Sports

Positive Vibes: Flames looking to improve on last year's disappointing season

CALGARY — A busy but productive off-season for Flames general manager Brad Treliving has made for a mostly sunny outlook in Calgary.

New head coach Glen Gulutzan, the free agent signing of veteran leader Troy Brouwer, and a complete overhaul of the Flames' league-worst goaltending are just some of the changes.

The positivity in the air after a 20-point regression a year ago was evident Thursday as training camp opened up with fitness testing.

"Anytime you have a year like we did, it doesn't fall on one guy, or one player, or one coach, it falls on all of us. Change is going to be made and there were changes made," said captain Mark Giordano. "But we're really excited. Not only the new guys coming in, but the guys that were here last year, we want a fresh start."

Viewed as a leader, Brouwer brings 98 games of playoff experience with him, that's 43 more than Dennis Wideman, the next-closest Flame.

"I love the role, I love the challenge, I love the expectations," said the 31-year-old.

The one dark cloud looming overhead is the contract status of restricted free agent Johnny Gaudreau, who just finished starring for Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey. Without a deal, he will not be participating in camp.

"No update," said Treliving, repeating the same response he's been giving all summer. "We'll continue to bang away at it. You hope for the best. We hope it's going to get done and going to get done soon. Time will tell."

In his second season, Gaudreau tied for seventh in league scoring with 78 points (30 goals, 48 assists). He was one of two high-profile free agents Treliving had to sign this summer. In August, No. 1 centre Sean Monahan agreed to a seven-year, $44.6 million deal.

Gulutzan spent the past three season as an assistant coach in Vancouver. He was a head coach in the NHL once before with Dallas. The 45-year-old, who replaces Bob Hartley, is described as a communicator and positive presence.

"Easy going, easy to talk to," said Brouwer. "With Gully, he seems like he's going to be a little bit more of a friend as a coach, a players coach, a guy that wants to talk to you, know how your family is doing, know how life away from hockey is going. And if he knows that things are good away from the rink, he knows that your mind will be clear and that you'll be a lot better player."

On the ice, the biggest area of improvement should be in net. Last year, the trio of Jonas Hiller, Karri Ramo, Joni Ortio combined for the league's worst save percentage.

All three are gone, replaced by established veterans Brian Elliott — acquired from St. Louis at the draft for a second round pick — and free-agent signing Chad Johnson. For half the salary Calgary spent on goaltending a year ago, they have a tandem whose combined numbers last year would have led the league in save percentage.

"The type of team that we have and the type of system we're going to play with an up-tempo style of play and D men jumping in, there's going to be chances against," said Giordano. "You want to eliminate as many of those as you can, but to have that presence back there who calm you down and make those big saves is huge."

Brouwer is very familiar with Elliott from last year with the two being teammates on that Blues team that reached the Western Conference final.

"Last year, they gave him the ropes and he performed amazingly. He kept us in games in the playoffs, won us games in the playoffs and down the stretch," said Brouwer. "To have confidence in your goaltenders goes a long way just to being able to just go out there and play."

Anchoring the back end is Giordano, who is in the first year of a six-year, $40.5 million extension that makes him the highest paid player on the team, at least, for now. TJ Brodie and Dougie Hamilton are also key cogs on defence.

Key returnees up front include Sam Bennett, Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik. Matthew Tkachuk, sixth overall pick in the 2016 draft, could also make the team.

Among the six players brought to camp on professional tryouts are long-time NHLers Chris Higgins, Lauri Korpikoski and Nicklas Grossmann. 

Veteran defenceman Ladislav Smid will not play this season. He's had two neck surgeries in his career and his season ended last year with an injury to the same area. The 30-year-old was entering the final year of deal that paid him $3.5 million.