With 12 games left in the 2018-19 NHL regular season, the Calgary Flames find themselves in a very different position than what they have grown accustomed to.
The Flames currently sit one point back of the San Jose Sharks for top spot in the Pacific Division and first place in the Western Conference. To put it in proper perspective, the Flames’ last division title came in 2006. The last time the team that calls Calgary home finished atop the conference was 1989-90. So with that in mind and the playoffs looming, what will truly define a successful season when it’s all said and done?
There is little doubt in my mind that what the fan base wants is a reason to believe that spring magic is in the elevated air again. The magical run of 2004 still resonates in this community, and that was never more evident to me than on the night when Jarome Iginla’s No. 12 was raised to the rafters at Scotiabank Saddledome. For those of you who may have forgotten the Flames’ last trip to the Stanley Cup Final occurred in 2004 and ended with a series loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games. During the amazing Iginla soiree came the chant, deafening I might add, of IT WAS IN. IT WAS IN. On several occasions. A chant that was as a result of a goal the Flames and their fans felt should have counted in Game 6, which would have given the local hockey heroes their second Stanley Cup.
Seventy games in with a young corps, is this Brad Treliving-constructed, Bill Peters-coached team ready to make a deep run? Winning in the NHL has never been more difficult. Don’t take that from me, take it from every general manager, coach and player in the league. They all say it on almost a daily basis.
The 43-20-7 Flames have ascended to new heights thanks to a talented young group of forwards led by Johnny Gaudreau, who with a career-high six-point game against the New Jersey Devils has hit the 90 point plateau. Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk are all having career years as well. All but Tkachuk is signed for at least three more years.
For my money, the greatest growth has come on the blue line. The deep defence group is led by captain Mark Giordano. At 35, Giordano is enjoying a Norris Trophy-like campaign with a career-high 65 points, and he is plus-29. Travis Hamonic has been exactly what the Flames had hoped for when they made the deal for him in the summer of 2017 with the Islanders. TJ Brodie has enjoyed a bounce-back year paired mostly with Giordano. However, it’s the youth that gives many the most optimism for long-term success. Noah Hanifin came over in the big deal this summer from Carolina and, at the tender age of 22, has really helped to solidify the top four. He already has more than 300 NHL games played to his credit. Twenty-two-year-old Rasmus Andersson has arguably been the biggest surprise of the whole season and has performed so well that he has not only become a regular but is pushing for regular top four duty. Add to the mix 21-year-old Oliver Kylington and arguably the most exciting defensive prospect in 20-year-old Juuso Valamaki, who started the season with the big club before he was sidelined with a high ankle sprain, and this team has quality now and a bright future in such a key area. Let’s not forget about newly acquired Oscar Fantenberg, as well as Michael Stone, who is about to return from a blood clot. This group has a lot of options for the stretch drive and the playoffs.
The biggest question mark for many remains in goal. Who should start Game 1 of the playoffs: 26-year-old David Rittich or 36-year-old Mike Smith? That’s not my biggest question mark.
In fact. I think the Flames have already answered a lot of questions. This organization has taken a big step. Huge. They might not finish first in the Pacific or first in the conference but does anyone really see this group not being a regular playoff participant for the next number of years? I know nothing is certain but the foundation of the Flames’ house is well built, and outside of major injuries, I think their window of potential success is just opening.
The Flames brass, coaches, players and fans all want to win now. The big question soon to be answered is is this their time? The more you participate in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the better chance you have of being successful. I truly have no idea how the Flames are going to handle being in this new neighbourhood. I do know the expectations in the new neighbourhood are not rent free. If the first step to winning the Stanley Cup is taking out a three- or four-year mortgage in playoffville, I think the Flames are ready to buy for the first time in a long while.