CALGARY — The key pieces are back, but can the Calgary Flames both repeat the performance and add a playoff push?
Topping the NHL’s Western Conference with 50 wins in 2018-19 whetted appetites in Calgary for a monster post-season that didn’t happen.
The Flames open the 2019-20 regular season on the road Thursday against the club that booted Calgary from the first round of playoffs in five games — the Colorado Avalanche.
With maturing scorers, an experienced back end and a head coach that seems to have the ear of his players in Bill Peters, the Flames appear to be in good shape.
“We’ve got to have a lot of the same identity, intimidating with our speed and our skill and scoring goals,” captain Mark Giordano said.
“Guys aren’t happy obviously the way it ended last year. We want to build on obviously our regular season, but when we get back into playoffs, we want to take the next step.
“The league every year is pretty even right across the board. The best teams find a way to play to their identity, gel pretty quickly in the season — I thought we did that last year — and move forward.”
A dozen goaltenders have started for Calgary in the six years since Miikka Kiprusoff’s retirement.
Cam Talbot, 32, is the latest newcomer to the net.
A return to the form that took the Edmonton Oilers to the second round of playoffs two years ago would give the Flames the stability of a strong tandem.
David Rittich is the heir-apparent as Calgary’s No. 1.
The 27-year-old Czech was impressive when Mike Smith was injured or struggling last season, but it was the veteran Smith, now in Edmonton’s net, who got post-season starts.
Calgary’s top line of Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm finished among the NHL’s top 30 point producers last season, with 34-goal winger Matthew Tkachuk just outside the cut.
Giordano, last season’s Norris Trophy recipient who turns 36 on Thursday, leads a stingy defence that gave up the last amount of shots per game.
Where the Flames need upgrading is special teams, although the mediocre power play and penalty kill didn’t hold Calgary back last season.
The Flames also led the NHL in short-handed goals (18)
“If you want to be a good team, there will be expectations,” general manager Brad Treliving said. “Things don’t just happen because they happened last year.
“Two years ago, we were a non-playoff team. We’ve got to put in the work. The group knows they’re a good team, but that and a buck fifty gets you a venti coffee right?”
Calgary has decent bottom-six depth at forward with utility player Sam Bennett able to plug into any line and journeymen Derek Ryan and Mark Jankowski capable of chipping in.
What role Milan Lucic is given to resurrect his career remains to be seen. The winger will have to earn his minutes.
Defenceman Juuso Valimaki, a 2017 first-round draft pick who made last season’s opening day roster, had surgery on a torn ACL in August and will be out for months.
Behind Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Travis Hamonic, the Flames are thinner on the back end.
A new arena to replace the 36-year-old Saddledome is on the horizon, but shovels aren’t expected in the ground before 2021.
Flames at a Glance
Bill Peters enters his second season.
50-25-7, lost in first round of playoffs in five games to the Colorado Avalanche.
Johnny Gaudreau: Coming off career highs in goals (36) and assists (63), the wizard with the puck is the catalyst in Calgary’s attack and the set-up man for linemate Sean Monahan.
Mark Giordano: Can the captain continue to defy Father Time both denying goals and producing them at his Norris-Trophy rate?
Matthew Tkachuk: Getting the gritty, goal-scoring winger back under contract and at camp a week before the regular-season opener was a relief for the Flames. At 21, Tkachuk’s presence on and off the ice is beyond his years.
The Big Question
Nine Flames regulars are coming off career seasons, with defencemen T.J. Brodie and Travis Hamonic producing bounce-back campaigns in the plus-minus department. How many can maintain that level, or at least not backslide significantly? And is David Rittich truly a No. 1 goaltender? Flames fans might sacrifice a few regular-season wins for a longer playoff run. Calgary hasn’t made it past the second round since reaching the Stanley Cup final in 2004.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 1, 2019.
Follow @DLSpencer10 on Twitter
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press