CALGARY - The Calgary Flames did not make the playoffs for a fifth straight year. The difference between this spring and the previous four is the Flames did not underachieve this time around.
When since-deposed general manager Jay Feaster brought himself to say the word "rebuild" last summer, it confirmed following the departure of Jarome Iginla, Miikka Kiprusoff and Jay Bouwmeester that the Flames were going to be a lunchbucket squad until new stars emerged or were acquired.
Calgary (35-40-7) finished 27th in the 30-team league this past season and second-last in the Western Conference above only Edmonton. The 77 points was the team's lowest total since 2002-03.
The Flames went 19-14-1 after brawling with the Canucks in Vancouver on Jan. 18, but they were already in next-year territory after winning just nine games through November and December.
The slow start opened the door to audition for the future. A dozen players made their NHL debut with the Flames this season.
Calgary has a top-five pick in the NHL draft in June for the first time since 1973 when they were the Atlanta Flames. The Flames have a 10.7 per cent chance of winning the first overall pick in Tuesday's draft lottery.
But in contrast with Oilers to the north—where people tossed jerseys on the ice in disgust—the Flames had more goodwill and patience from their fanbase. Calgary compensated for its lack of talent with tenacity.
The Flames were involved in 49 one-goal games this season and went 25-24 in them.
"The conclusion of a season that does not include playoff is a failure and we acknowledge that failure, but it was not a lost or wasted season in any sense of the word," said hockey operations president Brian Burke, who is also interim general manager until he hires a new one.
"I think there were a lot of positive developments in this season that I'm proud of. I think we gave (the fans) a product they enjoyed watching."
Bob Hartley squeezed effort out of his group in his first full season behind the bench. The head coach has one year remaining on a three-year contract and Burke says Hartley will coach the team in 2014-15.
"Once we get a general manager in place, I'll encourage that person to address that situation," Burke said. "It's not the end of the world when a coach works in the last year of his contract, but it's not ideal. That will be up to the next GM."
Hartley said prior to Calgary's home game "our report card still says we failed" but the coach said Monday that it was a "great day."
"We decided late last year that we would get a new face to this organization. We would go with younger players," Hartley said.
"From the inside—I don't know about the outside because I'm not on the outside—from the inside, I saw commitment, I saw progress. Those guys gave us everything that they had."
Unlike the previous four seasons when an expensive, veteran squad with stars on its roster fell short of the post-season, there was less disappointment and more optimism as the Flames packed their bags this time.
With 22 goals, forward Sean Monahan became the first Flames rookie to score more than 21 since Iginla in 1996-97. The 19-year-old from Brampton, Ont., confirmed he'll play for Canada in the world championships in Minsk, Belarus, next month.
"Down the stretch, these last 20 games, carrying the puck, I felt more confident with the puck," Monahan said. "That's something I want to be able to do next year, be confident with the puck, make plays and I guess produce a little bit more."
Monahan and veterans Matt Stajan and Chris Butler raved about Mark Giordano's leadership skills in his first season as captain.
The 30-year-old was also a key contributor on the ice with 47 points and a plus-12 rating. Giordano played himself into consideration for Canada's Olympic team. He declined the chance to participate in the world championships, saying a hand injury needed time to heal.
When he was healthy, Karri Ramo played himself to No. 1 on Calgary's goaltending depth chart with a 17-15-4 record. The Finn has one year remaining on a two-year contract.
"The players like him because he battles," Burke said. "I think Karri Ramo has established that he deserves to come back here as the No. 1 goaltender."
Hobey Baker winner Johnny Gaudreau, who led the NCAA in scoring, signed a contract on the weekend and scored in his first NHL game Sunday in Vancouver.
The players believe they've built a foundation upon which to build for next season. All eyes turn to Burke, who he chooses as his new GM and assistant GM and how they in turn handle the draft and Calgary's cap space in free agency.
"The GM search, we're going to approach teams that missed the playoffs," Burke said. "If they have candidates we're going to approach them today, some of them.
"If we have to wait until after the draft to fill that position, we will."
Burke took over as interim GM when he fired Feaster in December. Burke was brought on board in September as hockey ops president to accelerate Calgary's rebuild.
His goal is to make the Flames bigger, stronger and meaner. He acquired a second- and third-round draft pick at the March 3 trade deadline, but added no players to the team.
"I think truculence is part of this game," Burke said. "Everyone likes to make fun of that word because the first time I used it, a lot of people said it's kind of a new word in hockey, but it's not.
"I think tough teams win. You look at the St. Louis Blues. They've been a dominant team all year. Their average weight is 208 pounds. In the West (conference) especially, if you're not a hostile team with size, you're not going to have success. We need to get bigger."
Mike Cammalleri, Calgary's leading scorer and most expensive player counting $6 million against the salary cap, will be an unrestricted free agent July 1 unless he re-signs with the Flames.
"I don't have anything to report," the 30-year-old said. "Just had some exit meetings and talked to Brian. He said we'd talk again. Today wasn't the day to talk about that sort of thing. Today was a day to address the season. I am far from having ruled Calgary out as far as my future."
Butler, 27, will also be a UFA for the first time in his career.
"It's a unique opportunity, being unrestricted and having control of your destiny and being able to choose potentially where you want to go," Butler said. "It's an opportunity not everybody gets and it is something you earn and you work for.
"It's something I'll think about, but it's still a few months away and it's kind of hard to think about right now having just played last night and wearing that jersey for the last three years."
Forwards Paul Byron, Joen Colborne, Lance Bouma and T.J. Galiardi are among Calgary's restricted free agents this summer.