This has been a strange year for the Calgary Flames.
In Year Two of the team’s rebuild, the club went young, often dressing as many as a half-dozen players aged 25 or younger. Despite the team’s youth – or perhaps because of it – the Flames have surprised NHL observers by not just hanging around the middle of the NHL’s standings, but even creeping into the playoff picture as the calendar changed over from 2014 to 2015 and the meat of the season’s schedule began.
What’s notable about the progress the team has made this season is that it’s primarily youth-driven. Sure, captain Mark Giordano, forward Jiri Hudler and goaltender Jonas Hiller have made strong contributions, but the bulk of the team’s key players are their youngest.
Case in point: which three Flames are tied for the team lead for game-winning goals? 21-year-old Johnny Gaudreau, 20-year-old Sean Monahan and 24-year-old Josh Jooris.
Lance Bouma (24) has emerged as Calgary’s bottom-six buzz-saw, relied upon for fore-checking, back-checking and body-checking in addition to his skill as a shot-blocking penalty killer. Joe Colborne (24) is emerging as a strong rangy player who’s just figuring out how best to use his big frame to create space. AHL starting goalie Joni Ortio (23) was recently called up from the minors and won the first four games he started. And who can forget Giordano’s defense partner T.J. Brodie (24), rapidly becoming one of the best all-around blue-liners in the league and recently signed long-term.
The organization isn’t creating stars out of thin air, mind you, but they have shown an ability to find and develop useful NHL players that can fill situational roles in the short term and potentially be used as future assets.
While the Flames are impressed with the progress the team has made in a short time-frame, the expectations have changed as the team has progressed. Last season? The Flames were happy to be “in” close games late in the season against good teams. This season? The stakes are raised and the pressure is higher, and that’s how young teams improve.
In an interview with Sportsnet 960 The Fan’s Big Show, Flames general manager Brad Treliving outlined his philosophy.
“These games now are, it’s a high-pressure situation,” said Treliving. “There’s a lot at stake and I think that’s a great environment. You learn in those types of situations. We talk about areas that can stimulate growth, and I think playing in games that are pressure-packed, in difficult buildings against top teams when you are pushing for a playoff spot, those are experiences that you have to go through.”
Calgary has just finished a lengthy road trip that saw them play every single Pacific Division team (save for Edmonton) in one fell swoop. The team managed to win four of their five games, often in dramatic fashion, and propel themselves into a playoff spot at the All-Star Break. After an off-day practice prior to the road trip, Flames head coach Bob Hartley explained the difference between winning and losing a close game is often execution in key moments of a game.
“Sometimes it all comes down to one or two plays in a game, but it’s the same thing for the other team,” said Hartley. “It’s always a matter of execution. Every shift is important, and on any given shift you can make a great play or you can make a mistake or miss an assignment that will dictate the outcome of the game. And in this league, there’s so many one-goal games, so are you good enough to win by one or are you good enough to lose by one? There’s a huge difference.”
Young players will make mistakes. Mistakes are part of the learning process, and how raw players emerge into strong NHL players. Last season, the Calgary Flames played a lot of good hockey in meaningless games down the stretch. They played at a playoff pace, winning the majority of their games, but nothing was on the line. This season, their young players are playing with live ammunition and they will be relied upon to win (or lose) critical games for the Flames.
For fans and onlookers, the next 35 games of the schedule may be both frightening and frustrating. They will see a team with a lot of young players either make enough mistakes to narrowly miss a playoff berth, or overcome those mistakes deftly enough to narrowly earn a playoff berth.
In either case, one thing must be remembered: it’s Year Two of the rebuild. The team’s brightest young players are still in their early 20s. The team has taken a massive step forward in its development. Don’t be too disappointed if the club misses out on the post-season, because the chase itself and the lessons learned will be crucial for the future development of the team’s young core.