Now comes the hard part for the Calgary Flames: What to do for the encore?
Just about everything that could go right did so for the Flames last season. A team projected to be in the running for Connor McDavid unexpectedly made the playoffs, and even won a round. The Flames did so despite losing their captain and best player, Mark Giordano, with a biceps injury for the final quarter of the season, plus playoffs. It was a year in which they scored nine times with the goalie out of the net, completing one miracle comeback after another.
Defenceman Kris Russell established a single-season NHL record for blocked shots (283). Right winger Jiri Hudler tied for eighth overall in NHL scoring and won the Lady Byng trophy. Left winger Johnny Gaudreau tied for the rookie scoring lead and was a finalist for the Calder Trophy. Bob Hartley won the coach-of-the-year award. Just about every player who mattered had a career season in Calgary.
Unhappily, the general pattern for teams that make a 20-point year-over-year surge is they tend to fall back the next season, something both Hartley and general manager Brad Treliving are aware of. "Remember the Colorado Avalanche" could be the team's slogan for the 2015-16.
Still, training camp is a time for dreaming, and the hope in Calgary is that their off-season moves, which landed them a premier young defenceman in Dougie Hamilton and a quality two-way forward in Michael Frolik, without losing a contributing player from the roster, makes them flat-out better.
If their young players, including Gaudreau, centre Sean Monahan and centre Sam Bennett all continue to improve, that may offset the very strong possibility that their luck won't quite run as consistently well as it did a year ago.
Unlike past years, where there were legitimate openings on a talent-thin roster, the Flames are mostly a closed shop going into this season, with few real jobs up for grabs for players trying to move up in the organization. If you count one-way contracts or players such as Gaudreau and Monahan, whose places are secure, they have 16 forwards to shoehorn into 14 spots. Three players – Joe Colborne, Josh Jooris and Paul Byron – are recovering from off-season surgeries, but they are expected to be ready for the start of the regular season.
The Flames want Bennett to play centre when training camp begins because they ultimately see him there, long-term – though the temptation may be to switch him to the wing early on, just because he would play a top-six role there and it's also where he was most effective during last year's end-of-season cameo.
Defensively, the Flames have to figure out where Hamilton fits. He is a right-handed shot, as are Dennis Wideman and Deryk Engelland, while Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Russell all shoot left. On the surface, it looks like the perfect mix, but here is the dilemma: Last year, Giordano and Brodie formed one of the most effective tandems in the league, with Brodie playing the off side, where he says he is most comfortable.
Do you split up such an effective pair – in which case, one of the right-handed shooting defencemen has to switch to the left side? Or do you ask Brodie to play his natural side, which opens the door for Hartley to use Giordano and Hamilton as a dynamic top-end pair?
Hartley will use the exhibition season to experiment, so Hamilton will get a chance to play with virtually every possible partner and see where chemistry might develop.
In goal, all three candidates – holdovers Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo, plus challenger Joni Ortio, who played well in a brief call-up last season – are all on one-year contracts.
Hiller earned the bulk of the work last year and was in goal when the Flames upset the Vancouver Canucks in the opening round of the playoffs. When Hiller faltered in the second round against his former team, the Anaheim Ducks, Hartley switched to Ramo, who tested the free-agent market this summer, before rejoining Calgary. Long-term, the Flames see Jon Gillies, a 6-foot-6 netminder who most recently helped Providence win an NCAA title, as their starter, but that could be two or more years away. In the meantime, they will have to get the same steady brand of goaltending-by-committee that they received last year in order to challenge again for a playoff spot.
Sometimes, injuries make the hard decisions for a team. With all hands on deck, it gets more complicated.
Still, this is a far preferable situation than last year, when the Flames gambled on signing free-agent Devin Setoguchi just before camp because they needed more depth up front. Setoguchi turned out to be a poor fit, other than to illustrate the team's much-repeated mantra, "Nothing given, everything earned."
Ultimately, they were prepared to put an NHLer on a one-way contract in the minors, and presumably are prepared to do so again. Amid all the cheery optimism permeating Calgary, the one fact they cannot lose sight of is, these are still early days in the rebuild.
The focus has to remain on the big picture, and when your two top centres are just 21 and 19, you know the window to challenge for a championship is still a few years away.