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Flames optimistic as rebuild continues

by Staff Writer / Calgary Flames

With a 5-1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on the final day of the 2013-14 regular season, the first phase in the rebuilding process of the Calgary Flames came to a close.

The Flames finished 27th in the overall NHL standings, but left the season with optimism. Though they managed 77 points (their lowest total in a full 82-game schedule since 2002-03), they took several steps towards competitiveness.

But that won't be enough to satisfy coach Bob Hartley in 2014-15.

"We need to keep improving our entire game," Hartley said. "We can have some strong points on our detail and our work ethic, but at the same time, our on-ice game has to obviously improve. With all the good things that happened to this organization last year, the good things we did, we were still a 27th-place team."

The Flames did manage to find positives from a result that saw them select Sam Bennett with the fourth choice in the 2014 NHL Draft, the highest pick in Calgary's history.

Though they struggled to secure victories, the Flames fielded a competitive squad and tied an NHL record by playing 49 one-goal games.

The Flames began to take on a new identity after they kick-started their rebuilding efforts at the 2013 NHL Trade Deadline by dealing longtime captain Jarome Iginla and defenceman Jay Bouwmeester. It was reinforced when franchise goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff retired the following September.

That culture needs to be extended into 2014-15, Hartley admitted.

"It's so important for our veterans, for the players from last year and the new guys to come in with the same attitude and the same work ethic that we ended the season with last year," Hartley said. "Whoever was on our team last year and is coming back, we have a mandate and we have a job that whoever comes in, the Sam Bennetts, the Mason Raymonds, the Devin Setoguchis, we need to bring them into the mold right at Day One in camp.

"We want to be the hardest-working team in the League again. Success starts with this."

Here's the breakdown of how the Flames plan to take the next step:

FORWARDS

Though Mike Cammalleri and his team-leading 26 goals left via free agency, the Flames expect to see continuing growth from an emerging, youthful core up front.

That growth is expected to come down the middle from Mikael Backlund, who posted career-highs in goals (18), assists (21) and points (39) last season while playing some of the team's toughest minutes. The club expects Backlund, 25, and second-year man Sean Monahan to carry a big share of the load offensively.

Monahan scored 22 goals as a rookie, the most by a Flames first-year player since 1989-90 and one more than Iginla had as a rookie in 1996-97. Monahan's 34 points in 75 games placed him eighth among NHL rookies in scoring.

"This year, everyone in the League knows who Sean Monahan is," Hartley said. "I'm sure that he's going to get a little bit more attention. Sometimes that explains those sophomore jinxes. Sometimes on a player's part, there's maybe a more relaxed attitude.

"That's not the case with [Monahan]. He's so mature for his age that there's no question of slowing down."

Veteran center Matt Stajan will be available to complement the duo to alleviate the pressure should either stumble. The bigger question is who else will contribute offensively.

With Cammalleri gone to the New Jersey Devils, the Flames will rely heavily on Jiri Hudler, who had a team-high 54 points. His 17 goals were fourth on the Flames, and free-agent additions Mason Raymond and Devin Setoguchi will be relied upon to provide offence.

Raymond joins the Flames after a 19-goal season with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the most he's scored since he had 25 with the Vancouver Canucks in 2009-10. Setoguchi hopes to rejuvenate his career after scoring 11 goals for the Winnipeg Jets, his lowest total since he had 11 as a rookie with the San Jose Sharks in 2007-08.

"We added some speed with Mason Raymond," Hartley said. "With all the guys we went to get, Devin Setoguchi and Mason Raymond, and we might have a kid or two, adding speed, adding grit, we might cut a few goals against and we might score goals in a different way than [Cammalleri] would score and at the end of the day, maybe we can be even, maybe we can be ahead. That's the challenge."

The growth of center-turned-right wing Joe Colborne and the health of Curtis Glencross will be major factors in whether the Flames will be able to improve upon last season's total of 202 non-shootout goals. So could the emergence of youngsters Sven Baertschi and Johnny Gaudreau. Those two, as well as Markus Granlund and Reinhart, will push for jobs.

Gaudreau could be the wild card in Calgary's camp. The 2013-14 Hobey Baker Award winner possesses big potential, though he doesn't boast big size at 5-foot-9, 150 pounds.

Still, the 21-year-old could make the immediate jump to the NHL following a great career at Boston College.

"He's going to fight [questions about] his size," Hartley said at the Young Stars Classic in Penticton, British Columbia. "I'm sure he started this when he was seven, eight years old. He's heard many times that he was way too small and he couldn't do it . . . and here he is, knocking at the NHL doors. I'm with him. I'm a big fan of Johnny Gaudreau and all of our kids."

Gaudreau, joined by the likes of Baertschi, Markus Granlund and Max Reinhart, will push to add a youthful flavor to the Flames' forward group.

"We still have lots of guys coming back from last year, combined to the new additions, combined to the kids coming from Adirondack [the Flames' American Hockey League affiliate]," Hartley said. "We have five or six real good prospects and those kids will make a push.

"We'll have some veterans fighting for their job. We'll have some new veterans coming into the organization that will want their share of ice time and responsibilities. We'll have our young prospects knocking at the door. There's no doubt in my mind that it's going to be one of the most exciting camps in Calgary in recent years."

Also at stake are spots on the fourth line. The Flames acquired Brandon Bollig from the Chicago Blackhawks at the 2014 NHL Draft and he's expected to anchor the line with veteran enforcer Brian McGrattan and Lance Bouma.

