Just as it looked like the Battle of Alberta was stepping into a renaissance, both the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers were among the most disappointing outfits last season and missed out on the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs by a wide margin.
As long as the Oilers have Connor McDavid they’ll be a threat, but after a quiet off-season and the loss of Andrej Sekera long-term, Edmonton’s depth of skill is still in question. The Flames on the other hand had a very busy summer, headlined by the draft weekend blockbuster trade in which they sent Micheal Ferland and Dougie Hamilton to Carolina for Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm. They may be the better bet of the two for a bounceback.
“Any time you make a big trade like that, it’s a little bit of a shocker no matter what you’re expecting,” Mark Giordano said at the Calgary Italian Open, which supports his Team Giordano community initiative. “We all expected change. We had a good team last year and didn’t get into the playoffs. It was disappointing. We changed coaches. There’s always a little bit of shock when there’s a big trade. I talked to (Flames GM Brad Treliving) a lot over the summer, and I sort of knew he was thinking of different things. He made some pretty significant moves, and if you look at our roster today, we’re a better team and a deeper team.”
While the trade stands as the biggest shift for the team, Calgary also made a coaching change, swapping out Glen Gulutzan for Bill Peters after the latter split from the Carolina Hurricanes. His familiarity with the two players acquired from Carolina should help with the transition and he’s a believer in Lindholm, the fifth-overall pick from the 2013 draft who has yet to reach that potential. Treliving thinks Lindholm will “pop” in this lineup and he will be in a great position to do so if Peters slots him alongside Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan on the top line.
Mike Smith gave the Flames better goaltending last season than they had in their playoff year, though the offence was an area of a concern — the Flames ranked 29th in 5-on-5 shooting percentage last season and 27th in total goals.
Enter James Neal, the proven veteran goal scorer who ranks 13th in even-strength goals over the past three seasons. While his five-year contract may not hold the best value by the end of it, the Flames believe they have an open window in which to win and that the soon-to-be 31-year-old adds an element they sorely need.
“As players, we knew we didn’t have success last year,” Giordano said. “It was a disappointing year. (Treliving) sent us the message: It’s not OK. As a player, as a captain of the team, I was happy to see that, and I’m looking forward to seeing all the changes and how they work out.”
The key now is getting the new faces and coaching schemes in sync before the start of the season. The only player still waiting on a contract is Hanifin, a 21-year-old rising talent the Flames are banking on being a central part of their defence for years to come. The last time a central figure on the Flames was late to camp because of a contract was Gaudreau in 2016, and he went on to have a disappointing 16-goal season.
The Flames need to start off on the right foot. You can’t get into the playoffs in the first month or two of the season, but you can easily play your way out of contention that early.
“I’ve played on a lot of teams where we were ranked as the No. 1 this or the No. 1 that,” Giordano continued. “That’s the biggest thing is, as players, is you have to make it count and work it out on the ice. Chemistry is a big thing, so we have to do that. Whether it be D partners or forward lines, we need to get that in camp and start off the season really fast because you can’t fall behind in the league.”
In that sense, perhaps it’s a blessing the Flames will spend a large portion of their camp in China where they’ll play two games against the Boston Bruins. It’ll be a unique start for the new group and one Giordano thinks could be beneficial to generating a positive start.
“I can’t remember the last camp where you basically start with a lot of your team right off the start of camp and are able to travel together and go away together and spend that week-plus as a team,” he said. “We’ve got to use it the right way. We’ve got to get all that stuff, that team bonding, those things out of the way and bring it on the ice.”
Calgary’s two games in China take place on Sept. 15 and 19 before returning home. Its season opener is on Oct. 3 in Vancouver.