When the Calgary Flames shipped Jarome Iginla to the Pittsburgh Penguins on March 27, 2013, it signified the beginning of what many anticipated would be a lengthy rebuild in Alberta.
After years of wallowing in hockey mediocrity — not quite good enough to make the playoffs, but not quite bad enough to stockpile high-end picks — the front office finally made one of the hardest decisions to make in sports: admit who you are, take a step back and start pushing to be consistently better in the future.
The next season was predictably rough, as the Flames finished with the fourth-worst record in the NHL. But they shocked everyone by shooting all the way up the standings and into the second round of the playoffs the following year. They came crashing right back down to earth in the 2015-16 campaign though, landing ahead of just four clubs in the standings.
As it turns out, they may have even shocked themselves with that rapid ascent in 2015. But they stayed true to their long-term plan of looking at the big picture, rather than throwing everything out the window and playing for the present. And that could be paying off for them soon.
Very soon, in fact.
One quick glance at the final standings from this past season shows eight playoff teams from the Western Conference who are pretty unlikely to drop into the lottery in 2017. So it’s not like the task of making it into the postseason is going to be easy for a club like Calgary, who was on the outside looking in last April.
But it’s also worth noting that three teams who didn’t qualify in 2015 made it in 2016. And four clubs who missed out in 2014 broke through in 2015. Even when it doesn’t seem likely on paper, nearly half of the playoff teams from the West have been new from year to year lately.
With that in mind, expectations are going to rise for a team like the Flames when October rolls around. The fans in Calgary bought into the rebuild about as well as you could ever hope a hockey-hungry community to.
But it’s been three years now. While that alone might not be long enough to just assume a young team is on the rise, this particular group is giving people a lot of reasons to be excited.
First and foremost, there’s the raw talent up front. Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau are quite the duo to build around. Last season, they combined for 57 goals and 141 points — and just 43 years of age.
That’s a great starting point, and the Flames had to work for it. They nabbed Monahan with the No. 6 overall pick just months after dealing away Iginla, and they stole Gaudreau with pick No. 104 in 2011.
Sam Bennett is another high-end prospect on the rise, and now Matthew Tkachuk is in the mix as well. It’s undeniable that Calgary has impressive skill that only figures to get better with more experience. But that’s not the only reason for the fans to be optimistic.
That’s because Flames have quietly built up one of the better blue lines in all of hockey.
It would have been interesting if the Canucks had done what most people expected and taken Tkachuk with the No. 5 pick in the draft last month. At that point, a potentially elite defenseman like Olli Juolevi would’ve been on the board — but Calgary really doesn’t need help on the back end. At least not to the extent that 90 percent of the other clubs around the NHL seem to need it.
Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and the sneaky acquisition of Dougie Hamilton last summer gives the Flames a real nice core of defenders to work with. And now they’ve added a proven goalie in Brian Elliott, and a vet up front with plenty of big game experience in Troy Brouwer this summer.
With any luck, Brouwer can pass some of that big game experience on to the youngsters — both through his words, and by potentially helping them get to some big games of their own.
Joe Colborne is the main player that the organization loses from a year ago, but, while he was a nice contributor, he’s not irreplaceable. So they’ve essentially taken this young nucleus and only added pieces to it in the months since the season ended. Key pieces.
It’s entirely possible that Tkachuk spends another year shredding the OHL with London. Or maybe he steps right in and adds a whole new element up front. Even if he does have to wait a year or two to make an impact at the NHL level, Calgary has upgraded in net — and that’s the most important position of all.
If Elliott plays close to the way he did at times last year with the Blues, the Flames will be in a lot more closer games. And that will set the stage for all those points from Monahan and Gaudreau to become even more valuable.