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In Calgary, Flames’ recipe uses homegrown ingredients

Calgary Flames goaltender Mike Smith makes a save against the Oilers at Rogers Place in Edmonton earlier in the season.

Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

Doing things by the book is bringing the heat for the Calgary Flames.

In the NHL's salary-cap era that means draft and develop your own players, supplement them with some smart trades and make sure your free-agent signings emphasize value rather than enormous payouts. It was a philosophy often talked about by those who ran the organization, but not always done well until Brad Treliving became general manager in April, 2014.

"Absolutely," Treliving said. "To have success in this league you have to do it. You have to grow your own. We put an emphasis on that when we got here. It takes some time. You have to draft them, work with them. But we're starting to see the fruits of that labour pay off."

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Treliving would never say so, of course, but right now the Flames' development plan is working a lot better than the one employed by their bitter rivals to the north, the Edmonton Oilers.

After giving Oilers fans their first playoff team in 10 years last season, Connor McDavid and the rest of the Edmonton's high draft picks have fallen back to earth this season. They sport a mediocre 20-23-3 record, sixth in the Pacific Division, 13 points behind Calgary with the playoffs only a faint hope. The Flames also made the playoffs last season, in their case for just the second time in eight years. Like the Oilers, they did not start this season well. But goaltender Mike Smith, acquired last summer for some spare parts from the Arizona Coyotes, reverted to his form of a couple of years ago to backstop the Flames' resurgence in the past two months.

That, combined with a group of top-four defencemen who rank among the best in the NHL, the ascension of young forwards Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan to elite status and some help from the farm team, brought the Flames to the attention of fans across the league.

The Flames went into their five-day break this past week on a seven-game winning streak. On the last day of their mini-vacation, the Flames were still tied for second place in the Pacific Division with the San Jose Sharks before Friday's games with a 25-16-4 record.

Calgary's next game is at home against the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday afternoon.

"That little run we went on at least gives us a chance to be in the mix," said Treliving, who brushes aside any suggestion his team has a good grip on a playoff spot. "It's going to be tight. There's a lot of hockey left."

It is easy to assume the recent success was spurred by the famous tirade from head coach Glen Gulutzan at a practice on Jan. 5 that was capped by tossing his stick into the seats at the Scotiabank Saddledome. It quickly went viral on social media, of course, and it is safe to assume there was a certain calculation on the part of the coach, as he was not happy with the way some of the veteran players were working at the practice and there was a large media contingent on hand, complete with cameras.

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However, the outburst came two games into the Flames' seven-game winning streak, the morning after a 4-3 come-from-behind win over the Los Angeles Kings. It served more as reinforcement than a wake-up call, as the team was playing well but a little loose defensively.

Gulutzan was worried the players were getting a little too satisfied with the way things were going. At the time, the Flames were still outside of a playoff position.

"We weren't as good as we needed to be this morning," Gulutzan told reporters after the stick-toss. "Feeling pretty good about ourselves, which is great, but these reminders come best when you win. There's a level we need to be at on a daily basis. It's an everyday league. It's not warm-and-fuzzy. It's every day. What you saw was a coach reminding his team that one game doesn't make a season."

Treliving says the team's success starts in goal with Smith and the top two defence pairs of Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton and Travis Hamonic and T.J. Brodie. Smith is the Flames' first-half most-valuable player with a record of 20-13-3, goals-against average of 2.46 and save percentage of .924.

Smith's success at shoring up a problem spot for the Flames was a surprise to a lot of NHL observers. He is 35 years old and coming off a few tough seasons with the Coyotes. But Treliving, who was the Coyotes' assistant GM before coming to Calgary, did not view the trade, which cost only backup goaltender Chad Johnson off the team's NHL roster, as any kind of a gamble.

"I knew what he's all about," Treliving said of Smith, a late-bloomer who did not make the NHL until he was 24. "He was ready to be in this situation now. We know he's 35 but I look at it as he's got a low odometer on him. It's not like he's been in the league since he was 18.

