BOCA RATON, Fla. — Brian Burke won’t say “I told you so.”
At least not quite in those words.
But with his Calgary Flames firmly entrenched in a playoff spot a couple months into the season, he isn’t exactly upset that some pundits appear to have been dead wrong about the fate of his team.
“The pre-season predictions that we were going to be in the Connor McDavid Derby, I didn’t believe that at all,” Burke said Tuesday. “In fact, I called a couple people in the media who complained about it. I thought that we would be better than that.”
One of those calls went to Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos. Like many, he had the Flames pegged to finish well outside of the playoff picture.
“I called Nicky Kypreos and said ‘Why are you picking us here? There’s no way we’re going to be in that race (for the No. 1 draft pick),”‘ said Burke. “I didn’t believe it. I felt we finished strong last year.
“We built a foundation of hard work and tenacity.”
It is the type of team Burke enjoys watching and he’ll go to great lengths to do it. After the board of governors meeting wrapped up here early Tuesday afternoon, he jumped on a plane to Montreal and grabbed a connection to Toronto in order catch the Flames-Leafs game in person.
That one could have been dubbed the “Burke Bowl” with his two most recent employers involved, but looking too far backwards didn’t particularly interest him on this day.
The closest he would get to reflecting was on the 17 wins the Flames racked up through 28 games this season. Burke took over the team’s presidency in September 2013 and was hired to help guide the organization into better times.
He didn’t think they would arrive quite so quickly.
“I think we’ve overachieved above what anyone would have expected, including me,” said Burke. “You’ve got to give credit to three people. One is (general manager) Brad Treliving, who’s upgraded the goaltending and got us bigger and tougher with (Deryk) Engelland and (Brandon) Bollig. I think No. 2 is the coach — Bob (Hartley’s) done a great job.
“And I think No. 3 is (former GM) Jay Feaster. Jay left a lot of good pieces in place.”
He would later add a fourth, captain Mark Giordano, who has generated some early-season buzz as a Norris Trophy candidate. The defenceman leads the team in scoring and Burke says that he’s much more than “just a good player.”
Another pleasant surprise has been T.J. Brodie’s emergence as an elite talent, with Burke candidly admitting that he once thought of the defenceman as a “non-factor.”
“You know what happens? You think you know players and then you take over a team and you realize you don’t know them,” said Burke. “You don’t know any team other than your own intimately. When I came in I thought Brodie was a small, skilled (player) — but a non-factor, kind of timid, was my outside view — and when I got there the two players that impressed me the most last year were Mikael Backlund and him.
“I was amazed how much better a hockey player those two are than I thought.”
Backlund has been sidelined since the end of October with an abdominal injury, but should be rejoining the lineup soon. Fellow centre Joe Colborne (wrist) is also close to a return while Matt Stajan saw his first action in a month earlier this week.
So while the Flames have so far defied the underlying numbers — they’ve generated the third-fewest shots while boasting the league’s third-highest shooting percentage — they are also getting some useful players back in the lineup to try and fend off regression.
“We’ve been winning the last month without any of our centres behind (Sean) Monahan,” said Burke.
Improving health and an impressive start have created some real optimism in Calgary. But the one thing Burke refuses to do is make any prognostications of his own, especially any pertaining to the possibility of the team’s first playoff berth since 2009.
“I think it’s really early to talk about anything like that because it’s so tough in the West and the compression that the cap has produced,” he said. “If you lose four in a row, you can go from the fifth spot to the ninth spot.”
But one thing is clear: The Flames are committed to winning now.
Even though some in the front office were quietly OK with the possibility of a low finish back when training camp opened, they don’t see any value in winding up ninth in the Western Conference. Treliving has permission to spend to the salary cap, according to Burke, which could transform the Flames into big movers-and-shakers before the trade deadline.
“I don’t think you can ever pull back on the reins on your players,” said Burke. “If they can keep winning games, we want to keep winning games. You know, we said it last year — our goal is to win as many games as we can. That’s never going to change.
“Every night when they drop the puck your goal has to be win that game and if that creates some runaway expectations, then we’ll live with that.”
Predictions be damned.