CALGARY — A roster populated with young players trying to prove themselves in the NHL and a bulging wallet of salary-cap space are reasons for the Calgary Flames to feel optimistic on the eve of their NHL season.
General manager Jay Feaster and new president of hockey operations Brian Burke spoke to the media Monday ahead of Calgary’s season-opener Thursday in Washington.
After four straight seasons of playoff-free hockey, few project the rebuilding Flames as contenders for the post-season in 2013-14.
Feaster and Burke were marketing a brand of hard, committed hockey that they believe will both entertain fans and put the Flames on the road to glory.
“As Jay has said repeatedly, we were a cap team with star players and did not have success,” said Burke, who was hired Sept. 5. “We are in a different mode going forward. This is a transition that had to take place and is well under way.
“We’re not prepared to concede we’re going to struggle yet.
“The issue for me is, do we have enough skill? We’re going to find that out.”
The average age of Calgary’s opening-day roster announced Monday is just over a year younger than last season’s. Teenage forward Sean Monahan, the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft, will start his season with the Flames.
His entry-level contract kicks in after nine NHL games, so Calgary has until then to decide whether to keep Monahan, who turns 19 on Oct. 12, or return him to the Ontario Hockey League’s Ottawa 67’s.
“We will continue to monitor Sean’s progress on a daily basis, we’ll see how he stacks up, how the games come to him and what kind of ice time he gets,” Feaster said.
“I don’t think he has to play a lot or play a big role or play every game right away. We decide when those nine games will take place. They can be spread over the course of three months if we decide to do it.”
Finnish goaltender Karri Ramo, 27, is Calgary’s starter to open the season with veteran Joey MacDonald as his backup.
The Flames like Reto Berra’s talent, but sent the Swiss product to their American Hockey League affiliate in Abbotsford, B.C., for more seasoning in the North American game.
“At present we think Karri Ramo is just slightly ahead of Reto, which is why Karri is going to get the chance to carry the ball,” Feaster said.
Veteran forward Mike Cammalleri will start the season on injured reserve because of a hand injury.
With the acquisition of forward Joe Colborne from Toronto on Saturday, Calgary had 45 players under contract out of a league maximum of 50.
The Flames also had $13 million in salary-cap space to work with and the green light from ownership to spend to the maximum of $64.3 million.
“We have cap space, we have contract room,” Burke pointed out. “We have the ability for Jay to improve the team.”
But both Burke and Feaster insist they won’t spend money for the sake of doing so. Feaster is on the lookout for “bridge players” at the apex of their careers or leaning towards post-apex who can strengthen Calgary’s rebuild.
“We’re not looking to get older. We’re not looking to get slower,” Feaster declared.
The GM bristled during training camp at suggestions the Flames won’t win many games this year.
“We will approach every game preparing and planning and expecting to win,” he said Monday. “Losing, while it does and will happen, it is never acceptable to us.
“We expect to be known by our work ethic. It doesn’t matter how many times we get knocked down. What matters is how many times we get back up and continue to move ahead. We expect our guys to stick together on and off the ice. We believe the strength is in the pack. We’ve advised the players of that.”
Burke spoke of patience Monday, even though he admitted he doesn’t have a lot of it.
“We get paid to be patient,” he said. “You guys know me. Patience isn’t in the first or second part of my vocabulary.
“I think the fans can live with the process if they see a plan in place and they see it is absolutely, rigidly adhered to. We have to stick with what we’ve put together here in camp in terms of playing as a unit, working hard, playing and thinking hockey and competing at all times. We’re going to need goaltending.”
Along with Berra, the Flames assigned defenceman Patrick Sieloff and forwards Roman Horak and Blair Jones to the AHL on Monday. Sieloff can turn pro at 19 because he was drafted out of the United States Hockey League, not the Canadian Hockey League.
Winger Sven Baertschi, Calgary’s first-round pick in 2011, also made the parent club’s opening-day roster despite an inconsistent training camp for the 20-year-old.
“All I’ve seen so far is flashes of brilliance,” Burke said. “Flashes of brilliance are fine if you’re working in a university. They’re not much good to people in an NHL building.
“There’s three zones on the ice surface in this league. I don’t see that he’s learned to play and compete in two of them. He’s got to learn there’s a clock in this league. There’s so many minutes in a game and you have to compete through all of them.”