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"He matured as a person and he was really looking forward to playing in this situation, in a Canadian market where everything is magnified and the game matters a lot. I think he's been rejuvenated and you're seeing what he's capable of."

The defence took a couple of years to come together, which is a relief for management since it was the most expensive to build in terms of assets. Giordano was signed as a free agent in 2004 and his partner Hamilton came along in 2015 from the Boston Bruins at the cost of a first-round pick and two second-round selections in the 2015 NHL entry draft. Treliving sent his first- and second-round picks in this year's draft to the New York Islanders last June for Hamonic, who makes up the second pair with the homegrown Brodie.

Those are a lot of early round picks to give up for a team dedicated to developing its own players. But Treliving can argue that Hamilton, 24, who had 50 points last season and has 22 in 45 games this season, is just entering the prime of what looks to be a star career. Hamonic, 27, also has a lot of years ahead of him as one of the better defensive defencemen in the NHL.

"Giordano and Dougie Hamilton, that pair is as good as any pair in the league," Treliving said. "The foundation of our team is from the net out and that group of [defence], with Hamonic and Brodie on the second pair, they've been really good in the last eight weeks. And [third pair] Mike Stone and Brett Kulak give support. We rely on them, they are a deep group. They're mobile."

The pride of the Flames' development program is found in the forwards, a deep and young group. The first line of Gaudreau, Monahan and Micheal Ferland had its struggles early in the season but found the gas pedal in November. During the seven-game win streak the trio has combined for 10 goals and 32 points.

Ferland is the surprise of the group. A fifth-round draft pick in 2010, he was put on the first line as a physical presence but has 19 goals in 44 games this season. Gaudreau, 24, and Monahan, 23, were taken in the fourth and first rounds, respectively, but are both considered hockey prodigies and both made strides this season to live up to their billing as future superstars.

Gaudreau is cut from the same cloth as the Toronto Maple Leafs' Mitch Marner, a small and flashy winger. But unlike Marner, who is finding his sophomore NHL season a tough one, Gaudreau had a career-high 78 points in his second season, 2015-16. He is now on pace to eclipse that mark with 54 points in 45 games.

"We're a young team and rely on young players to really drive us, in particular Johnny Gaudreau and Monahan," Treliving said. "You can see a real step they took this season.

"I think Johnny in particular took a real step toward being a top player in the league. People realize how talented he is. What they don't realize is how competitive he is. He is driven to win and be a top player in the league. Since December and really in January he's been as good as anybody."

But the best example of the depth now found in the Flames' farm system is the third line of Mark Jankowski, Garnet Hathaway and Andrew Mangiapane. They started the season as the top line on the Stockton Heat farm team. They were promoted separately as Flames veterans Michael Frolik, Kris Versteeg and Jaromir Jagr were lost to injuries.

Jagr, by the way, is more of a failed experiment than someone lost to injury. The NHL's oldest player was signed as a free agent this season but before he was injured it was clear Jagr, who will turn 46 on Feb. 15, could no longer keep up with his teammates. He is expected to negotiate a settlement with the Flames and perhaps return to the Czech Republic to play.

When the break ends Saturday, Jankowski, Hathaway and Mangiapane, who were reunited in early January by the Flames, are expected to continue as the third line. They showed they can kill penalties and provide some offence.

"Those guys came up and did a good job for us," Treliving said. "We think we have more [prospects] on the way at some point. It's always tricky with young guys; they develop at their own rate.

"Young players bring energy, speed and excitement. But it's all about how they get slotted in. We did not ask them to come in and save us. But they provide energy from underneath as well as speed."

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Johnny Gaudreau was taken in the first round. This version has been corrected.
The head coach of Canada’s Olympic men’s hockey team, which includes no current NHLers, says the players shared a 'dream' to compete for their country. Willie Desjardins was at the team announcement Wednesday in Calgary. The Canadian Press
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