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Deep, young, competitive roster has Flames optimistic

by Aaron Vickers

CALGARY -- The Calgary Flames made surprising strides in the second year of a rebuild, including a 10-win, 20-point increase in the standings.

The Flames went from 27th in the NHL to third in the Pacific Division in one season, and qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2009. They defeated the Vancouver Canucks in the Western Conference First Round to win a series for the first time since 2004.

"It was nice what we accomplished last year," Flames general manager Brad Treliving said. "We prefer to look through the windshield and not the rearview mirror. What's in front of us is a great challenge, but I think our guys embraced it in making sure they're prepared for that. We need our young players, but we need our veteran players to continue to take steps forward for us to have success."

The Flames' rebuild began when they traded Jarome Iginla, the longtime face of the franchise, before the 2013 NHL Trade Deadline, and in less than three seasons they've become a playoff threat.

Here are four reasons for the Flames to be optimistic:

Progression of youth: In Sean Monahan's second season in the NHL, he had 31 goals and 31 assists, becoming one of 11 players in the past 20 years to do that in a single season before turning 21 (he's 20). Rookie Johnny Gaudreau finished with 64 points and was a finalist for the Calder Trophy. Each will be counted on to continue his development as the front of the Flames' emerging core. But with forward Micheal Ferland taking a big step in the playoffs, in physicality and in production, and a full, healthy season from forward Sam Bennett, a first-round draft pick in 2014 (No. 4), there is much to be excited about.

Bolstered blue line: The Flames managed to survive down the stretch without captain Mark Giordano, who sustained a torn biceps tendon on Feb. 25 against the New Jersey Devils and missed the final 21 games of the regular season and all 11 playoff games. At the time, he was considered a Norris Trophy candidate and was leading NHL defensemen in points with 48 through 61 games; he finished sixth in Norris voting. The offseason addition of Dougie Hamilton gives the Flames a 22-year-old defenseman coming off an NHL career-best season with 10 goals and 42 points. Kris Russell also returns coming off an NHL-record 283 blocked shots and a career-high 34 points, and Dennis Wideman (56 points) and TJ Brodie (41) set personal bests for points last season.

Coach Bob Hartley: The resurgence of Calgary has been largely tied to Hartley, who won the Jack Adams Award as the best coach in the League in June, the first for he and the Flames. Hartley led them to a 20-point gain in the standings, the highest jump of any Western Conference team. Calgary tied for first place in the League in overtime wins (nine), second in third-period goal differential (plus-31), and third in wins when trailing after 40 minutes (10). The Flames had 1,557 blocked shots, the highest single-season total in NHL history, another credit to Hartley.

Internal competition: Treliving has done a good job creating internal competition at all three positions. He has three goaltenders (Jonas Hiller, Karri Ramo and Joni Ortio) who have shown who can carry the load. The Flames also have seven defensemen on one-way contracts, with Tyler Wotherspoon and recent additions Kenney Morrison and Jakub Nakladal set to push veterans. Calgary has 14 forwards who played at least 48 games in the NHL last season, and several more prospects, including Bennett, Ferland, Emile Poirier and Drew Shore, expected to vie for the same opportunity.

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