Flames looking for faster start, stronger finish this season

Calgary Flames' Mikael Backlund, center, from Sweden, celebrates his goal with teammates Sam Bennett, left, and Mark Giordano during the third period of an NHL pre-season hockey game in Calgary, Alberta, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press via AP)

CALGARY, Alberta (AP) After last season started slow and ended too quickly, the Calgary Flames are hoping for the opposite this year.

A sluggish October and November didn't stop the Flames from earning a wild-card playoff berth, but they were swept by the Anaheim Ducks in the first round. Under second-year coach Glen Gulutzan, they're banking on a fast start.

Gulutzan had all key players at training camp, which was not the case a year ago when top center Sean Monahan was injured for much of camp and top scorer Johnny Gaudreau didn't sign a contract extension until two days before the season-opener.

"There's a lot more cohesion," Gulutzan said. "You can tell the locker room is pretty tight already. I think we're very much at a different point than we were last year at this time."

With the reported addition of 45-year-old Jaromir Jagr, the Flames have even more veteran depth to go along with Monahan, Gaudreau and Sam Bennett. The majority of Flames players have a full season playing for Gulutzan and assistants Dave Cameron and Paul Jerrard under their belts.

"The guys who were here last year, we know the systems and exactly what is expected out of us," captain Mark Giordano said. "The main thing for us is to get out of the gates with a strong start, but play the right way right from the start."

To climb the Pacific Division standings and go deeper in the postseason, Calgary will have to win the Battle of Alberta with the Edmonton Oilers and end its run of futility in Anaheim. The Flames haven't won a regular-season game in Anaheim's Honda Center since 2004, but they have a chance to jettison the curse three games into this season as the Ducks host the Flames on Monday.

While this season's team is largely the same, the Flames will have to adjust to a new goaltending tandem for a second straight year.

Mike Smith may be past his prime at age 35, but tending net behind a deep and mobile defense could be the rejuvenation of the Kingston, Ontario, native after six years of heavy lifting with the Arizona Coyotes.

His penchant for playing the puck combined with Calgary's skill on defense has the potential for faster breakouts and less time in the defensive zone, which in turn lightens Smith's shot load.

"I think we can game plan around it," Giordano said. "There's a lot of different areas in the game where we can use his ability to really help us. The most obvious one is overtime where he can really help and really get the puck up. As forwards and defensemen, not having to go grab that puck from behind your net sometimes and be able to fan out, it creates a cleaner breakout."

Eddie Lack, 29, is Calgary's insurance policy in goal with 121 career NHL starts

The Flames are rock-solid on defense, where Giordano, Dougie Hamilton, T.J. Brodie, Mike Stone and the newly acquired Travis Hamonic give Calgary an abundance of size, speed and skill in their top-five defense.

"There's so many mobile and stable defensemen on this team," Lack said.

There are some questions up front. Calgary needs Gaudreau and Bennett to recover from production dips last season. Gaudreau dropped from 30 goals to 18.

The 21-year-old Bennett had 13 goals and 13 assists and was a rough minus-16 in his sophomore campaign.

The Flames have depth at center with Monahan, two-way specialist Mikael Backlund, Bennett, Matt Stajan, Curtis Lazar and 23-year-old Mark Jankowski.

The summer's college free-agent prize Spencer Foo was assigned to the Calgary's American Hockey League affiliate in Stockton, California. Expect Foo to get a call-up from the parent club this season.


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Updated October 3, 2017

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