DENVER — The narrative is simple. The task, as they know, isn’t.
The Calgary Flames have the talent and depth to be a Stanley Cup contender. The ingredients are all there, as they proved by dominating the West last regular season.
The question hanging over them is whether they have the moxie and mindset to elevate their game come spring.
“It’s such an exciting time for us in Calgary,” said recently re-signed Matthew Tkachuk, alluding to a highly skilled roster with eight core pieces locked up for the next three years.
“We know how good this group is and we know we have a chance to do something really special here.”
Problem is, they’ve got 82 games to play before they can attempt to answer the real queries dogging this franchise.
The Flames roster was largely untouched since the lads opened the playoffs by losing in five to Colorado. The top two lines, all six defencemen and their best goalie are all back with a hunger — a promise — to atone for the upset loss they insist they’ve learned plenty from.
A team built for today’s game with an emphasis on speed and skill, the Flames were clearly outskated by a surging Nathan MacKinnon and his Avs squad that had the Flames on their heels throughout.
After a summer of contemplation, reigning Norris Trophy winner Mark Giordano is convinced his suddenly tentative team played “not to lose” following an early conference clinch that had them playing the final dozen games for nothing.
How might the Flames’ dynamic duo be better equipped to handle the rigours of post-season play?
That question may have been answered, in part, by the team’s ability to finally land a nuclear deterrent in Milan Lucic, who should theoretically limit the opposition from slashing away at the Flames’ top guns.
We all saw the brawn needed to play in the Stanley Cup Final, which has many worried the Flames simply aren’t sturdy enough to see this thing through.
Goaltending is seen from afar as a significant concern as David Rittich and reclamation project Cam Talbot will carry the load for a team that doesn’t have a third NHL goaltender in the system. The locals sure believe Big Save Dave is ready to be a starter at age 26, but the onus is on him to prove it. He worked on his conditioning all summer with an eye on carrying the load, and, unlike last fall, had a great pre-season to set the tone.
Fresh off a team-building retreat in the mountains at which the Flames brought in a company to focus on parking and learning from their playoff pratfall, the players all know the only thing in their way now is themselves.
They’re aware they can’t wait until the playoffs to start proving doubters wrong — they need to start the journey towards redemption pronto. What better way to start exorcising their summer demons than with a season opener in Denver on Thursday night?
“That’s important — talk to anybody on this team we want to win now,” said Monahan, a perennial 30-goal scorer who warns of the danger of looking at their situation as having three years to resolve.
“We’re not waiting around. I don’t think there are any excuses why we shouldn’t be in the playoffs and make a strong push.”
Last year at this time the Flames had returned from China with new coaches and endless roster additions, begging questions around whether they were a playoff team.
They answered those emphatically with a good chunk of the young stars (and an aging one in Giordano, who turns 36 Thursday) posting career years to earn the team’s first 50-win season in 29 campaigns.
As high as expectations are for a team in the NHL’s weakest division, few in the organization would be fussed if the team fell short of its 107-point pace in exchange for a season in which they simply found a way to enter the playoffs playing some of their best hockey.
This year only three new bodies have been added (Oilers castoffs Tobias Rieder, Lucic and Talbot) and the stability and regular season results have given them a newfound confidence.
Their top line (Gaudreau, Monahan and Elias Lindholm) is amongst the league’s most potent, and their second unit (Michael Frolik, Mikael Backlund and Tkachuk) is as good a shutdown trio as the league has.
An argument could be made their best forwards after the all-star break were Derek Ryan and Andrew Mangiapane, who will be in a mix of depth charges that include Sam Bennett, Lucic, Austin Czarnik and Mark Jankowski. Rieder is the odd man out for the lid-lifter.
This team knows it’s good, which could certainly present a whole new set of challenges if they don’t persist with a work ethic that was unquestioned last year.
“Last year the regular season made us realize what we’re capable of,” said Hanifin of a deep, deep roster that also has hotshot defender Juuso Valimaki recovering from knee surgery.
“We have that window with our core group of guys where we can make that push the next two or three years to try to win a Cup. That’s our goal. There is no building, it’s ‘do the job now.’”