NHL

Calgary Flames never able to overcome slow start in disappointing season

A bad start to the season and too many goals against were two recurring themes on Monday as the Calgary Flames addressed what went wrong this season.

Goaltending will be a major off-season focus

Jonas Hiller's league-worst save percentage of .879 [minimum 25 games] was indicative of the poor goaltending the Calgary Flames endured this season. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

A bad start to the season and too many goals against were two recurring themes on Monday as the Calgary Flames addressed what went wrong this season.

The sting of missing the playoffs was evident as players packed up their stuff for summer, one month earlier than a year ago.

After surprising many by making the playoffs in 2014-15 and then beating Vancouver in the first round, Calgary took a step back this season, finishing 26th overall. The Flames' 77 points were 20 fewer than a year ago.

"It's not good and there's no excuses why we're here. It's on us, we know we have to be better and this is something we learn from," said Sean Monahan, who set a career-high with 63 points. "Going home in April and the season being over is definitely not a good feeling and it's going to sting all summer."

High-profile acquisitions not enough

The regression came despite three high-profile, off-season additions. Defenceman Dougie Hamilton was acquired from the Boston Bruins at the draft, Michael Frolik was signed as a free agent and Sam Bennett had a breakout rookie season.

The problems started immediately. Calgary stumbled out of the gate, losing its season opener to Vancouver on the way to a 2-8-1 start. The Flames were never able to climb out of that hole.

"Last year, our start gave us a push," said coach Bob Hartley. "This year, our start created a doubt. I don't think it was a case of us not working hard enough, it was trying to do too much."

Needing everything to go right as they fell behind in the Western Conference, Calgary found its luck drying up. After setting a franchise record with 10 third-period comebacks last year, the Flames were only able to pull that rabbit out of a hat four times this season.

"Last year, everything just aligned. This year, we maybe took that for granted a little bit. Came in a little too comfortable. We were guilty of maybe being a little complacent at the start and it cost us," said veteran centre Matt Stajan.

Goaltending an off-season priority

The other hot topic and problematic area was goaltending. Calgary ranked 30th in the league with 257 goals against.

The team began the season with the awkward situation of three goalies all on one-way contracts. Karri Ramo and Joni Ortio both ended up waived at different times and sent to the minors. Veteran Jonas Hiller also struggled, his .879 save percentage the worst in the NHL in the last decade (25 games minimum).

"Our start wasn't very good and our goalies took a lot of blame for that but we weren't good enough defensively," said captain Mark Giordano. "We were giving up quality chances in the slot. I don't think any goalie's numbers are going to look good with some of the chances we were giving up."

Goaltenders are one of the priorities for general manager Brad Treliving. He confirmed that Hiller will not be back, but the door is still open for Ramo, an unrestricted free agent and Ortio, a restricted free agent.

Ramo suffered a season-ending knee injury in February and Ortio played well down the stretch.

"I think I at least earned the right to be considered as one and be considered an option going forward," said Ortio.

Niklas Backstrom joined the team from Minnesota at the trade deadline. He made three starts in what could be his swan song in the NHL.

"NHL is probably a long stretch for me," said Backstrom, 38, who wouldn't divulge any more. "But I still feel I want to play. I still feel I have the hunger to do the work on the ice and off the ice."

Players will have to settle for individual successes

There was plenty of personal success. Johnny Gaudreau finished tied for sixth in scoring in his sophmore season. Others with career years points-wise included TJ Brodie, Giordano, Hamilton, Monahan, Mikael Backlund and Joe Colborne.

Colborne's situation is an interesting one. Having never scored more than 10 goals previously, he scored 19 with a career-high 44 points. However, nine of the goals came in the season's final 18 games.

"Those are dangerous evaluation games when there's zero on the line," said Treliving, addressing the team's 9-6-3 finish.

More pressing matters for Treliving are the negotiations with restricted free agents Monahan and Gaudreau, who are both due for hefty raises.

There's been speculation that maybe the two will get matching deals, like what Edmonton has done with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle.

"We have different agents so they probably don't see eye to eye, they probably think their player should deserve more," said Gaudreau with a smile. "Me and Sean, we love playing together. We love being in the city of Calgary. If it was up to us, I think we would just sign the same deal and get back after it next season."

While several Flames were asked by their respective countries if they would play in the world championships, the only one that has accepted is Backlund, who will join Sweden for the tournament in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia.

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