No matter how the past season ended, summer is a time of hope in the hockey world. New bodies come in, fresh faces look to step up and even the teams predicted to finish in the basement can work on game plans to upset low expectations. Two such teams heading into 2013-14 are the Calgary Flames and Buffalo Sabres, but the members of those squads wouldn't be pros if they weren't psyched to prove the pundits wrong.
“That's obviously a motivator for us and pre-season rankings don't mean anything,” said Flames enforcer Brian McGrattan. “Let's see where we're at mid-season.”
Calgary looks to be a team in the trough – on paper, to be fair. The Flames traded away their most popular player ever last season in Jarome Iginla, who was also one of their most skilled contributors. Franchise goalie Miikka Kiprusoff is not expected back, while minute-munching defenseman Jay Bouwmeester was dealt, to St. Louis, around the same time as Iginla.
The depth chart looks a little sickly, but on the bright side, that means there will be spots up for grabs for the youth. Sven Baertschi has the skills to make some noise up front, as does 2013 first-rounder Sean Monahan, who I wouldn't be surprised to see in the opening night lineup based on his size, smarts and lack of competition on the depth chart. I've even heard from some insiders that Pat Sieloff, the granite-shouldered defenseman from Windsor, may be put into service, assuming the teen's training camp goes well. Of course, young players always want to get stronger, so they'll need some vets in their corner and that's where a warhorse such as McGrattan comes in.
“There's me and Timmy Jackman, my linemate, and we brought in Shane O'Brien, who is a big physical defenseman,” McGrattan said. “These young guys are not going to have liberties taken with them. They can go out and play and not worry about anything.”
Except perhaps for lopsided scoresheets and cringe-worthy CORSI ratings. But again, optimism still abounds for those actually putting on the uniform.
“I'm excited to be back there,” McGrattan said. “We're going to be young, feisty and hungry. It will be a team that plays hard and we're going to make a name for ourselves.”
One player who made a name for himself in Buffalo last season was Cody Hodgson, who ended up second in team scoring to linemate Thomas Vanek. The Sabres still finished last in their division, but at least there's hope with Hodgson on the rise and veteran Henrik Tallinder back in the fold to reunite with young defenseman Tyler Myers, who has swooned since his sophomore season back in 2010-11. Trading captain Jason Pominville at the deadline yielded the Sabres two of Minnesota's best prospects in two-way forward Johan Larsson and goalie Matt Hackett, so there is depth on the horizon.
“I think we're the youngest team in the league and maybe getting younger, but that's a good thing,” said Hodgson, currently a restricted free agent. “It bodes well for our future and they're good people. We're going to work hard and continue to look better.”
In an ironic twist, the Sabres' swoon neatly coincided with the franchise finally getting money, via natural resource titan and new owner Terry Pegula. Finally having cash to throw around changed the game for GM Darcy Regier, though not necessarily for the better (the Ville Leino contract, for instance). But for the players themselves, they love having people they trust at the top and Pegula's refurbishing of facilities was another way to thank his employees.
“The organization gives us so much and treats us so well, giving us the resources to get better,” Hodgson said. “Terry and Darcy have given us so much that we can use.”
Now it's a matter of putting it towards wins. Will the Sabres or Flames be contenders this season? Odds are long, but everybody's undefeated in the summer.
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at @THNRyanKennedy.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.