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Goaltending, young core X-factors for Flames

by Aaron Vickers

CALGARY -- Last season, the Calgary Flames returned to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2009 and advanced beyond the first round for the first time since going to the Stanley Cup Final in 2004.

The upstart Flames surprised many with their performance, which included a 20-point season-over-season increase from 2013-14 to finish third in the Pacific Division and a series win against the Vancouver Canucks in the Western Conference First Round.

With heightened expectations, Calgary is looking for a repeat performance.

"Last year, we believed we were a playoff team and we do again," Flames captain Mark Giordano said. "We're looking forward to getting better, and on paper today, if you look at our roster, we do look like a deeper, better roster. Now, as players, we have to bring that and prove it on the ice. If you ask a lot of teams, they are going to feel like they got better this offseason as well. We have to be prepared right from Day One. I think our start last year was huge. We'll go from there."

The improvement should come from several sources.

The Flames added defenseman Dougie Hamilton and forward Michael Frolik to a roster that's almost completely intact from last season. Continued growth is expected from young forwards Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and Sam Bennett.

Here are three X-factors that will determine whether the Flames can enjoy similar success this season:

Defensemen deliver again: The defense was a big reason for the Flames' significant improvement last season.

Each of Calgary's top four defensemen established NHL career highs in at least two offensive categories: Giordano, assists (37) and points (48); TJ Brodie, goals (11), assists (30) and points (41); Dennis Wideman, goals (15), assists (41) and points (56); and Kris Russell, assists (30) and points (34).

Russell set an NHL record for most blocked shots in a single season (283).

Giordano was perhaps the leading contender for the Norris Trophy before a torn biceps tendon ended his season with 21 games remaining; he finished sixth in voting for the award.

Hamilton, 22, was acquired from the Boston Bruins in a trade at the 2015 NHL Draft. The 22-year-old is coming off the best season of his NHL career (42 points in 72 games).

"We have speed, we have size, we have toughness, and we have great character," coach Bob Hartley said. "Those guys want to play, they want to be the difference. It's fun. We have a bunch of guys who want to compete. They don't want to watch the parade; they want to be part of the parade. That's very refreshing. As an NHL coach, whenever you have good people in your organization that want to be at your best, well, we can only support them, and that's what we're going to do with that group.

"This group of defensemen is just amazing."

Brodie will be out up to six weeks after breaking a bone in his right had during a preseason game Sept. 21.

More stability in goal: Though their goaltending situation won't be sorted out until the end of training camp, the two left standing likely will need to be better for the Flames to make the playoffs again.

Last season, Jonas Hiller, Karri Ramo and Joni Ortio combined for a 2.60 goals-against average (16th in the NHL) and a .911 save percentage (15th).

Hiller was 26-19-4 with a 2.36 GAA and a .918 save percentage in 52 games. Ramo started 32 games and was 15-9-3 with a 2.60 GAA and .912 save percentage. Ortio, 24, made six starts in the NHL.

"There's a lot of goalies and you play best, you do your best, and the best one plays," Ramo said. "It's very simple. I don't look at it at any other way that it would be any more challenging this year than last year. It's not our job to make the decisions. It's our job to stop the puck and do the best we can every day. We'll move from that. That's how I see it. That's how I prepare every day, and be ready."

With Hiller under contract for another season and Ortio's two-way contract converting to a one-way, Calgary surprisingly re-signed Ramo on July 1. Now, each of the three goalies has one year remaining on his contract and would require waivers to be assigned to the American Hockey League.

Continued growth from young core: Entering last season, some questioned whether Monahan would be able to replicate his 22-goal rookie season. Now 20 and entering his third NHL season, the question is whether Monahan can build on his 31-goal, 62-point 2014-15 season.

It's not unlike the question surrounding Gaudreau, who at 21 and in his own rookie season was second on the Flames with 64 points and a finalist for the Calder Trophy.

"By the culture of our veterans, it really helps those young players to play good, to prepare well," Hartley said. "There's no complacency in this organization. It's always earned, never given. They know that it's for everyone."

The likes of Bennett, selected with the fourth pick at the 2014 NHL Draft, and Micheal Ferland, a standout in Calgary's playoff run last spring, will be the subject of scrutiny as the young core continues to emerge.

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