By THE CANADIAN PRESS
CALGARY — The start of this NHL season will be a lesson in adaptation for the Calgary Flames. They have a new head coach and new goaltenders and their top scorer was absent from training camp.
A slow start was Calgary’s undoing last season. At 6-12-1 on Nov. 15, the Flames did not recover en route to a 35-40-7 record and a 20-point backslide from the previous season.
Exit Bob Hartley, enter Glen Gulutzan.
Training camp doesn’t seem long enough when an overhauled coaching staff and goaltending tandem is introduced, but Gulutzan is preaching no excuses.
“I have full expectation that they will hit the ground running,” said the 45-year-old from Hudson Bay, Sask.
Gulutzan and assistants Dave Cameron and Paul Jerrard have emphasized special teams — Calgary’s penalty kill ranked last in the NHL last season at 75.5 per cent — and aggressive defence to gain the puck.
“The number one thing is we have to possess the puck more and that’s what this system is preaching,” captain Mark Giordano said.
The Flames open on the road Wednesday in Edmonton’s new Rogers Place before Calgary’s home-opener Friday against the Oilers.
With their provincial rival installed in a new arena and Scotiabank Saddledome now 33 years old, the Flames are negotiating with the City of Calgary for a new building. Brian Elliott, acquired from St. Louis in a trade, and free-agent signing Chad Johnson are counted on to be off-season solutions to a sub-par goaltending situation. Jonas Hiller, Karri Ramo, Joni Ortio and Niklas Backstrom combined for a league-worst save percentage of .892 last season as the Flames allowed the most goals in the league at 260.
Neither Elliott nor Johnson has a contract beyond this season.
Elliott’s save percentage of .930 ranked first in the league last season. The 31-year-old from Newmarket, Ont., brings recent big-game experience as he started 18 playoff games for the Blues.
“We don’t have any goalies we had last year. We have a whole new goaltending staff,” Giordano pointed out.
“That’s going to be important for us to learn, communicate with them. It’s the most important position in hockey.”
The elephant in the room throughout training camp had been the non-attendance of top scorer Johnny Gaudreau while he and the Flames negotiated a contract extension. However, Calgary announced on Monday that the club and the 23-year-old forward agreed to a new six-year deal.
Gaudreau wasn’t idle in September as he had two goals and two assists in three games for Team North America in the World Cup.
“We’ve got to make sure we get out of the gates,” Giordano said. “We have some big divisional games early right off the hop. Those are big. You’ve got to get some of those (wins) early.”
Sophomore forward Sam Bennett and free-agent signing Troy Brouwer forged linemate chemistry in the pre-season.
Matthew Tkachuk, the No. 6 pick in this year’s NHL draft, didn’t look out of place on that line and will start the season with the Flames.
The fleet-footed and puck-moving Giordano and T.J. Brodie are an enviable top-two defence pairing on any NHL team. Sean Monahan, who ranked second in Flames scoring last season, rebounded from the back strain that sidelined him from the World Cup to get into a pre-season game.
Calgary has locked in the centre, who turns 22 on Wednesday, until 2023 with a contract extension reported to be $44.6 million.
“There’s a lot of changes,” Monahan acknowledged. “Our structure is different and some of the setups we have are different. At the end of the day, it’s just more pressure and more skating.
“It’s going to be a quicker game and be on the puck and lot more hungry. That’s kind of where the game is going right now. If you sit back and let high-end players have time with the puck, that’s when they’re going to be dangerous.”