By Rob Ficiur
The 2014-15 Calgary Flames finished 16th overall in the NHL and made the playoffs for the first time in six years. The twenty point improvement over last year was a surprise to everyone (except the team itself). A second round playoff lost was disappointing, but for good reasons Flames Fans are looking forward to better things in the 2015-2016 season. Here’s why:
1. Youthful stars – During this season two prospects moved to the level of stars in the NHL. Last year rookie center Sean Monahan had 22 goals and 11 assists. This year finished with 31 goals and 31 assists. Both of those numbers are indicative of the star potential being realized. Rookie winger Johnny Gaudreau exceeded expectations by scoring 24 goals and 40 assists. Championship contenders have elite forwards who work together and become better than they would be on their own. The Flames have two great ones that have proven they can play.
2. Too many goalies – The season ended with Kari Ramo starting the last four games of the Anaheim series. Throughout the season Jonas Hiller had a better goals against average and save percentage. Hiller won 26 games in 44 starts while Ramo won 15 in 32 starts. These two would be a great tandem again next year except that rookie Joni Ortio might be better than either of the veterans. In six NHL games Ortio was 4-2. After starring in the AHL, Ortio has earned a chance to play in the NHL. Too many goalies is a problem many teams wish they would have. Whatever way they go the Flames look solid in the net next year.
HOWEVER – History has shown that teams making a sudden rise in the standings one year often slip back to their losing ways. The Colorado Avalanche is a team the Flames don’t want to emulate. In 2012 and 2013 the Avalanche missed the playoffs with 88 and 66 points respectively. (2013 lockout numbers pro-rated for a full season.) Last year, like Calgary this year, no one expected the lowly Avalanche to earn 112 points and win their division. This year the Avalanche fell back to their 2012 level with 90 points. Repeating a successful season is not a given in the competitive NHL.
3. Work ethic leads to Come Back Flames motto. This year the Calgary Flames lead the NHL with 13 wins in games they were losing after the first period. They were third in the NHL with 10 wins when they were losing after two periods. Three of their five playoff wins came in games when they were losing after three periods. Take away half of those first period comebacks and the Flames finish with 82 points a dozen out of a playoff spot. Take away the comeback wins in the playoffs and went out of the first round with minimal fight. These comebacks came from a work ethic and a belief that the team can make up the difference no matter what the score. In 2013-14 the Flames showed a work ethic that did not produce the desired results. This year the fruit of hard work show what is possible.
The Flames won’t surprise anyone next season so they will need that same work ethic. (Might be a good idea to not spot so many leads – coming back is hard work).
4. Veteran Leadership – Flames captain Mark Giordano emerged as an elite defenseman and on ice leader. The second year captain was having a Norris Trophy season before being injured in February. Other veterans took on new leadership rolls. Once a journey man defenseman, Kris Russell lead the NHL in blocked shots. Dennis Wideman, acquired for his power play abilities was tied for 6th in blocked shots. TJ Brodie was 11th in the NHL averaging 25:12 minutes per game.
HOWEVER – Depth forward scoring is badly needed. After the Flames first line the Flames forwards production dropped off dramatically. Hudler-Monahan-Gaudreau had 31-31-24 goals respectively. The next three forwards were Lane Bouma- David Jones and Mason Raymond with 16-14-12 goals. Raymond was scratched for three playoff games. Sixteen is a career high for Bouma – so you can’t count on it for next year. Forwards Sam Bennett, Michael Ferlund scored in the playoffs, can that momentum carry to next regular season? Since the Flames won’t surprise anyone next year an effective scoring second line needs to develop.
5. The 2014-2015 Flames over-came low expectations (from media) injuries to key players (captain Mark Giordano), a ten game losing streak in December, and more to win their first playoff series in a decade. Flames fans have good reason to look forward to watching the Flames take another step up next season.