It’s been a long three seasons since the Calgary Flames‘ march to the second round of the 2015 playoffs, the Cinderella run that had the Saddledome faithful in a tizzy about the prospect of a new era.
First came a humbling follow-up in 2015-16 that saw the Flames miss the dance altogether. Then, a first-round sweep the following year — a step in the right direction, but only barely. Last season brought a return to the outskirts, as Calgary once again missed the boat on the post-season, spurring a slew of changes that brought in a new head coach and new names in all corners of the roster.
Flames captain Mark Giordano has seen his fair share of turnover in the Albertan dressing room, having started out on a 2005-06 team led by Jarome Iginla and eventually rising up to captain the team through the rookie breakouts of Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, and Matthew Tkachuk.
Having served along all manner of characters in Flames colours, the captain is well-equipped to judge the new skaters set to join his team in 2018-19. He did just that earlier this week at the Flames’ 2018 development camp in Calgary, breaking down the team’s additions in an interview with CalgaryFlames.com’s George Johnson.
There’s no question the most impactful acquisition was former 40-goal man James Neal, fresh off back-to-back Stanley Cup Final appearances with Nashville and Vegas.
Giordano knows the danger of Neal’s sniping tendencies well, having spent plenty of time defending against it. But he believes there’s more to the winger’s game that can benefit the Flames as well.
“We’ve played against him a lot over the years and the way he shoots the puck is really what stands out for me. You can’t give him any room out there,” the captain said of Neal. “I also think one of his underrated qualities is that he’s no picnic to play against.
“He battles. He gets in your face. He’s relentless that way. He’s not afraid to go to the net, plant himself in front and grind out goals. Which explains why he’s been able to score 20-plus goals for so many years.”
The 34-year-old said he’s less familiar with the trio of ex-Carolina Hurricanes additions — Noah Hanifin, Elias Lindholm and Derek Ryan — or their fellow Eastern Conference skater Austin Czarnik (a Boston Bruin this time last year), given the limited action teams see against clubs from the opposing conference.
However, with the Lindholm-Hanifin duo joining the team by way of a trade that sent top-pairing defenceman Dougie Hamilton the other way, Giordano spoke highly of his potential new (old) blue-line partner. New coach Bill Peters plans to reunite Giordano with T.J. Brodie, according to Sportsnet’s Eric Francis, bringing back a duo that looked dominant for a time in the lead-up to that 2015 run.
“Brodes and I had built a lot of chemistry,” Giordano said of his former defensive mate, according to Johnson. “We haven’t played together for a couple of seasons but before that, we were together for close to three years. We’re good friends on and off the ice. We’ll get used to each other again real quick if we’re put together again, I’m sure.”
An adjustment period will be unavoidable given the hefty transition the Flames have ahead of them, with Peters set to institute a new system and the potential for significant rearrangement up front and on the back end.
“We don’t just have new players. There’s a whole new system coming in. New coaches. So it’ll be a process, but it’s also a clean slate for everyone. We all start fresh,” Giordano told Johnson. “The additions create a lot of different scenarios for our team up front, a lot of possibilities, but that’s a good thing. It’s up to us to find the right combinations.”
Even so, there’s bound to be some nerves for the regulars rounding out the middle of the Flames roster, as roles are sure to change and expectations could rise given the quality of the team’s newest members. But, whatever comes of the changes, Giordano said he and everyone else in the dressing room know the onus is on them to prove they can right the ship.
“There’s always a bit of anxiety when you undergo a lot of change. But listen, we didn’t get in,” Giordano said. “We weren’t in the playoffs. We underachieved in our opinion, and when that happens, you understand there’ll be change.”