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LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

Flames have a lot of positives to build on for next season

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / calgaryflames.com

Picking through the debris field of Wednesday night, Kris Versteeg, always available to provide an interesting take, spoke of this bright, blue sky out there for the organization.

Tough to peer off in the distance and see the colour hue of the horizon, though, when in the immediate pain of the moment all you want to do is draw the curtains, flick the light switch to Off, slip on the headphones, lock the door and tune out of the rest of the world.

Until, say, September.

"It's tough, obviously, right now,'' said captain Mark Giordano, the raw, open psychological wound of a 3-1 loss to and four-game sweep by the Anaheim Ducks still fresh and uncauterized.

"But we did a lot of good things in this series, a lot of good things this season.

"Once we step back, in a day or so, we'll be able to see that a lot better."

A 17-point seasonal increase, for starters.

Those 45 wins.

A collective buy-in that launched the bounce-back from a 5-10 start that had many on the outside already saying it was over.

"From a season standpoint, I think, very good,'' critiqued coach Glen Gulutzan, standing in front of the portable black NHL Playoffs backdrop for a final time this spring. 

"But this is a little tough to swallow."

It may sound trite, cliché, the day after being swept aside but there is plenty to draw on from the past seven months moving forward.

From Matthew Tkachuk's wandering mouthguard to Dougie Hamilton's photo bombs to Mikael Backlund's Selke Trophy-calibre ascension (and the play of the 3M Line in general).

From Mark Giordano's +22 to Hamilton's 50-points off the back end. From a franchise-tying team win streak of 10 games to Brian Elliott's franchise-equalling 11-game personal run of success to Chad Johnson's three-shutouts-in-16-days stretch that kept them afloat when the seemed in danger of capsizing.

Pre-opener, locking up Sean Monahan for seven years and, right at the witching hour, Johnny Gaudreau for six.

A powerplay that surged 12 spots up to 10th league-wide. A PK that fast-tracked even more impressively, from 30th and dead last to 12th.

The stubborn belief of Gulutzan and his staff in sticking with the blueprint during the difficult moments and having their faith pay off.

Against the Ducks, they ran into a large, ornery, skilled team rounding into peak form - points in 14 straight to close the season - buoyed by a playoff-tested corps group.

Anaheim's chosen slogan for these playoffs, modelled on sweatshirts in its dressing room - Always the Hard Way - actually fit the Flames more aptly, as events played out.

Discipline issues killed them in the series opener. A ridiculous deflection off Lance Bouma's right skate decided the outcome two nights later, followed by the vanishing three-goal lead in Game 3. Then staring down the barrel of elimination, a poor goal off the hop set them back on their heels Wednesday night and they were never able to fully recover.

They didn't do themselves any favours; were, in many ways, their own worst enemies.

Then again, so often that's the difference between playoff success and disappointment. Take note for future reference.

"You can't discredit the opposition, the Calgary Flames, and the way they played against us,'' said Ducks' coach Randy Carlyle in summation. "They were true to their word that they probably deserved a better fate."

Small solace. But in this case, nonetheless true.

Now, naturally enough, attention immediately shifts to off-season matters and re-configuring the club to be better.

With both Elliott and Johnson set to become UFAs this summer, the goaltending dynamic is, once more, under scrutiny, as skyscraper-sized, 23-year-old heir apparent Jon Gillies waits dutifully in the wings.

Dependable Deryk Engelland and late addition Michael Stone are also potentially free men as of July 1, as is Versteeg, who injected a whole lotta life into proceedings on a one-year deal.

Decisions must be made on all of them.

Among RFAs, count key moving-forward pieces Sam Bennett and Micheal Ferland, along with Curtis Lazar and Alex Chiasson. 

And there's the extra detail of slipping on a Hogwarts sorting hat and submitting a list of protected and available bodies for the upcoming expansion draft to stock the Las Vegas Golden Knights.

"I really like our team,'' said Monahan. "I think we have a great team and moving forward it's a huge step.

"Obviously right now and throughout the summer getting swept in four is going to sting. 

"But coming back next year, this is an exciting team to be on."

They can all embrace that after moving past the immediate pain, turning the light switch back to On, unlocking the door and throwing open the curtains to let in that bright blue sky Kris Versteeg spoke of in the dark disbelief of Wednesday night.

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