Rebuilds are tricky things.
The goal is to avoid the mistakes of the past while throwing together, often on the fly, some semblance of a plan. And one of the challenges in actually following through on the plan is showing progress and progression. If you fail to show some progression, you risk losing buy-in from the team itself, as well as losing fan support. Look at Edmonton as an example of how a rebuild can go off the rails for these very reasons.
In Calgary, it’s so far, so good.
Under prior general managers Darryl Sutter and Jay Feaster, the Flames chased a playoff berth with a team built on a shaky foundation – one that harkened more back to the clutch-and-grab era of pre-2005 lockout hockey rather than the run-and-gun speed-based recent version. After several seasons of “going for it” at the trade deadline, rather than tearing things down, the club began to reverse course in the spring of 2013 with the departures of Jarome Iginla and Jay Bouwmeester, and the subsequent retirement that fall of Miikka Kiprusoff. Feaster was relieved of his duties the following December.
The Flames began their rebuild last season. They had a decent start to their 2013-14 season but fell off quite a bit soon afterwards, to the point where their torrid post-Olympics play merely moved from out of the NHL’s bottom-basement and into fourth overall at the NHL Draft. But the big take-away for the Flames was the establishment of something important – culture. The team established themselves as a team that would make their opponents work for wins. Granted, because the team was in Year One of a rebuild, it was probable that you could get a win if you played Calgary, but opponents had to really play effective three-zone hockey to beat the Flames.
After a season where putting together good efforts and losing close games was seen as progression, the 2014-15 season has been a bit of an eye-opener for people around the team. While the 2013-14 Calgary Flames were a bottom-six, bargain-basement club that worked hard and would lose a lot of close games, the 2014-15 Calgary Flames have won a lot of those close games that they would’ve lost last season. The difference has been a combination of clutch goaltending, key scoring and youthful exuberance. The third period slumps regularly seen on the more veteran editions of the team – teams that were often down going into the third period and merely went through the motions – have been replaced by a series of comebacks in the final frame.
One explanation for the team’s progression points to the role of Flames head coach Bob Hartley. After muddling through his first season, as the team was mired with a lockout, a shortened training camp and no defined direction, Hartley’s second season in 2013-14 featured a lot of experimentation. For the first few months of his tenure, Hartley regularly used the proverbial bingo tumbler for lines and match-ups, to the point where when the team finally got healthy after the Olympic break, he had a good handle on what players could handle what situations and what players struggled.
This season, the prior season of experimentation and discovery – combined with progression from key players such as Sean Monahan, Kris Russell and T.J. Brodie – has given the Flames a solid foundation to build upon. The team is by no means a world-beater or Stanley Cup contender quite yet, but the team’s strengths and weaknesses are become more readily apparent and, as a result, the club is closer to actually addressing them.
On the subject of the club’s progression thus far, Flames forward Joe Colborne recalled his introduction to the organization last season.
“I still remember my first meeting when I got traded here and walked in the coaches’ office and that was the first thing they said,” said Colborne. “We’re not looking for a one year fix. We’re looking to build something that you take and five, six, seven years down the road it’s gonna be, we’re still going to have that nucleus and that culture we’ve created in these couple years.”
Last season, the Calgary Flames were part of a group of four or five clubs battling for a draft lottery selection at the bottom of the NHL’s standings. This season, they’ve moved up into a group of four or five Western Conference teams jockeying for playoff spots. Even if the Flames narrowly miss the playoffs or bow out early in them, that’s showing strong progression standings-wise.
The biggest challenge for this group going forward will be setting the bar even higher for 2015-16 and figuring out a way to keep this momentum going in the seasons ahead.