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Points to ponder: Flames take important first step

by Aaron Vickers / Calgary Flames

He was selling some memberships because we had some great individuals, lots of older players who had some unbelievable years, good seasons, while increasing their leadership role and that's what you need.Bob Hartley

CALGARY, AB -- If the Calgary Flames accomplished one feat this season, it was in creating a new identity.

Gone from a year ago were the likes of Jarome Iginla, Miikka Kiprusoff and Jay Bouwmeester. In were the likes of Sean Monahan, Karri Ramo and Kris Russell.

And with Mark Giordano donning the ‘C’, the Flames embraced the spirit of their new captain in forming an identity.

“Gio was very smart in his approach as a captain,” coach Bob Hartley said. “He was selling some memberships because we had some great individuals, lots of older players who had some unbelievable years, good seasons, while increasing their leadership role and that's what you need.

“There would have been no way for us as a coaching staff to keep challenging the young players, our rookies and the young players on our team, without the precious contribution of our veterans. Those guys were a big, big help to the coaching staff.”

They were a help to the rebuilding process, too.

Though Calgary didn’t necessarily exceed expectations in finishing 27th overall in the NHL standings, the way the Flames went about business in doing so signaled the first steps to returning to the playoffs may not be so rocky after all. The team skated in an NHL record-tying 49 one-goal games and were five games above .500 following the infamous dust-up against the Vancouver Canucks in January.

“We finished the season on a 19-14-1 run and a .574 winning percentage,” president of hockey operations Brian Burke said. “The last team in the playoffs in the [Western Conference] is Dallas, with a .555 winning percentage. So this was not some two-week spurt, it was a prolonged run.

“Statistics, when you use them at the end of the season and you’re in a non-playoff situation it’s usually to try to validate something or make some argument, but I think that’s a meaning full statistic -- this team played at a playoff pace for well over two months.”

Again, forming a new identity allowed for that success.

“We had a major culture change,” Burke said. “One is, our work ethic has to match or exceed our opponents -- I think our players delivered on that. Second is that we have to believe in our systems and execute them and stick to the system -- and I think we did that. I don’t think our team had a chance to improve or take the next step without that culture change and those two steps.”

Now, some points to ponder:
  • It’s hard to believe it has been seven months since Giordano was instilled as the captain of the Flames. It seemed cut-and-dry when the 30-year-old was named the next leader, though few anticipated Giordano to have quite the impact he did. Giordano set new benchmarks in goals (14) and points (47) despite missing 18 games with a broken ankle. Had it not been for that, Giordano may have played his way onto Canada's Olympic entry in February.

  • Without Giordano from the extended stretch of Oct. 21-Dec. 3, Calgary compiled just a 5-11-2 record. With him dressed, the Flames were 30-29-5. That 83-point pace over a full season still wouldn’t have been enough to sneak into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but it’s not bad for a rebuild in its infancy.

  • Though he’s almost constantly lauded for the work he does in the dressing room and more specifically his help in bringing along rookie Sean Monahan, how about the work Brian McGrattan put in post-Olympics? It seemed clear Hartley wanted to deploy the enforcer in a role greater than chucking fists.

  • In the 22 games he suited up for following the Sochi games, McGrattan was north of double digits for minutes in 12 of them. He had been higher than 9:02 just once in his first 54. Not surprisingly, the 6-foot-4 winger made the most of it, recording three of his four goals and five of his eight points with the extra time. What is surprising, though, is McGrattan had just one of his 11 fighting majors from March onward. It was the only penalty he was assessed after the Olympics.

  • “I call myself a late bloomer, I guess,” McGrattan joked. “It took thirteen years. A lot of hard work in the summers and everything, skill stuff, training and cardio. It just takes the right situation and the right chance and that’s why you can never give up, cause you never know when your opportunity is going to come knocking.”

  • That opportunity presented itself to Mikael Backlund too, albeit in different forms and at a different time of the season. The 25-year-old sat as a healthy scratch early in the season, only to rebound and become one of Calgary’s most relied upon forwards. It showed in the raw data with Backlund establishing new career high’s in goals (18) and points (39).

  • Backlund’s turning point came in November: “I remember the Fathers trip to [Los Angeles] -- the second and third period I started skating with the puck more and making more plays -- I just felt like this is how I can play,” he said. “At the end of the game I had a nice pass to [Cammalleri] to win the game. I felt like after that is where it just started taking off.”

  • And in terms of opportunity, how important is it to get Calgary’s four college kids a sample of NHL action? “Ben Hanowski was very open with us [after last season],” Hartley said. “He said he would have never been prepared for training camp if I hadn’t have seen [the NHL]. There’s a huge difference between major junior and college and the NHL."

  • It’s something similar the foursome of Kenny Agostino, Bryce Van Brabant, Bill Arnold and Johnny Gaudreau echoed in their exit meetings. Just as important is to fuel that hunger. “A lot hungrier, for sure,” Agostino said. “Getting a taste of this makes you want it more, for sure.”

  • It’s tough to tell if Agostino meant the taste of NHL action makes him want it more, or the spread provided for the Flames. After all, the biggest difference between college and NHL life? “Probably the food,” he said. “There’s always free food.”

  • One who can expect to continue living the NHL lifestyle is goaltender Karri Ramo. It probably took more time than he would’ve liked, but the 27-year-old firmly planted himself in Calgary’s crease next season: “[He} answered all the question marks, especially late,” Burke said. “I think that he had an excellent second half -- I was going to say very good but I don’t think that’s strong enough praise -- he had an excellent second half.”

  • It’ll be a different camp experience for Ramo come September. Entering the season, he was competing with Joey MacDonald and Reto Berra for the right to tend the twine. Berra was dealt to the Colorado Avalanche at the trade deadline while MacDonald is slated to hit the free agent market July 1st.

  • Ramo has to remember, though, that nothing is given under Hartley: “Ramo made some great steps, but in this business, there's always someone after your jersey and after your position,” the coach said. “You have to learn to get better. You have to learn to survive.”
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