(Editor's note: As part of our NHL coverage leading up to the start of the 2015-16 season, we are running previews on all seven Canadian teams. You can read previous installments here.)
Stay up past bedtime to watch the Calgary Flames this season. Not only due to the late start for east coasters, but also to the team's recent habit of last-minute heroics.
The Flames may need all the time they're afforded to close out games this year, or they might lead with a potent offence and top-shelf defenders. Whether they fall to Earth or take a step forward, this team should make for great television. Just imagine them in three-on-three overtime.
For a club that reached the second round of the playoffs, was eighth in league scoring, and boasted a group of young stars that made much of the NHL envious, there remains reason to believe the Flames could struggle in 2015-16. They give up too much control of the puck and have perhaps unrepeatable results from last season. Their coach cracks hard on the whip and his message can only remain fresh for so long.
The Flames do, however, have enough pieces on both ends of the ice to shine.
Sean Monahan spent his sophomore year not slumping but scoring a healthy 31 goals and 31 assists. Johnny Gaudreau, now having skated once around the NHL, will have to embrace the extra attention he's likely to receive from defenders. Sam Bennett, meanwhile, may not have been able to perform one pull up at the rookie combine but could push his way into Calder trophy consideration.
Add a young, locked-up-for-six-years Dougie Hamilton, a two-way defensive specialist in Michael Frolik, and a healthy Mark Giordano and suddenly a step backward seems less likely from this club. Giordano has been in Norris trophy talks the last two seasons and were it not for his lengthy injuries, he may own one or two by now. His 48 points in 61 contests—0.79 points per game—is staggering, while the rest of the defensive corps looks like it could rival any other.
The goaltending is perhaps the wild card. Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo, who remains unproven, were less than stellar at times last season and weren't always able to pick each other up. Both goalies are also in the last year of their contracts, with John Ortio sitting nearby on the sidelines.
Coach Bob Hartley has been rightfully lauded for lifting the Flames into the playoffs again. He won the Jack Adams award for the first time in his coaching career. He's even won at four different levels: the QMJHL, the AHL, the NHL, and the Swiss league during his three-year absence from the NHL. But he also can grind against players and those kind of coaches have a brief shelf life, especially now in a time when many coaches are not long for their jobs. Hartley has seen steep declines in his team's successes following steady improvement.
After leading the Colorado Avalanche through 13 playoffs series in four years, the 2002-03 Avs won 10 of their first 31 games before his departure. After guiding the lowly Atlanta Thrashers into the postseason, the 2007-08 team lost its first six games before Hartley was canned. There's no number that suggests this will happen in Calgary, but when does the message of a hardline coach start to lose its lustre?
If there's a built-in reason why the Flames will step forward this year, it's the sparsely competitive Pacific Division. Only the Ducks and Kings are in strong standing in their development and Los Angeles missed the playoffs last year. The Sharks, who also missed the postseason, could receive the new-coach bump with Peter DeBoer but may be at a crossroads with their aging core. The Oilers, Canucks, and Coyotes do not pose as much of a threat to Calgary, leaving the door open for the suddenly surging Flames to endure a few mistakes.
That's the beauty of an upstart club. Whether the Flames stumble or succeed, they'll draw our attention, either feeding the analytics community's bloodlust for regression or lighting up our screens with speed, excitement, and glorious blunders. Some teams are built to win now (Rangers) while others can't tolerate middling success (Penguins). Calgary, though, can afford to take a step back with the short- and long-term pieces it has in place.
If they're for real, this year's Flames should keep viewers tuned in. Even in the east.