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Reasons for optimism, top questions facing Flames

by Staff Writer / Calgary Flames

NHL.com is providing in-depth analysis for each of its 30 teams throughout August. Today, the biggest reasons for optimism and the biggest questions facing the Calgary Flames.

After showing much promise in what looked to be a short rebuilding term, the Calgary Flames faltered under heightened expectations last season and missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs one year after advancing to the Western Conference Second Round.

Off-season change has reignited hope the Flames are back on the right track.

"What gets me excited is the addition of veteran guys in the off-season, with the blend of the young guys that we have currently," said Flames coach Glen Gulutzan, who was hired June 17 after Bob Hartley was fired May 3. "I think that's a great compliment. That's what pops in my mind. That's what gets me excited. You need youth with the right veteran guys. I really think we did that."

Here are four reasons for optimism entering this season:

1. New voice behind the bench

After Calgary finished 10 points short of a second consecutive playoff berth, general manager Brad Treliving replaced Hartley, who won the Jack Adams Award in 2014-15, with Gulutzan. Under Hartley last season, the Flames went 35-40-7 and were last in the NHL on the penalty kill (75.5 percent) and 22nd on the power play (17.0 percent).

"I think the ones that are the easiest targets to knock off the shelf are the special teams," Gulutzan said. "That's an area where we're going to revamp the penalty kill, we're going to relook on the philosophy on the power play. You can't win in this league without the specialty teams game. You have to win or tie that most nights in the NHL to give yourselves a chance. That's really important."

2. Continued internal growth

As much as the Flames are counting on a boost from new players (goalies Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson; forwards Troy Brouwer and Alex Chiasson), they also are expecting growth from within.

"You're always looking at ways to improve your team," Treliving said. "You have additions from outside … but ultimately in this day and age, you have to draft and develop your own. You can't build this from free agency and those types of things. We need our players, our homegrown players, to continue to take a step and we need to continue to get more of them."

Forwards Johnny Gaudreau, who will be 23 on Aug. 13, and Sean Monahan, who will turn 22 on Oct. 12, are examples of that as the Flames' top offensive threats. Forward Sam Bennett, the No. 4 pick of the 2014 NHL Draft, is expected to take a similar step in his second full season in the League, and prospects Hunter Shinkaruk and Mark Jankowski could make an impact.

3. Defensive depth

Backed by captain Mark Giordano, the Flames continue to have one of the most threatening defences in the NHL.

"That defensive core … just having four guys there with 40-plus points in their career ... I'm just excited to work with that group," Gulutzan said.

Giordano, who will be 33 on Oct. 3, had NHL career highs of 21 goals and 56 points last season. TJ Brodie, 26, also set an NHL career high with 45 points (six goals, 39 assists), and Dougie Hamilton, 23, settled in after some early struggles to set NHL career highs in goals (12) and points (43). Dennis Wideman, 33, who struggled through much of last season, had 15 goals and 56 points (each a career high) in 2014-15.

4. Addition of Brian Elliott

After adding a coach, Treliving sought out a fresh tandem in net. Out are Karri Ramo, Jonas Hiller, Niklas Backstrom and Joni Ortio, who combined for a League-worst .898 save percentage and allowed an NHL-high 257 goals.

In is Elliott, acquired in a trade with the St. Louis Blues on June 24. Among goalies with at least 50 games played since 2011-12, Elliott is first in GAA (2.01) and second in save percentage (.925), behind Cory Schneider of the New Jersey Devils (.926) and in shutouts (25), behind Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings (28).

"The more pucks you stop in that position, the calmer and more confident people are," Treliving said. "That's [Brian's] personality. He's a worker. He's a guy that's going to drive you at practice. He's got that experience to maintain that calmness as the season has peaks and valleys. He's another veteran guy who I think is going to be a helpful guy around our young players, not just on the ice but away from it too."

Here are three key questions facing the Flames:

1. How will Brian Elliott handle the No. 1 role?

Although Elliott's numbers are impressive, the 31-year-old is out to prove he can be an everyday starter. Elliott never played in more than 46 games in a season in five seasons with the Blues and has surpassed that total once in his NHL career, playing 55 games in 2009-10 with the Ottawa Senators.

Elliott was acquired to be the full-time starter, something he isn't used to, having split time with Jake Allen the past two seasons. Johnson went 22-16-4 with a 2.36 GAA and .920 save percentage in 45 games with the Buffalo Sabres last season and will back up Elliott.

"From a personality standpoint, I think they're going to get along well," Treliving said. "I think they're going to push each other to be better. Both are excellent teammates. They're going to push our group to be better. I look at the addition of [Elliott] and Chad, and I think we have two good goaltenders and two good people, and we're better for it."

2. When will Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan sign?

The two biggest pieces of the Flames remain unsigned into August. Neither Gaudreau nor Monahan, each a restricted free agent, has a contract in place for this season.

"They're both young players coming out of their entry-level deals," Treliving said. "There's uniqueness to both of them. They're worried about their deal, not necessarily the other deal. We've got to worry about everybody's deal. You try to make it fit. That's all you can do, is continue to work away at it. There's no magic formula to it. You've just got to continue to bang away and hopefully get to a good conclusion sooner rather than later."

Gaudreau was tied for sixth in the NHL in scoring last season, when he led the Flames with 30 goals and 78 points. Monahan was second on Calgary in each category with 27 goals and 63 points. They are expected to represent Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey 2016 in September.

3. Can Matthew Tkachuk make the Flames?

Though the Flames have a recent history of fast-tracking first round picks to the NHL, there is no guarantee it will happen with the latest, Matthew Tkachuk, the No. 6 pick in the 2016 draft.

"We are not counting on him to come in," Treliving said. "He's an 18-year-old kid. It's always good to see them in rookie camp and get into main camp and see judge where they are. His play will determine where he's at. So much gets made of a young kid in his first camp and if he's going to make the team. We'll see. That's certainly not the expectation right now. We think he's going to be a good player for a long time. It doesn't necessarily have to be this October. It's a very difficult jump."

Author: Aaron Vickers | NHL.com Correspondent

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