The Calgary Flames’ 2016-17 season started slow and ended too quickly.
The Flames overcame a sluggish October and November to go 45-33-4 and claim a wild-card playoff berth, but were swiftly eliminated in four straight losses to the Anaheim Ducks in the first round.
Under second-year head coach Glen Gulutzan, the Flames are hoping for the opposite in 2017-18. They’re already ahead of where they were a year ago in terms of systems knowledge and execution and are banking on a fast start.
Gulutzan had all hands on deck in training camp, which was not the case a year ago when top centre Sean Monahan was injured for much of camp and top scorer Johnny Gaudreau didn’t sign a contract extension until the day before the season-opener.
“There’s a lot more cohesion,” Gulutzan said. “You can tell the locker-room is pretty tight already. I think we’re very much at a different point than we were last year at this time.”
The majority of Flames have a full season playing for Gulutzan and assistants Dave Cameron and Paul Jerrard under their belts.
“The guys who were here last year, we know the systems and exactly what is expected out of us,” captain Mark Giordano said.
“The main thing for us is to get out of the gates with a strong start, but play the right way right from the start.”
To climb the Pacific Division standings and go deeper into the post-season, Calgary will have to win the Battle of Alberta with the Edmonton Oilers and end their run of futility in Anaheim.
Calgary’s season-opener is Wednesday in Edmonton followed by the home-opener Saturday against Winnipeg.
The Flames haven’t won a regular-season game in Anaheim’s Honda Center since 2004, but they have a chance to jettison the curse three games into this season as the Ducks host the Flames on Monday.
While this season’s team is largely the same, the Flames will have to adjust to a new goaltending tandem for a second straight year.
Mike Smith may be past his prime at age 35, but tending net behind a deep and mobile defence could be the rejuvenation of the Kingston, Ont., native after six years of heavy lifting with the Arizona Coyotes.
His penchant for playing the puck combined with Calgary’s skill on defence has the potential for faster breakouts and less time in the defensive zone, which in turn lightens Smith’s shot load.
“I think we can game plan around it,” Giordano said. “There’s a lot of different areas in the game where we can use his ability to really help us
“The most obvious one is overtime where he can really help and really get the puck up. As forwards and defencemen, not having to go grab that puck from behind your net sometimes and be able to fan out, it creates a cleaner breakout.”
Eddie Lack, 29, is Calgary’s insurance policy in goal with 121 career NHL starts
The Flames are rock-solid on defence, where Giordano, Dougie Hamilton, T.J. Brodie, Mike Stone and the newly acquired Travis Hamonic give Calgary an abundance of size, speed and skill in their top-five defence.
“There’s so many mobile and stable defencemen on this team,” Lack said.
There are some questions up front. Calgary needs winger Johnny Gaudreau and centre/winger Sam Bennett to recover from production dips last season. Gaudreau dropped from 30 goals to 18.
The 21-year-old Bennett, who sported a bushy beard in training camp, had 13 goals and 13 assists and was a rough minus-16 in his sophomore campaign.
The Flames have depth at centre with Monahan, two-way specialist Mikael Backlund, Bennett, Matt Stajan, Curtis Lazar and 23-year-old Mark Jankowski.
The summer’s college free-agent prize Spencer Foo was assigned to the Calgary’s American Hockey League affiliate in Stockton, Calif. Expect Foo to get a call-up from the parent club this season.
Off the ice, a public dispute over a replacement for the 34-year-old Saddledome has become civic election fodder.
Calgary Sports and Entertainment president Ken King and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi have traded subtle and not-so-subtle barbs since CSEC broke off negotiations with the city in September.
Each side has gone public with how much they think the other should pay for a new building projected to cost between $500 million and $555 million.