The Calgary Flames seem to have a knack for Cinderella stories.
First came the club’s unlikely 2015 playoff run, wherein the Flames snuck into the dance and tip-toed into the second round. Then there was last season’s debacle – a brutal start that saw the Flames win just five of their first 16 tilts, only to finish the season with a ticket to the playoffs and a dominant string of 10 straight wins in the campaign’s final months.
Now the oft-doubted squad faces a familiar situation: an approaching season of raised expectations and questions of whether their success was borne of luck or skill.
According to head coach Glen Gulutzan, it might be a bit of both.
“We weren’t a 5-10-1 team to start last year, and we weren’t a 16-5 team to end,” Gulutzan told Wes Gilbertson of the Calgary Sun on Thursday. “We finished with 94 points. I think, realistically, we can do better than that. But to make a jump from 77 to 94 to 118 isn’t realistic. So we have to manage that expectation.
“Our goal is we think we could be a 100-point club.”
Part of managing those expectations for the coming campaign will involve relying on the veterans who helped pull the team out of the gutter last season. Spared of the need for introductions, the Flames should be able to hit the ground running come training camp.
“I think for me, coming into this season, I’m going to have 12 or 13 other guys — whatever we have returning — with me that are going to be saying, ‘Yeah, this is the way we do things,'” Gulutzan said. “So we’ve put the markings on creating a little bit of a culture here, of what our expectations are. For me, laying all that groundwork isn’t as important now as making sure we’re refining things right away as we come in.”
But as he said, Gulutzan isn’t hoping for status quo in 2017-18. Nor are the Flames faithful. While the team saw some breakout performances last season – particularly from rookie Matthew Tkachuk and bruiser-turned-top-liner Micheal Ferland – there are still some improvements needed throughout the roster.
If the coach was tasked with picking just one name to right the ship next year, he’s got his man.
“Sam Bennett,” Gulutzan said. “You look at the maturation of these players, and he’s had a good summer. I’ve talked to him a couple of times. So I think that’s the young guy that if I want a big leap, I’d pick him.”
Of course, the Flames have to sign Bennett first. The 21-year-old is currently a restricted free agent in need of a new deal, one that won’t be easy to pin down considering his undeniable promise (the 2014 fourth-overall pick is the highest draft pick in Calgary’s history) and the in-house comparables (Bennett is up against Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Tkachuk, all of whom looked exceptional from the get-go).
Bennett was no slouch in his rookie year, however, posting 18 goals and 36 points for Calgary. But he regressed in year two, his 13 goals and 26 points failing to follow the upward trajectory unfairly established by fellow young guns Gaudreau and Monahan.
A bounce-back campaign seems to be in the making, according to his coach. But he’ll have some competition, as Gulutzan said there will be some fluidity in the Flames’ lineup.
“You can look at who’s pencilled in, so to speak. At our D, there’s a spot. You look at forward, with the guys that we have now, there’s some room,” Gulutzan said. “There’s room to add somebody. So I think this year is going to be one of the most competitive camps.
“If I’m a young player with the Calgary Flames who’s scored 20 goals in the American League or has had a great junior year or signed as a depth player, I’m looking at it and saying, ‘You know what? There is some availability here, and it’s going to go to the guy who earns it.'”