CALGARY -- The Calgary Flames began the 2015-16 season full of optimism, but it quickly turned to disappointment.
The Flames had plenty of reason to be excited. They had qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2009 and advanced to the Western Conference Second Round for the first time since losing in the Cup Final to the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004. They also had Johnny Gaudreau entering his second NHL season after he had 24 goals and 40 assists in 80 games as a rookie.
The addition of defenseman Dougie Hamilton in a trade at the 2015 NHL Draft and the signing of free agent forward Michael Frolik only added to their expectations. On paper, Calgary had improved its roster over one that had already found success early in a rebuild.
But the Flames (35-40-7) collapsed under those heightened expectations, starting the season 2-8-1.
Calgary fell out of playoff contention early, and a 10-win, 20-point drop resulted in an eventual 26th-place finish in the NHL standings in what amounts to another phase of the rebuilding process.
"We sat here at the end of last year after being eliminated in the second round and the message is the same: We're not there yet," Flames general manager Brad Treliving said Monday. "Despite the season -- which there should be no confusion that we failed -- when you're having a press conference on April 11, your season has been a failure. There are building blocks here in place. We've put more in this year. We've seen some growth of young players.
"We have to get better. Wednesday night, you'll click on the TV and see the teams you have to compete with and beat to have success in the West, and we've got work to do."
WHAT THEY SAID: "We are a young group. You look at the core of our hockey club, there is definitely a lack of experience, and you can't buy that experience. As much as last year we were saying that our young players learn from the playoffs and the playoff push, I think that this year, unfortunately, was valuable. Maybe we talked that it would be as easy as last year, but last year was not easy. But when you win, everything is easy. There are less complaints. You accept the roles way easier than when you lose. It's a totally different game, whether it's minor hockey or the NHL, it's the same thing; it's players' minds. The beauty of this game is you're dealing with individuals … you're dealing with human beings. When you win, things seem so much easier to do, to achieve, to accept. Suddenly, your role is not maybe what you really want, but since the team is winning, you're fine with it. You lose a few games; you have the same role, but suddenly you feel like someone is getting an advantage on you. Those are all situations where you grow as individuals, you grow as an organization, and it's called experience. Last year was a great experience. This year is just as valuable, but the taste is just awful." -- Flames coach Bob Hartley
THE BURNING QUESTION: What areas will the Flames need to address in order to return to contending for a playoff spot? The easiest answer is to improve at the goaltending position. Calgary allowed 257 goals, last in the NHL, despite finishing 11th in shots-against (29.0 per game). That's 46 more goals-against than in 2014-15, the Flames went from a plus-25 goal differential to minus-29.
Karri Ramo and Jonas Hiller, Calgary's combination in 2014-15, struggled early this season. Ramo rebounded to finish 17-18-1 in 37 games with a 2.63 goals-against average and .909 save percentage before sustaining an ACL tear in February, but Hiller had career worsts with a 3.51 GAA and an .879 save percentage.
"Obviously, goaltending is something we've talked about here ad nauseam over the season," Treliving said. "It's a priority for us. I think you can get fooled a little bit with some of the wins down the stretch. Those are dangerous evaluation games when there's zero on the line. Having said that, you finish 10 points out of a playoff spot and in some of the categories, where would we be if we were in the middle in the pack or above? Goaltending is obviously a priority for us."
INJURIES: Ramo, who can become an unrestricted free agent July 1, missed the final 29 games because of a torn ACL sustained in a game against the San Jose Sharks on Feb 11. Defensemen Ladislav Smid (upper body) and Dennis Wideman (triceps) also each sustained a season-ending injury. Smid, who had surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck in February 2015, was injured against the Minnesota Wild on Feb. 17. Wideman missed the final 12 games after he was injured against the Winnipeg Jets on March 16.
Forwards Lance Bouma (oblique), Michael Frolik (groin), Sean Monahan (shoulder/hand) and Derek Grant (undisclosed), and defensemen Deryk Engelland (undisclosed), Jakub Nakladal (ankle) and Jyrki Jokipakka (hip) each sustained a late-season injury.
WHO COULD GO: Hiller, like Ramo, can become an unrestricted free agent July 1; he will not be tendered an offer to remain with the Flames. Nakladal, who played 27 games in Calgary this season, and Grant, who played in 15, each is a pending unrestricted free agent.
WHO COULD ARRIVE: Depending on its position in the 2016 draft, Calgary could have its first-round pick in the lineup next season. With Hiller and Ramo set for unrestricted free agency, and Joni Ortio a restricted free agent, the Flames likely will look to add a starting goaltender in free agency or by trade. While they have a glut of defensemen, the Flames could look to add options up front on each wing.
2016 DRAFT PICKS: The Flames have 11 picks in the draft. In addition to their first-round pick, they have three second-round picks. One second-round pick will be upgraded to the first round if the Dallas Stars advance to Western Conference Final and defenseman Kris Russell plays in 50 percent of their playoff games. Calgary has two fourth-round picks and two in the sixth.
"You look at where we're positioned for the draft," Treliving said. "We went in last year with some good chips when we got to the draft and we were able to do some things. We sit here now with a first and three seconds and the potential for two firsts,  picks in total. We've said it from Day One … the way you build in this league is drafting and developing, and we'll continue to do that."
REASON FOR OPTIMISM: As was the case in 2014-15, the Flames were led by a youthful core that has shown a continued progression. Gaudreau, 22, had 78 points, the most on Calgary and sixth in the League. Monahan, Gaudreau's center, had an NHL career-high 63 points in his third season.
Hamilton, 22, and defenseman TJ Brodie, 25, each established a new career-high in points; Hamilton had 43, and Brodie 45. A similar progression from Sam Bennett, the No. 4 pick in 2014, and the addition of another top pick in 2016 should help bolster Calgary's core.
"I think the future looks really bright. Most of our best players are under the age of 23 or 24, and that's a good thing," center Matt Stajan, 32, said. "As an older guy, you just want to guide the way for those guys and let them know that you've got to try and win as soon as you can, because before you know it, you will be my age and you only have so many cracks at the can. Hopefully, those guys all have a good summer and everybody takes it upon themselves and next year is a lot better year for everybody, especially as a team."