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Duhatschek: Will the Flames be modestly competitive or genuinely bad?

Here is how the NHL preseason ended for the Calgary Flames: They fell behind early in a game against the Phoenix Coyotes, worked hard to get back on even terms, but ultimately lost in overtime.

Over the course of 60-plus minutes, there was no denying how hard they worked. They played with discipline. They gave it their all. But in the end, it wasn't good enough – and it provided a glimpse into the crystal ball.

In 2013-14, there will be lots of nights when a strong effort won't be good enough to produce results for the rebuilding Flames.

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Just about every forecaster has envisioned the team occupying the basement in the new Pacific Division, largely based on last season's key departures – Jarome Iginla, Miikka Kiprusoff, Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Tanguay. As important as Iginla was in the grand scheme of things, it will be how they replace Kiprusoff that will determine if the Flames are genuinely bad or modestly competitive.

If Karri Ramo, repatriated from the Russia-based KHL, evolves into the next European goaltending sensation, Calgary will be a tougher out most nights than people expect. If Ramo is just ordinary, it could get ugly.

Contrary to popular belief, the Flames were a surprisingly good offensive team last season – the highest-scoring team in the now defunct Northwest Division.

Rookie forward Sean Monahan had a good camp and will start the year on the NHL roster, getting a nine-game trial before a decision has to be made about his future. Other youngsters – notably Sven Baertschi and Mikael Backlund – were less effective, but made the team anyway, and have been told they need to be better.

Like it or not, the one line that gave the Flames reputable NHL minutes is returning intact – the journeyman trio of Matt Stajan, Lee Stempniak and Curtis Glencross. All were NHL castoffs at different stages in their careers, but all are getting chances at high-end offensive minutes now. Somebody in Calgary is going to have to score and, chances are, it'll be these three leading the parade.

Entering his ninth NHL season, the 30-year-old Stempniak understands that no matter what he and his fellow forwards do, the team's successes or failures will turn mostly on the state of the netminder.

"A good goaltender gives you a chance to win every night," Stempniak said before the Flames left Tuesday for Washington, D.C., where they will open the season Thursday against the Capitals. "You need to score goals and you need to play well defensively, but if you're getting key saves at key times, you give yourself a chance every night and, really, that's all you can ask for.

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"As far as the team goes, I think we really need to embrace the mentality of being hard to play against – to be relentless on the forecheck, and relentless defensively. … If you look at our lineup, we're really going to rely on everyone."

Among the returning players, Stempniak and Michael Cammalleri were tied for the team scoring lead, with 32 points apiece. Cammalleri missed the final week of the exhibition season with a hand problem, and is on the injured reserve list.

At times in his career, Stempniak has had a scoring role. He has a 52-point season on his résumé (St. Louis Blues, 2006-07). Stajan produced a 55-point season for the Toronto Maple Leafs (2008-09).

So there is opportunity in Calgary to find those scoring levels again, opportunities they likely wouldn't get elsewhere in the NHL.

"It's obviously a new chapter and there's been some change, but we're not looking at it, internally in the locker room, as a rebuild where we're going to be satisfied losing," Stempniak said. "Every year, there's a team that comes out and plays above expectations and a lot of times they're young teams. You look back at what Ottawa did a couple of years ago, where they were written off, but they got contributions from everyone and made the playoffs.

"That's a team we can model ourselves after."

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