The off-season narrative surrounding the Calgary Flames revolved around the team’s inability to effect significant change to its core.
The team’s hope now is that the change in approach since Darryl Sutter arrived will be what’s needed to turn the club’s fortunes around.
Sutter has long been on record suggesting it’s a “3-2 league,” meaning the key to success lies with winning low-scoring games.
Keep things tight defensively, capitalize on special teams and count on one of the world’s best netminders to lock the door, much like the team did in its final pre-season game, a 3-1 win over Winnipeg.
“I think that’s the recipe for our success,” said Noah Hanifin, whose club scored two power-play goals and allowed just one high-danger chance five-on-five.
“It was definitely the way we wanted to end the pre-season. We have to be solid defensively. We can’t be going up and down the ice and giving teams a bunch of chances. We have a great goalie and if we protect him and let him do his thing, and capitalize on special teams, we can have success.”
It won’t be flashy, but Sutter’s stingy approach stands as the best chance the Flames have at returning to the playoff party they missed last season.
“It was rocky at first,” said Johnny Gaudreau of Sutter’s systemic implementation 26 games into last year.
“But I thought we did a great job towards the end of the season under Darryl. To have a whole training camp with him and be able to talk to him and see what he wants to do with the team is important. A fresh start. I think we’re going to get off to a great start because of how prepared we’ve been throughout camp.”
Starts have long been a problem for the Flames, both at the beginning of the season and game to game.
No one has been quite sure what they’re going to get from this bunch on any given night the last few seasons.
Theoretically, Sutter’s influence should have a positive effect on a team that had a hard time turning its intensity switch on in time for puck drop.
If so, this team has ample opportunity in the NHL’s weakest division to battle for third place with Vancouver and Los Angeles for a playoff spot behind Edmonton and Vegas.
“There’s a lot of guys on this team that have something to prove,” said Sean Monahan, coming off hip surgery as one of a handful of core players looking to rebound from poor seasons.
“You look up and down the lineup, including centre ice, guys will all be pushing one another. Guys want more.”
So does management, ownership and the fans, who’ve been frustrated by the inconsistency of a team that finished atop the west just three seasons ago.
Blake Coleman pointed to the Flames success that season as one of the reasons he chose to sign a six-year, $29.4 million deal in Calgary this summer.
The addition of the two-time Stanley Cup winner allows all the team’s forwards to slot appropriately: from a top-six full of 20-30 goal scorers, to role players comfortable with their task.
After serving his opening night suspension, Coleman will start on the top line with Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk, followed by Gaudreau, Monahan and Andrew Mangiapane.
A formidable bunch, largely looking to re-up their stock.
Although injured to open the season, newcomer Tyler Pitlick is expected to add speed and versatility to Mikael Backlund’s third line, opposite Dillon Dube.
Free agent signings Brad Richardson and Trevor Lewis will join Milan Lucic on the NHL’s most experienced fourth line, setting the tone as a team bent on re-establishing its identity as a big, tough checking club.
“The ground and pound game still works in this league,” said Lucic, 33.
“We’ve got to be a check-first team and rely on that to have success. Look at a team like Tampa, they got bigger, especially on their back end, and it ended up helping them win a couple Stanley Cups. Look at a team like Dallas that went to the finals as the oldest team in the league in the bubble. They were a bigger, stronger team and succeeded.”
The Flames’ blue line is its biggest question mark, as the loss of Mark Giordano in the Seattle expansion draft leaves the team’s defensive corps a significant work in progress.
While no one is worried about shutdown stars Chris Tanev and Hanifin, or power-play quarterback Rasmus Andersson, there are plenty of question marks surrounding the abilities and assignments of newbies Nikita Zadorov and Erik Gudbranson, as well as youngster Juuso Valimaki.
Sutter admits he’s still unsure how the pairings will shake out, especially since Oliver Kylington was so impressive in training camp and Michael Stone was so reliable down the stretch.
Jacob Markstrom enters Year 2 of his six-year deal feeling like he has more to give than he showed last year when a concussion interrupted his great start.
Few doubt he’ll start more than 60 games this year, even though the club now feels comfortable with its backup following a strong preseason showing from rookie Dan Vladar.
Of all the forwards looking to bounce back from a poor season, most eyes will be on Tkachuk to see how he carries himself during (and after) play in a contract year.
Gaudreau’s contract situation looms too, as he’s nine months away from unrestricted free agency.
Will he re-sign with the club?
Will he be traded?
Will the Flames name a new captain?
Will fan favourite Mangiapane continue his ascent?
Can this team finally find a level of consistency that keeps them in contention?
Those questions start to get answered Saturday in Edmonton, where the Flames’ quest to limit the opposition’s offence will begin against two of the world’s most dangerous forwards.
The ultimate test on Sutter’s system.