2015 NHL Playoffs, The Calgary Learning Curve

Last October, many people wouldn’t have expected to see the Calgary Flames even fighting for a playoff spot – let alone making a postseason push. Now that’s not to say they haven’t built a great team, but the experience and youth that the club put on the ice just wasn’t at the level expected from playoff-bound franchises.

However, to some extent, the lack of experience was more defining of this year’s team than was first expected. The 2014-15 edition of the Calgary Flames was a group of young players who simply didn’t want to lose – and some would argue that, for the most part, they didn’t know how to lose.

Regardless of how you look at the overall outcome of the Flames’ season, one thing shouldn’t be ignored. The Calgary Flames are on their way to becoming a top-end team in the Western Conference.

Jiri Hudler, Calgary Flames, Sean Monahan, NHL, Hockey
Sean Monahan, Jiri Hudler and Johnny Gaudreau led by example in 2014-15. (Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

The Flames’ First Step

It was like seeing a kid walk for the first time – watching the young Flames’ journey to the 2015 NHL Playoffs. Their top line finished the regular season sitting first to third in team scoring as 31-year-old Jiri Hudler led his young line mates Johnny Gaudreau (21) and Sean Monahan (20) on their way to career years.

While the team entered the season with Jonas Hiller as their number one goaltender, it proved helpful to have a strong – and somewhat surprising – backup in Karri Ramo. Together, the two led the team to a 41-28-7 record, combining for a .916 save percentage and a 2.45 goals against average.

But it wasn’t always good news for the Flames this season. In fact, had the team not lost their captain with roughly 20 games left in the season, it’s quite possible they could’ve put up more of a fight against the Anaheim Ducks in the second round of the playoffs.

When Mark Giordano went down with a torn bicep tendon, the Flames blueliner was on the verger of a breakout season. Even at the age of 31, Giordano recorded 11 goals and a career-high 48 points in just 61 games.

But with the injury to their top defenceman, the Flames backend was forced to come together and replace their captain – a job that certainly wasn’t an easy one.

“Defencemen Dennis Wideman and Kris Russell [were] averaging 28 minutes a game in Giordano’s absence, big increases from their previous workload,” wrote Stephen Whyno in mid-March.

But the Flames overcame the injury to their captain and played well enough to finish third in the Pacific Division and earn themselves a first-round matchup with fellow Canadian team – the Vancouver Canucks.

More Than Just Playoffs

For the first time since 2008-2009 – and the first time since Jarome Iginla left – there was playoff hockey in Calgary. The ‘Red Mile’ was alive and the young Flames were showing no sign of slowing down. They found a way to overcome a much more experience Canucks in just six games in the first round, but it was their second round matchup that would end up being the real test.

Heading into the second round, a lot of the focus was on the Flames inability to win in Anaheim. After all, the team had lost 20 games in a row heading into Game 1 – a streak that extended to 23 with losses in Games 1, 2, and 5.

Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames, NHL, Hockey
Mark Giordano was a huge loss for the Flames, but continues to lead a young team. (Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports)

But the playoffs were more than just playoffs to the Flames. It was a chance for the young franchise to gain experience. It was a chance for them to come together as underdogs in every game they laced up for.

As Mark Spector writes, “They didn’t win, but they surely didn’t lose in the big picture. They have an identity, a fantastic, charismatic coach in Bob Hartley, and as many budding stars as the team up the road in Alberta.”

While the present isn’t exactly what the Flames would’ve hoped for, the future is certainly a bright spot for this Canadian franchise.

Looking Ahead for the Calgary Flames

Johnny Gaudreau. Sean Monahan. Sam Bennett. That’s not the last time you’re going to hear these names. At 21, Gaudreau is a Calder trophy finalist. He played 80 games for the Flames in the regular season scoring 64 points (24g-40a) in his rookie season. He also added nine points (4g-5a) in just 11 playoff games.

Monahan, who’s only 20 years old, played in 81 games this season – finishing just below the Gaudreau in team scoring with 62 points (31g-31a). While his playoffs weren’t as successful as his linemates, it was a growing experience for the young forward in his second full season with the Flames.

Sam Bennett, 18, started the season injured and therefore only played one regular season game, but found a way to impress come playoff time. While he recorded four points (3g-1a) in 11 games in the postseason, he showed glimpses of the skill that got him drafted so high in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft.

But the excitement of what is yet to come doesn’t stop there. The Flames have just eight players over the age of 30 on their roster. Players like Drew Shore (24), Josh Jooris (24), TJ Brodie (24) and Markus Granlund (22) have a lot to offer a team on the brink of perennial playoff appearances.

While they won’t live up to the same hype as the Gaudreau-Monahan-Bennett trio, these players are exactly what the Flames will need if they are to build a strong, deep team looking to make deep playoff pushes in the years to come.

Regardless of this year’s outcome, have learned what it will take to come out of the NHL’s Western Conference. The team’s gained valuable experience and it will be fun to watch as this young franchise takes the next step in building a strong NHL club.

For more, follow Andrew on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes or his THW column at @Tape2TapeTHW.