RALEIGH -- We often talk about a team's identity.
Does it come from a collective or is it something more specific? As in, is it possible that a team's identity can be defined by one player?
You don't have to spend much time around the Calgary Flames to figure out which theory they subscribe to.
And if the rest of the hockey world has been slow to come around to the Tao of Mark Giordano, it's hard to imagine a single player who is talked about with as much reverence as the Flames' captain.
"What makes him so special today, I think it's the steps that he took to be the player that he is today," Calgary coach Bob Hartley told ESPN.com. "I think it's a pretty unique story. I don't know how many captains of 30 teams didn't get drafted."
Not just undrafted, but at one point enrolled in business school at York University in Toronto and thinking of playing for the school's hockey team, a no-man's land for cultivating pro hockey players. And then there was the year he spent playing in Russia when he couldn't get a contract done with the Flames.
Giordano doesn't glory in his unconventional path to prominence or seem to think too much on the topic at all.
Yes, he was enrolled at York University in the summer of 2004, looking at taking advantage of Canadian junior hockey educational packages when he didn't have any other options.
"I had to get ready in case something didn't come up, right?" Giordano told ESPN.com. "A bunch of my buddies were going [to York]. I enrolled. I met with the coach. I was ready to play for their team and go to school."
But late in the summer, the Flames came calling, and what might have been an early dead end to his hockey career became something else entirely.
"At heart, I really didn't want to have to go and use that school package," said Giordano, 31. "I wanted to play pro hockey."
Expected to be one of the worst teams in the NHL this season and in consideration for the Connor McDavid/Jack Eichel bonanza -- the two generational players who are considered locks to go first and second in the draft in June -- the Flames have defied skeptics. Although they dropped the finale of a five-game eastern road trip in Raleigh on Monday, they still managed to collect three wins and have an impressive 7-4 overall road record.
As Thanksgiving approaches -- a kind of unofficial litmus test of a team's success or failure in the NHL world -- the Flames hold down third spot in the Pacific.
Giordano? Like his team, Giordano continues to turn heads and collect believers.
Heading into Thursday's action, he was tied for fifth in league scoring with 19 points. Not just tied for third among defensemen. The entire league.
The Toronto native has formed a dynamic pairing with T.J. Brodie, a smart-skating defender seven years his junior.
Between the two, they have collected 33 points and are 1-2 in team scoring and first and third among all NHL defensemen. Both have strong offensive instincts and both love to jump into the play.
In fact, the Flames' game plan demands it.
"We have the green light, there's no doubt about that," Giordano said. "We rarely get in trouble for jumping in. They really want us to be aggressive and go, so that helps as well."
He and Brodie recalled a game last season when they were the two skaters going in on a 2-on-1. "It was hilarious," Giordano said.
Hartley admitted he sometimes smirks while standing on the bench and seeing his two top offensive talents -- who also happen to be defensemen -- leading the charge. But the depth of Giordano's impact on this team goes beyond points. Or, more to the point, the fact that he has emerged over the last two seasons as a premier defender is a constant reflection of the work he has put in to get here.
"I think it just makes you respect him that much more," Brodie said of his partner and friend. "You can see it in the style of his play. He never gives up. He always comes to work, no matter what day it is, no matter what the score is, he's always playing the same way. It's one of those things you just have to respect him for never giving up."
Jim Playfair, now an assistant coach for the Arizona Coyotes, was one of Giordano's early head coaches in Calgary. He happily gives up time on a day off to talk about the young man he said very early on had captain qualities. What struck Playfair was Giordano's commitment to improve. And to put in the work to do just that by watching, listening, learning.
"He doesn't expect anything," Playfair said. "I don't think he's ever lost that."
In Playfair's view, no one moves laterally with the puck under pressure as well as Giordano does. Hartley figures if he had 23 Giordanos on the team, there'd be no need for a coach.
"Obviously, I think that the more you spend time around Mark Giordano, that's where you discover not only a great hockey player but an unbelievable person. In many, many ways he reminds me of Joe Sakic, especially on the leadership side," said Hartley, who coached the Hall of Fame center while with the Colorado Avalanche, winning a Stanley Cup in 2001.
