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SHOOTING FOR THE STARS

Your Flames Authority George Johnson says optimism abounds, and for good reason, as club opens training camp

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / calgaryflames.com

The dawn of each September brings with it a sense of renewal and fresh beginnings. Of clean slates, heroic ambitions, unfettered hopes and Technicolor dreams.

Across all 30 (check that, 31) cities.

In September, as training camps across the NHL begin to swing into action, so much seems within the grasp of so many.

This is the time to believe you can swing for the fences. 

Aim at the stars.

Here is no different.

Difference being, this hope is not a false one, as so many are destined to be.

The Flames are a playoff team that has upgraded over the summer. A group on the rise that's best hockey lies ahead.

So a genuine sense of greater possibilities accompanies fitness testing today at Winsport and on-ice sessions which begin Friday down at the Scotiabank Saddledome.

 A year ago, the Flames overcame a series of key training-camp absentees (for various reasons), a slow start (1-5) and the inevitable bumpy acclimatization period part-and-parcel with the installation of a new (save Martin Gelinas and Jordan Sigalet) coaching staff and still collected 45 wins.

Not bad when you consider that since their Stanley Cup campaign of '88-89 netted the franchise high-water-mark of 54, the most in any single season is 46.

There's no reason to believe them incapable of topping 46, or the 100-point plateau, either.

Much rides, as always, on the quality and consistency of goaltending. Yes, new arrival Mike Smith's 35, but he's a competitive cuss and figures to be reborn after being airlifted out of Glendale, Az., into a Canadian city, given a fresh start on an emerging team.

Happy-go-lucky Eddie Lack provides a reliable insurance policy and should be a wonderful foil/contrast to Smith's uber-zoned-in persona.

The '16-17 Flames whittled a half-goal-a-game off their ledger, rising to 14th (2.67) from 30th (3.13) in 2016-17. Factoring in the addition of Travis Hamonic to round out a whiz-bang Top 4 on defence and a fresh perspective on the goaltending, head coach Glen Gulutzan's crew figure to be able to shave even a bit more off of that.

Skipper Mark Giordano, it goes without saying but bears repeating, ranks among the finest captains in the game and represents an ideal emotional catalyst and competitive compass.

Johnny Gaudreau and Dougie Hamilton (both 24), Sean Monahan (soon to be 23), T.J. Brodie and Hamonic (both 27), Mikael Backlund (28), Michael Frolik (29) are, or approaching, the smack-dab-in the-pocket of the prime-of-competitive-life phase.

The upsides of three key forwards, bruising Micheal Ferland, antagonistic Matthew Tkachuk and sandpapery Sam Bennett, are limitless. Prime-time awaits.

The 3M Line of Frolik, Backlund and Tkachuk, a revelation after being spliced together, returns intact. The Gaudreau and Monahan double-play tandem is, of course, already battle-proven and dynamic.

Hamonic, it's hoped, will provide an ideal boost for return to form for the gifted Brodie after an admittedly off-year. Giordano's a perennial Norris Trophy candidate and partner Hamilton last year gave notice that he'll be joining that chase.

Up front, things seem fairly stable. Bringing the immensely popular and versatile Versteeg back for another winter is a boon. 

Not to say there aren't a few outsiders capable of making some noise. Rangy centre Mark Jankowski enjoyed a fine rookie campaign at AHL Stockton and could push for full-time NHL employment, while winger Spencer Foo, the most sought-after free agent of the summer, shone at the recent Young Stars Tournament at Penticton.

Pencilling Michael Stone in on the third pairing, there's a slew of capable candidates - Matt Bartkowski, Brent Kulak, Tyler Wotherspoon, Rasmus Andersson, Oliver Kylington - to round out the Top 6 on the back end.

Taken as a whole:

Solid. Deep.

All things considered, there's no earthly reason these Flames incapable of taking a spirited run at the Pacific title. 

The Anaheim Ducks still boss the divisional pedigree, of course, while Edmonton's Oilers overflow with youthful sass and can throw reigning MVP Connor McDavid over the boards at their whim.

Still, the Flames have high expectations. 

The post-season, once the glittering ball hanging over the disco dance floor, represents the bare minimum of sparkle nowadays.

They're capable of more.

GM Brad Treliving has attended to every off-season detail. There's clarity in the message and style of Gulutzan and his staff coming in this time.

Meaning their ambition must be greater, their horizon broader, their appetite more voracious.

As training camps across the NHL begin to swing into action again, so much seems within the grasp of so many.

These Flames and their backers believe they have it in them to swing for the fences. 

Aim at the stars.

And not only because it's September.

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