The post-Jarome Iginla era began last season for the Calgary Flames. In their first full season without their long-time captain, the Flames transitioned to a new era and a new identity. After over a decade with Iginla as captain and “going for it” as a mantra, the club named Mark Giordano as the new captain and abandoned their star-studded roster for more of a blue-collar, by-committee approach to the game.
While the club still finished 27th overall in the league – and were rewarded with 4th overall pick Sam Bennett at the draft – the group was praised for their work ethic. Heck, the club posted a 19-14-0-0 record following a January 18 line-brawl with the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena, a clip that would’ve produced a playoff record over a full season. The team finished significantly above the NHL’s bottom-three teams (Buffalo, Florida and Edmonton), which is likely a point of pride for a group many predicted to be one of the league’s worst when the season began.
“We definitely turned the corner in that aspect, being a team with a different identity – hard to play against,” said Giordano. “The culture is different around here. We’re a different make-up and a different look to our team. Now’s going to be the challenge; going forward, teams are going to match our work ethic. When we go into a building, they’re going to say ‘we have to match their work ethic,’ and it’s up to us to find ways to be in games and win games.”
This year will be a bigger challenge than last, testing the team’s scoring-by-committee approach by the departures of scoring ace Mike Cammalleri and underrated two-way winger Lee Stempniak – a fixture on the club’s special teams. The club is saying the right things about their expectations for this season. They want to be in the playoffs. They’re probably a few years away from being a team that is in the mix to actually earn a playoff berth.
The cultural transition will be the toughest thing to maintain, particularly over an 82-game schedule. While the club was able to maintain that work ethic in the dog days of last season and keep games close – the club was only involved in 49 one-goal games and just four one-sided laughers last season (two of them on the same road trip) – the bigger challenge will be to keeping slogging away when it’s harder than ever for them to score goals.
“If we’re going to have a chance in this league, we’re going to have to be the hardest working team,” said forward Lance Bouma, the team’s resident shot-blocker. “We’re going to have to out-work the team every single night. That’s the biggest thing – making sure everyone buys in right away and that everyone’s on the same page.”
The Flames enter the 2014-15 campaign with 48 players under contract. When the season is over, just over half of those deals come off the books – in the form of 18 pending restricted free agents and 7 pending unrestricted free agents. With so many contracts up in the air and with many young players pushing for roster spots, no doubt Flames management expects the competitive environment created last season to continue.
“In this organization, certainly, you’re only as good as your last game,” said winger David Jones. “You’re always fighting for a job. Contract or not, everyone that’s made it to this level has a little bit of an ego. They want to play. They want to get the minutes, and you’re only going to get that if you play responsibly and you play well.”
External expectations are low, with the Flames thought to be one of the front-runners for the top pick in the 2015 Draft. Meanwhile, the expectation internally is that regardless of the results on the ice, the cultural foundation that was laid last season – that the team will show up to work for 60 minutes every night – won’t be abandoned or compromised. Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel or Noah Hanifin will undoubtedly be welcome editions to a rapidly-improving prospect base, but the organization simply won’t tolerate their additions being at the expense of all the gains that were made last season.
It’s a great sentiment, but it remains to be seen if it’ll be lived up to over an 82-game season that’s almost certainly to result in the club’s sixth consecutive season outside of the playoffs.