NHL Preview: Defence the rock on which Flames' success will be built
Revamped net and blue line key to success amid arena distractions
This is part three of our series of season previews for the seven Canadian-based NHL teams.
TEAM: Calgary Flames
2016-17 record: 45-33-4 (94 points), 4th of 7 in Pacific Division, eliminated by Anaheim in 4 games in 1st round of playoffs
Key off-season additions: G Mike Smith, G Eddie Lack, D Travis Hamonic,
Key off-season subtractions: G Brian Elliott, G Chad Johnson, F Lance Bouma
Probability of winning the Cup*: 3.45%
Probability of making the playoffs*: 68.75%
*derived from betting odds posted by Bodog
Last season's story
In 2016-17, the Flames returned to the playoff picture, guided by new coach Glen Gulutzan.
Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan were both signed to long-term deals, giving Calgary some stability up front to complement a deep blue-line.
A slash to the left hand of Gaudreau in November required surgery to repair a fractured finger, but he was sidelined for only two and a half weeks as opposed to the possible six-week timeline that was initially feared.
Calgary had a goal differential of just plus-3 during the regular season, the lowest of any team in the West to qualify for the playoffs in 2016-17.
However, the Flames pieced together a six-game winning streak after a slow start and then caught fire to win 10 in a row beginning in late February — enough to grab a wild-card spot in the playoffs.
The Flames ran into their nemesis, the Anaheim Ducks, in the first round and were swept.
Just when it was time to start talking about line combinations and the battle for fourth-line work, attention in Calgary and around the league was squarely focused on arena negotiations that would eventually reach a standstill.
Prior to the much-publicized battle with the city over funding for a new home, the Flames had been busy taking care of their on-ice needs.
The acquisition of Mike Smith addressed the need for a No. 1 goalie and they bolstered an already strong defensive corps with the acquisition of Travis Hamonic from the New York Islanders and by re-signing Michael Stone.
A busy summer for the Flames also included re-signing forwards Michael Ferland and Sam Bennett as well as Curtis Lazar, who was acquired at the trade deadline. Eddie Lack was also acquired to shore up the goaltending tandem with prospect Jon Gillies knocking on the door.
Take a bow, <a href="https://twitter.com/JGillies32">@JGillies32</a> ... wow. <a href="https://t.co/KShze9f6EF">pic.twitter.com/KShze9f6EF</a>—@NHLFlames
The Flames were 17th in goals against average last season at 2.67, but surely that stands to be lowered with the tandem of Smith and Lack providing stability in net and a defensive unit that is six deep and headlined by Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton, T.J. Brodie and Hamonic.
Smith faced his former team in the pre-season and beforehand told told NHL.com that would allow him to move on quickly and focus on his future with the Flames.
Three strong defensive pairings, firepower on offence from the likes of Gaudreau and Monahan, and greater contributions from Bennett and Lazar will allow Calgary to keep pace with provincial rival Edmonton in a stacked Pacific Division.
“We just have to believe in our system - when we play (within) it, it works.” - Mark Giordano on getting off to a strong start this season <a href="https://t.co/noQFYlixxG">pic.twitter.com/noQFYlixxG</a>—@NHLFlames
It has been a strange start to the 2000s for the Flames. They made it to the Stanley Cup final in 2004, starting a stretch of five consecutive playoff appearances. Calgary was on the outside looking in for the following five seasons, before reaching the post-season in two of the past three years.
Calgary was swept by the Anaheim Ducks last season, but three of those games were decided by one goal. Factoring in the experience gained from that series and the improvements made to the roster, the Flames just might be built for a deeper run this season.
The Flames appear set with their top lines, but the club will also have to hope that young forwards Lazar and Bennett take a step forward.
Like any club searching for consistency in net, the Flames could find themselves fighting an uphill battle this season if Smith can't deliver.
The season could go off the rails fast for the Flames if they struggle out of the gate. Winning is always the best distraction, but if the losses pile up and a new arena can't be secured, the talk will quickly shift to the fate of the team's future in Calgary.