CALGARY — A significant change in leadership under new-ish head coach Darryl Sutter make the Calgary Flames a team in transition heading into the 2021-22 season.
"Honest, hardworking" is the identity Sutter wants for a club that either missed the playoffs or exited in the first round all but one season since Sutter coached the Flames to the Stanley Cup final 17 years ago.
A second-round appearance in 2015 is Calgary's deepest post-season run since losing the Cup final in seven games to the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004.
Sutter returned to Calgary's bench 26 games into a 2020-21 season shortened by COVID-19. Geoff Ward was fired when the Flames were 11-11-2.
Calgary went 15-16-1 under Sutter to finish fifth in the North Division and four points out of a playoff spot. He's the team's third coach since 2019 following Ward and Bill Peters.
The Flames went 6-3 against the eventual Stanley Cup finalist Montreal Canadiens last season, but "we struggled against all the other teams," goaltender Jacob Markstrom said.
Calgary opens this season Saturday in Edmonton against the Oilers before Monday's home-opener with the Anaheim Ducks.
The Seattle Kraken plucking captain and top defenceman Mark Giordano in the summer's expansion draft left a void in both leadership and quality back-end minutes.
For the first time in almost a quarter-century, the Flames opened training camp without a captain. Sutter wasn't in a hurry to name Giordano's replacement.
Mikael Backlund, now the longest-serving Flame, Matthew Tkachuk and Sean Monahan are potential candidates.
This edition of the Flames got a training camp in with the 63-year-old Sutter from Viking, Alta., who doesn't filter his public comments when he's displeased with a player or the team.
"As you guys know, he's very black-and-white when it comes to what he wants out of you, which I think is great. It makes everything clear," forward Milan Lucic said.
"If we just come together as a team and follow his lead and follow his message, that's when we'll have the most success."
Sutter's blunt assessment of the Flames to conclude last season was the team couldn't execute at a pace the league demands.
A training camp of hard skates rectified that.
"Better-conditioned and a faster-paced team," Sutter said.
Tkachuk, Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm producing seasons of 70-plus points, as they all did when the Flames topped the Western Conference in 2018-19, would help return Calgary to the NHL's top tier of teams.
A healthy Monahan, who was plagued by hip problems most of last season and underwent off-season surgery, bodes well for Calgary's offensive depth.
"We're a group that can rely on different guys in different moments," Lucic said. "We're not always relying on one or two guys to do everything for us."
Giordano's departure spreads more responsibility among returning defencemen Rasmus Andersson, who will quarterback the top power-play unit, Noah Hanifin, Chris Tanev, and Juuso Valimaki.
Contract talk will swirl around Calgary's top points producer for five of his seven NHL seasons. The 28-year-old left-winger is in the final season of six-year contract paying him an average of US$6.75 million annually. Gaudreau wished aloud during training camp for a more regular right-winger for himself and Monahan instead of a revolving door, although it's likely Gaudreau will spend some time on a line with Lindholm and Tkachuk.
The 25-year-old winger from Bolton, Ont., had a breakout performance leading Canada to gold at the men's world hockey championship in June. Canada was 0-3 when he joined the roster, but Mangiapane galvanized the Canadians with seven goals and four assists in seven games en route to earning tournament MVP honours.
Winger Blake Coleman is fresh off back-to-back Stanley Cup wins with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Veteran forwards Trevor Lewis (2012, 2014) and Brad Richardson (2014) won Cups under Sutter with the Los Angeles Kings. Defencemen Nikita Zadarov and Erik Gudbranson were brought on board to backfill the loss of Giordano's minutes. Backup goalie Dan Vladar, a 24-year-old Czech, owns a career five NHL starts. Kirk Muller and Cail MacLean joined Ryan Huska as Sutter's assistants.
The 31-year-old goaltender posted decent numbers in his first (shortened) season in Calgary with a 22-19-2 record, a 2.68 goals-against average, a .904 save percentage and three shutouts. The Flames will need more than decent from the $6-million-a-year Swede for a long post-season run. If he stays healthy, Markstrom could surpass his previous season-high 60 starts. Add games he could play for Sweden at the Winter Olympics to his season workload too.
The expansion Kraken and their first captain Giordano are in town Dec. 23. After 10 meetings with the Edmonton Oilers in the North Division last season, the Flames face their provincial rival just four times in 2021-22.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 13, 2021.
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press