"You can look up the meaning of professional in the dictionary, or you can look at Mark Giordano.
"His evolution, I think he created himself. He's so committed to be a good pro, to be a great player, to be a great teammate, to be a great leader. That's why he's so important to us."
Important? That might be underselling it a bit. Crucial? Imperative? The missing link? For a Flames team that has missed the playoffs in five straight years and has not won a playoff round since the magical run to the 2004 Stanley Cup finals, when they lost in seven games to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Giordano is the catalyst to a slow but steady renaissance in Calgary.
Giordano said that fans have "been great through this, whatever you want to call it, this rebuild or retool or whatever word you want to use. They've been very supportive. Standing O's at the end of some losses last year, which is pretty cool. It's a market that's just starving for a team to be in the playoffs. And be able to cheer us on."
So, go ahead and start listing the top defensemen in the NHL right now. Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith, Alex Pietrangelo, Ryan Suter, P.K. Subban, Erik Karlsson. Where does Giordano fit into that pantheon? Top five? Top 10?
"I've thought that for a couple of years now," Brodie said. "It's not always based on the points. He's always done everything at both ends of the ice. There's not many guys in the league that do that and play that way. It's definitely nice to see he's finally getting recognized."
Craig Button was a GM in Calgary and is a national broadcast analyst who lives in Calgary. He's unequivocal in his belief that Giordano is in the rarified company when it comes to discussing the game's top defenders.
"If people don't know how good Mark Giordano is and that he is an elite defenseman in the National Hockey League, they're not paying attention," Button told ESPN.com.
Under the radar? Ha. Button has a suggestion: "Turn on the TV and pay attention." Button believes the Flames couldn't have found a better captain to take over for Jarome Iginla, long the face of the Flames' organization. He likens it to Henri Richard taking over as captain for the Montreal Canadiens from Jean Beliveau, or Nicklas Lidstrom taking over as captain for Steve Yzerman with the Detroit Red Wings.
It's probably not surprising that having a discussion about how good Giordano is makes him slightly uncomfortable, but he's gracious enough to answer those kinds of questions. And frankly, it's something he'd better get used to doing.
"I mean, it's obviously great when you hear good stuff about yourself, but there's a lot of great defensemen in the league," he said. "I don't know if I'm, whatever, top five, top 10, top 20. I really believe if you look around at top pairs in the NHL, there's a lot of good top pairs in the league, but together me and Brodes, I think we're both better players playing together than separate from each other. That's just the way, the fact that it's been like this for the last year and a bit."
Even last season's ankle injury that likely robbed Giordano of a spot on the Canadian Olympic team is treated as something more positive than negative.
"It wasn't discouraging at all for me," Giordano said, noting that he wasn't invited to the Canadian orientation camp in Calgary before the start of last season. "So it was more of a compliment to me to be considered, to be honest. The injury happened. I broke a bone in my ankle. I don't know how you stop that from happening. It's just one of those things. It was bad timing in that sense. But I took it as more of a compliment than anything, to be honest."
It's early. Way too early to be thinking playoffs and the like. In the Western Conference, playoff dreams can be dashed by a couple of weeks' worth of uneven or poor play. But let's not ignore the work that has already been done.
"Calgary, I'm telling you, they play," Button said. "They play, and they play hard. They play fast and smart, and there's an excitement in a city. Now there's a genuine excitement for the team."
Giordano has that same sense of something building in Calgary, and he'd like nothing more than to be a part of one of this year's storybook teams.
"I think if you look at the league, every year there's always that team that you look at and say, 'I didn't think that team would be where they are.' Last year, it was Colorado," Giordano pointed out. "Ottawa did it a few years ago, when they made the playoffs. I just look at it like, why can't we be that team? That has to be our mindset. People project us to be where we are because we haven't made the playoffs in a long time."
Now that perception is slowly changing.
"So far, we're playing a good brand of hockey," he said. "We have a long way to go. But if we can sort of chew away at it in 20-game segments and keep our record going, why can't we be a team that cracks the playoffs?"
Why not, indeed.