Originally Published: September 27, 2013

Calgary Flames: Color them last

By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Not long ago, Calgary Flames veteran winger Mike Cammalleri was chatting about some preseason prognostications for his Flames.

"Dead last?" he asked.

Pretty much.

Such is the lot in life for the Calgary Flames, a once-proud franchise that has missed the playoffs four straight seasons and hasn't won a playoff round since losing the 2004 Stanley Cup finals. Barring a startling and entirely unforeseeable renaissance, this season the Flames will once again languish near the bottom of the NHL standings. But if there is a tendency to dismiss the Flames, who finished 13th in the Western Conference, 13 points out of eighth place, head coach Bob Hartley promised that his team will not be a pushover.

"It's all about working together, working as a team," Hartley told ESPN.com. "I love what I've seen so far. I can't tell you how many games we're going to win but we're going to train and practice the right way."

Gone for good is captain Jarome Iginla, who was dealt to Pittsburgh at the trade deadline and then signed with the Boston Bruins in the offseason. Likewise, franchise netminder Miikka Kiprusoff is out, having retired in the offseason rather than play for peanuts in the final year of his contract, the first of the so-called cheat deals. The absence of those two players, even if their productivity had declined in recent years, creates a significant vacuum in terms of leadership and stability. GM Jay Feaster somehow managed to acquire right winger David Jones and well-traveled defenseman Shane O'Brien from Colorado for aging Alex Tanguay and Cory Sarich, which should put the Flames in the plus column at the end of the day, at least in terms of impact and salary-cap issues. T.J. Galiardi arrives from San Jose, and they signed former Lightning farmhand Karri Ramo to battle for time between the pipes. In perhaps the most newsworthy change, former Anaheim and Toronto GM Brian Burke was named president of hockey operations late in the offseason, signaling an ongoing push to change the culture of mediocrity that has defined the Flames for most of a decade.

This is the first full-on training camp for head coach Hartley, who rejoined longtime pal Feaster during the lockout-shortened 2013 season. Cammalleri had high praise for Hartley, who won a Cup coaching the Colorado Avalanche and guided the Atlanta Thrashers to their only playoff appearance.

"I actually feel like playing for Bob last year I became a better hockey player," said Cammalleri, who finished tied for the team lead with 32 points last season. "He's very detailed guy. He's a real hockey man. He's demanding and he can be a hard coach, and that's all fine and dandy and you may or may not like that, you may or may not agree with it. But at the end of the day, he works his butt off when it comes to hockey, and he loves the game and he'll make you a better player if you listen. It's not always the easiest thing because he's going to challenge you in ways that you've got to check your ego at the door a lot of the time, but if you can get beyond your ego that way and actually realize, 'If I actually do this stuff, I'll be a better player.' I feel like he does that especially with the defensive side of the game. I've really appreciated playing for him."

On the ice, the Flames will be watching Sean Monahan, a big center with tons of upside, who was selected sixth overall in last June's draft. Sven Baertschi is another dynamic offensive talent who will be given lots of opportunity to prove he's a front-line NHL player as will Mikael Backlund. T.J. Brodie showed flashes on the Flames' blue line last year, and a handful of other youngsters will be knocking at the door, such as Markus Granlund, Roman Horak and defenseman John Ramage, although it might be a year or two before they hear the answer they want.

"Our scouting staff has done a pretty unbelievable job in the last two, three years to restock the shelves," Hartley said.

The Flames were actually tied for 11th in goals per game last season with a lineup that was sneakily well-balanced with four players with at least 10 goals and three more with nine goals. The Flames were actually passable on special teams as well, finishing ninth with the man advantage and tied for 13th while killing penalties.

The Flames couldn't keep the puck out of their own net last season, finishing 28th in goals allowed. Part of that is a function of a lack of top personnel along the blue line and a goaltending situation in a state of flux. That picture isn't much clearer as the Flames need one of Ramo, big Swiss star Reto Berra or incumbent Joey MacDonald to assert himself as a player who can take the reins and be the man.

"We're probably the only team in the league that still doesn't know who's going to be our starter in Game 1," Hartley said.

The Flames are not particularly deep down the middle and do not have a bonafide stud along the blue line. Pending the team's fortunes, look for Cammalleri to be a possible trade chip as he is entering the final year of his contract, although he indicated he'd be open to a contract extension. If there is one hope, it's that the perception this team is destined for a poor finish somehow galvanizes the group in the room, according to Cammalleri.

"That's the hope. At the end of last year, there were a group of us that started having a lot of fun playing together and being teammates and you hope you get together and become a good team. There's examples of it," Cammalleri said, noting underdogs such as Nashville and Phoenix as examples of teams that have exceeded expectations in recent years.

"We want to be that team," he said.

Without putting too fine a point on it, unless the Flames are a lot better in a variety of areas, it won't really matter with whom they are aligned.

Burnside: The slow rebuild continues for the Flames as they seem destined for a prime draft pick next June. We see them seventh and last in the Pacific Division.

Custance: Seventh in the Pacific Division.

LeBrun: Seventh in the Pacific Division.

Melrose: Seventh in the Pacific Division.

Strang: Seventh in the Pacific Division.

Scott Burnside

ESPN Senior Writer


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