go into the season expecting another play off spot and another series win(or more). Don't expect our top line to exceed their points totals or for Gio to have another Norris worthy year etc. Don't expect us to suddenly dominate games either.

    So many factors say we'll regress(ignoring advanced stats as well) and so many factors say we can do just as well, if not better, than last season. I just hope the roster and management are ready for the raised expectations and can cope with that pressure for the first time.