CALGARY, AB -- Playoff appearance for the first time in six seasons.
A round won for the first time since 2004.
Growth from some of the game’s most dynamic young players.
A pair of big offseason acquisitions.
An April 11th exit meeting.
The latter doesn’t quite fit, but it’s reality for the Calgary Flames following a season ripe with disappointment, and momentum lost from a spring just a year ago that provided such beaming optimism for the home side.
“We sat here at the end of last year after being eliminated in the second round and the message is the same: we’re not there yet,” started Calgary general manager Brad Treliving, the last to speak on what will be the last time the 2015-16 edition of the Flames assemble as a group.
“Despite the season…which there should be no confusion that we failed…when you’re having a press conference on April 11th, your season has been a failure. There are building blocks here in place. We’ve put more in this year. We’ve seen some growth of young players. We have to get better. Wednesday night you’ll click on the TV and see the teams you have to compete with and beat to have success in the West and we’ve got work to do.”
First on the list?
Figure out why everyone’s been assembled 11 days into April.
There are plenty of reasons, with a team that managed 10 fewer wins, 20 less points, allowed 46 more goals against, and went from a plus-25 goal differential in 2014-15, to a minus-29 this time around.
The Flames might’ve been beat before the season started, some might suggest.
A victim of their own success.
“Maybe we thought that it would be as easy,” Hartley said. “We made the playoffs in the second last game of the season. When you win, when you win the first round and everyone is telling you how good and how impressive that you are, suddenly you think that this game is easy, especially when you are a young player. We have many young guys and that was their first taste in the NHL and suddenly it’s basically instant success. If I am a young player how can I not believe that?”
It very well could have been.
“I think guys thought it was going to be a little easier than it was coming into this year,” forward Brandon Bollig said. “We surprised a lot of people last year. This year I think we put a bit of a target on our backs. I’m not sure we were up for the challenge for the entire season. We had plenty of good stretches. We had plenty of big games where we played as well as we could and had big wins, but as an 82-game season, I think we might’ve took it for granted a bit and maybe not realized the task we had at hand given the targets we put on our backs given the success we had last year.”
It would lead into a 1-5-0 start that graduated into a 5-11-1 mark.
One they couldn’t overcome, others would argue.
“Ninety-four goals (against) in 28 games to start. How can you win?” questioned Hartley again. “You look at any teams who are playoff teams. Last year we lost like eight or nine games in a row but it was in the middle of the season where we had built enough momentum, enough confidence to say we’ve done it, we went through a tough stretch, let’s get back in gear.
“This year, right from Game 1 there was that doubt that got in us and I don’t think it was a matter of not working hard enough it was trying to do too much.
“When you try to do too much you go the wrong way. You go sometimes your own way because we have so much pride on this hockey club that some guys might have thought they were going to have to try to do more in order to compensate and it was a disaster. We got back but it was just not good enough.”
“It’s just too hard to make up ground in this league,” veteran forward Matt Stajan said. “I think we came in an excited group and when things didn’t go right we weren’t able to bounce back right away. That’s something we have to fix and not make sure we don’t spiral when things don’t go our way.”
The slow start led to a loss of confidence.
That slowed swagger changed the demeanor of a team that wouldn’t be denied a year ago.
“Our start created the doubt,” Hartley said. “Last year our start created the push. Everyone counted us out last year. We had no chance and we were almost lucky to be part of the NHL. Compared to this year, we were supposed to overachieve again and suddenly whether it’s over-expecting or just having a bad start, that loss against Vancouver in the home opener was a shock. It was almost like a boxer is supposed to win and five seconds into the first round he takes a good one on the jaw.
“It seemed there was a doubt in our game. Compared to last year we just didn’t care. We were down 5-2 after the second period. I got into the locker room and you could feel that belief. We just didn’t care. Last year it was almost a bunch of delinquents. ‘Come on boys we are going to comeback and we are going to go and everything.’ We believed in this because of our start. We had created momentum for us.
“Compared to this year we never got going.”
Special teams struggled. Goaltenders did too.
Road records weren’t flattering. Trademark come-from-behind wins non-existent.
A season ended in early April.
“You can improve quickly in this league,” Treliving said optimistically. “You need to make the right decisions. It’s hard on a day like today, when you come through the season we’ve come through and you sit where we sit, to find the silver linings.
“But there is a very good young nucleus here. There are some solid veteran players here. We need to make some changes that I think will put us right back in position to compete for a playoff spot next year. There need to be moves made, which is the manager’s job. We need internal growth. We need those young people to have real NHL-every-day summers and make gains in terms of their physical development. A lot of what we talked about is the mental approach coming in here.
“I’m confident here that we can do the right things and give ourselves just as good a chance to get back in the playoff mix. But the group that is coming back here, they have to take a step, as well.”