But as Hartley noted, competition will be strong for each and every role up front heading into camp.

DEFENCE

Calgary's top four will bear a striking resemblance to last season's.

The emerging pair of TJ Brodie and captain Mark Giordano are expected to eat up big minutes, as they did a season ago. Dennis Wideman and Kris Russell, who signed a two-year extension in February, should form the No. 2 pairing. Each played about 23 minutes per game last season, though Wideman played 46 games.

Deryk Engelland, who signed a three-year contract with the Flames on July 1 after five seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins, should combine with Ladislav Smid on the third pairing.

"The one thing I'm going to say about Deryk Engelland that I'm going to say to our fans because I don't think they know him very well, is that they'll find a guy who can skate very well on the ice," Hartley said. "For a big guy that plays a good brand of tough hockey, he can move very, very well.

"I think that our blue line is getting bigger, but at the same time, we didn't take away any speed."

For depth, the Flames also signed former Boston Bruins defenceman Corey Potter to a one-year, two-way deal in early September and will have free-agent invites Sheldon Brookbank and Raphael Diaz in camp as well. They'll battle for a roster spot along with 21-year-old Tyler Wotherspoon, who had four assists in a 14-game audition with the Flames last season.

The key is Giordano, the Flames captain, who had 47 points last season despite missing 18 games.

"It's always tough to rank other captains because every captain of each team are great leaders, are great human beings, but [Giordano] is a special one," Hartley said. "I love this guy. He's so simple to coach that to a certain point, it's almost boring to be Mark Giordano's coach.

"He is a model of consistency and for me, when you reach consistency, success is right around the corner. That's exactly what happened to Gio. Gio is going to be a great captain for us. He's going to have an unbelievable season."

GOALIES

For the second year in a row, the Flames are entering the season without an undisputed No. 1 goaltender.

Karri Ramo finally took the starting job from 27-year-old rookie Reto Berra late last season after Berra was sent to the Colorado Avalanche at the NHL Trade Deadline.

But Ramo's 17-15-4 record, 2.65 goals against average and .911 save percentage didn't stop the Flames from signing unrestricted free agent Jonas Hiller on July 1. Hiller, 32, was a starter for much of his seven seasons with the Anaheim Ducks, but saw his position usurped by youngsters Frederik Andersen and John Gibson despite winning 29 games in 2013-14.

"Karri had a real strong finish last year," Hartley said. "At the same time, we have Jonas Hiller. That last year [with Anaheim], he didn't maybe have the year he wanted but I can tell you that by talking to him and meeting with him that he's on a mission. He wants to redeem himself. He's excited about the change. He's excited to be in Calgary. I think with Karri and Jonas, we can have a really strong tandem of goalies."

Hiller signed a two-year, $9 million contract, but that won't guarantee that he'll start ahead of Ramo, who's in the second season of a two-year contract and can become an unrestricted free agent next summer.

"Who's going to be No. 1? Who is going to be No. 2?" Hartley said. "I don't have the answer. They do. It's always earned, never given."

PROJECTED LINEUP:

FORWARDS

J. Hudler M. Backlund D. Setoguchi

M. Raymond S. Monahan J. Colborne

C. Glencross M. Stajan D. Jones

B. Bollig L. Bouma B. McGrattan

Extras: P. Byron

DEFENCEMEN

T. Brodie M. Giordano

K. Russell D. Wideman

L. Smid D. Engelland

Extras: C. Potter

GOALIES

J. Hiller

K. Ramo

SUMMER MOVES:

ADDITIONS: G Jonas Hiller (free agent, Anaheim), D Deryk Engelland (free agent, Pittsburgh), D Corey Potter (free agent, Boston), LW Mason Raymond (free agent, Toronto), LW Brandon Bollig (trade, Chicago), RW Devin Setoguchi (free agent, Winnipeg)

SUBTRACTIONS: G Joey MacDonald (free agent, Montreal), D Shane O'Brien (free agent, unsigned), D Chris Butler (free agent, St. Louis), D Derek Smith (free agent, ZSC Switzerland), LW TJ Galiardi (free agent, Winnipeg), LW Mike Cammalleri (free agent, New Jersey), C Blair Jones (free agent, Philadelphia), C Ben Street (free agent, Colorado)

PROMOTION CANDIDATES: D Tyler Wotherspoon, D Mark Cundari, LW Johnny Gaudreau, LW Sven Baertschi, LW David Wolf, C Markus Granlund, C Max Reinhart, C Sam Bennett

FLAMES AMONG FANTASY TOP 275:

The 2014-15 season is drawing closer by the day, so NHL.com has you covered with all the fantasy hockey advice you'll need on draft day.

Below are Calgary Flames players who qualified for NHL.com's top 275 fantasy list. Each player's aggregate spot was determined by averaging the individual rankings of Matt Cubeta, Pete Jensen and Matt Sitkoff. Also listed are each player's Yahoo position eligibility and any offseason NHL.com fantasy content that breaks down projected value for 2014-15.

79. Mark Giordano, D (Undervalued)

174. Jonas Hiller, G (Trending down)

176. Jiri Hudler, LW/RW (Category specialist)

203. Sean Monahan, C

234. Johnny Gaudreau, LW (Jensen's sleeper)

240. TJ Brodie, D (Sitkoff's sleeper)

Author: Aaron Vickers | NHL.com Correspondent

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