If there’s a Canadian team that’s built for a long playoff run, it’s the Calgary Flames.
They have a Norris Trophy winner in captain Mark Giordano. They boast three 30-plus goal scorers, two lines that match up against any in the NHL, and they believe they have a top goalie tandem in David Rittich and Cam Talbot.
Their financial house is also in order, with Matthew Tkachuk signing a team-friendly, three-year, $21-million contract (all dollars U.S.) that makes him the Flames’ highest-paid player on an average annual basis at $7 million.
And they have something to prove after finishing as the top seed in the West with 107 points, only to bow out to the second wild card (Colorado) in five games in the first round.
Like Tampa in the East — which went down in four straight to Columbus in the first round — the Flames are hungry to prove themselves as Stanley Cup contenders.
“I think we have the same expectations as last year,” forward Sam Bennett told the Star in a one-on-one interview in September.
Things don’t always go as planned, though, and Bennett is as good an example of that as anyone. His 13 goals and 14 assists in 71 games last season were a far cry from what he expects of himself, but prime ice time is at a premium.
“I think I have an opportunity to jump in and take a bigger role for myself,” said Bennett. “I think I can be more relied on offensively this year.”
The 23-year-old winger is entering his fifth NHL season. Great things, at least offensively, were expected of the fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft, who reminded many of Doug Gilmour at the time. He’s had trouble landing an offensive role on a Calgary team that can run-and-gun with the best of them.
Besides Tkachuk (34 goals last year), the team boasts Johnny Gaudreau (36) and Sean Monahan (34) as well as playmakers such as Elias Lindholm (78 points).
As a result, Bennett has refined his play away from the puck and earned ice time as a role player.
“You know, I was always that offensive guy … and it hasn’t really gone that way for me,” said the former star of the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs and graduate of the GTHL’s Toronto Marlboroughs. “I’ve just slowly kind of developed my game where, if I’m not playing that offensive role, I’m still doing things to help the team win and help the team have success … but I still believe that I can still bring that offensive side of my game.”
The Flames also have roster stability, with Milan Lucic (acquired from the Oilers for James Neal), Tobias Rieder and Talbot the only significant off-season additions.
GM Brad Treliving was aided on that front when Tkachuk backed away from pursuing a more expensive long-term contract and agreed to a short-term deal that is team friendly while still making him the team’s highest-paid player.
“The best-case scenario happened,” Tkachuk said at the news conference after reaching the deal. “There isn’t one guy that had to be moved in this process (because of the salary cap).
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“That was a fear of mine. You never want to see that happen. We were such a good team last year, and we brought in some pieces that made us that much better and (we) can be more successful in the post-season.
“It’s such a bonus that everyone is still here.”