CALGARY, AB -- Even back then, way back when, mid-September, Craig Conroy
had been first-hand witness to exactly how seismic the shift in local perception.
And he immediately felt the tremors.
“People come up now and tell me: ‘So, I’m predicting fourth or fifth in the West’,’’ the assistant general manager was confessing that day, outside the Hamptons Golf & Country Club, one of two venues for the Calgary Flames pre-training camp golf tournament.
“And I'm going 'Uhhhh, the West is tough.’ What did it take last year? Eighty-one games. And we got in by two points. That just shows you.
“And this year, fourth or fifth? In the conference …?”
Conroy paused to let that mind-spinning fast-track up the social register sink in (understand, stopping a conversation, any conversation -- mid-sentence, mid-thought, mid-monologue -- is so anti-Conroy, so against his very nature, that it can be considered a sure sign of the gravity of what he’d just imparted).
“And I’m like: ‘Whoa! Hold on there. It’s great you’re so excited about our team, and we like the direction we’re headed, too, but an awful lot went right for us last year.
“And, well, this league is … tough.”
Every bit how tough can now fully be appreciated.
A year ago, of course, the find-a-way Flames were at this very moment, game-planning for playoffs, for the Vancouver Canucks and Game One of the Western Conference First Round at Rogers Arena out west.
Monday, they found themselves slogging through the obligatory exit meetings/clean-out obligations (actual garbage-bag hauling having gone out with the habitually dissatisfied Robert Reichel in the mid-‘90s).
Twenty fewer points. Ten less wins. Forty-six more goals allowed. From a plus-25, goal differential, to a minus-29. From 16th spot overall to 26th. From the playoff lottery to the draft lottery. From the offloading of two of key pieces in Jiri Hudler and Kris Russell.
There are no excuses. But the reasons, the cause(s) of death listed in the autopsy report, are easy to pinpoint.
A poor start. No TJ Brodie on the back-end, injured off the get-go. Specialty teams that weren’t: A 21st-ranked power play, a 30th-ranked penalty kill. Influential captain Mark Giordano struggling to find early sharpness after the season-ending biceps surgery last spring.
The understandable absence of that indefinable magic that had driven them to unexpected heights a year ago. The drying up of decisive secondary scoring.
Also tellingly, three non-post-season Western Conference teams from 2014-2015 ran riot: The Los Angeles Kings emerged from their short bout of amnesia to flaunt undeniable Stanley Cup credentials, the San Jose Sharks discovered a youthful elixir and a bulked-up. The Dallas Stars finally delivered on its vast promise -- all at the expense of the Flames, Canucks and Winnipeg Jets.
Job 1 hereabouts: The goaltending -- solid if unspectacular a year ago -- needs shoring up. But picking up a No. 1 capable of stringing together 60-65 good to great starts a campaign isn’t as simple, say, as stooping to collect shells on the sand of Florida’s Sanibel Island after high tide.
Whether or not the organization believes pending unrestricted free agent Karri Ramo or restricted free agent Joni Ortio is the million-dollar question. Heir to the throne Jon Gillies, meanwhile, suffered through a tumultuous, character-testing year, both on an off the ice.
What is irrefutable is that the Flames plummeted from a highly-respectable 11th in team defence (2.89 allowed per game) to last (3.13) and while that dip can’t entirely be attributed to the three puck-repellers, there simply weren’t enough star turns in net to tip the scales enough in Calgary’s favour.
So getting their own house in order will be the first order of business.
They’ll also need to pry open the vault (and maybe knock over a couple dozen liquor stores) to get their two young offensive cornerstones, Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, signed long-term but they’re both happy here. Kid Calgary, Joe Colborne, enjoyed a career season but is a restricted free agent, and another important order of business to be addressed.
Monday morning, as summer unofficially arrived with the players on the big team in this town filing out of Scotiabank Saddledome to begin their off-seasons, the dissatisfaction was palpable.
An entire city’s.
Still, the immediate ache of disappointment aside, there’s actually much to draw on, to be optimistic about, moving forward:
Gaudreau and Monahan’s growing symbiotic on-ice relationship. Centre Mikael Backlund’s stellar second half. A rich return to form of Giordano in the wake of the stuttering start. That indomitable, hallmark in-your-face pluck of Sam Bennett. Brodie’s continuing evolution. The ever-increasing comfort level from new boy Dougie Hamilton on the back end as the season wore on. Positive auditions from a horde of Stockton call-ups. The stockpile of draft picks for GM Brad Treliving to work with at the June draft.
So balance, people.
Because just as the sunshine didn’t turn out to be as brilliantly, blindingly bright as many believed last September …
The blackness of the moment now isn’t nearly as dark as you might fear.