Johnny Gaudreau’s three points Thursday night for the never-say-die Calgary Flames not only put him in the lead for the rookie scoring title, it kept the Flames in command of their own fate in the Western Conference wild-card race.
As much as Gaudreau has been an incredible story for Calgary by getting himself into Calder Trophy contention when it seemed a lock to be awarded to Nashville’s Filip Forsberg, it’s the Flames’ ability to continue to defy the odds – and the underlying numbers – that has truly been the story.
While the spreadsheets and advanced stats tell us what we can expect of a team as a season wears on, what Calgary’s shot attempts or PDO can’t dictate is what will happen in two or three years. If they could, you would see a Flames team that isn’t considered to be fluking into the playoffs but one with a Stanley Cup in their future.
GM Brad Treliving and Brian Burke have done a tremendous job building for Calgary’s future. In several seasons, you may not see a roster as deep – especially down the middle – as Calgary's. If this season’s trade deadline, one in which Chicago paid a first-round pick and defensive prospect for a rental depth center, is any indication, it’s clear just how important having a wealth of pivots is.
Already, the Flames have two big pieces of their future down the middle in Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. Monahan, whose 22 goals last season were a teaser for the 30-plus-goal pace he’s on right now, already looks like he’ll be a productive center for the Flames for years to come.
In the pipeline, Calgary has Sam Bennett, the second ranked prospect in THN’s 2015 Future Watch, who may have been an every game NHLer this season were it not for an injury. Behind him, the Flames have Markus Granlund, the 64th ranked prospect in Future Watch, who has the hockey IQ to play a solid two-way game and could be a dangerous third line center in short order.
To flank Gaudreau, Monahan, Bennett and Granlund, Emile Poirier is waiting to show he can make an impact in the NHL. He was brought up to the NHL in late-February and played five games, but has been a healthy scratch for Calgary’s last seven outings. In the AHL, however, he tallied 14 goals and 30 points in 42 games and earned an invite to the AHL All-Star Game. Not shabby for a kid of only 20.
And it wouldn’t be a Brian Burke team without a bit of grit, but Michael Ferland stands to be more than a face-puncher. Ferland has the hands to contribute in the NHL – his 47-goal, 96-point season with the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings was no fluke – and he’s been a steady producer in the AHL, posting 13 goals and 33 points in 64 games.
While the Flames are set up front, they’ve also got the necessary talent on the backend. While Edmonton has continuously struggled with their rebuild due to a dearth of NHL defensemen, Calgary has excelled thanks in large part to the now-injured Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie.
Giordano, 31, is playing like a defenseman entering his prime. If his game can hold until his age 34 or 35 season, there’s no reason why he can’t be the Flames' go-to blueliner when it comes time to make a deep playoff run. And Brodie, 24, is proving he’s not just a passenger with Giordano, but instead every bit his equal.
Add to it savvy waiver pickup David Schlemko, who could round into a solid third or fourth defenseman, and Kris Russell, who has been impressive filling in for Giordano, and the Flames have a top four that can compete with the bulk of the NHL.
Signing defenseman Kenney Morrison, a 6-foot-3, 208-pound 23-year-old coming off two strong seasons for the NCAA's Western Michigan, is a wise move, too. He’ll likely challenge for a depth spot next season and will factor in long-term for Calgary. Defense could also be something the Flames address at the draft where they have six picks in the top 80. If they package picks, they could move into the top 10 and land a top-end blueline prospect that puts their defense over the top.
And, as we’ve seen for years now, even average goaltending can be enough to get into the post-season or win a Cup. While Karri Ramo and Jonas Hiller may not be the goaltenders of the future for Calgary, Joni Ortio looked solid in his brief January stint, with a 1.98 goals-against average and .931 save percentage. Behind Ortio is Jon Gillies, selected 75th overall by the Flames in 2012 and currently playing at NCAA Providence. A few years of seasoning in the AHL could do Gillies well and help solidify tandem of Ortio and Gillies by 2017-18.
So, yes, while the Flames are riding an unsustainable surge to the playoffs, it doesn’t project to be that way for long. While they may not have the impact stars yet, those players are developing and stand to make the Flames competitive for years. And a lineup of Gaudreau, Monahan, Bennett, Granlund, Poirier, Giordano, Brodie... you get the point.
The Calgary Flames are defying the odds right now, but soon their success projects to be very, very real.