Post-mortem: The five best parts of year one of the rebuild

Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie, and Mikael Backlund were all highlights of the Flames' season. - Derek Leung

"Oh, rebuilds suck," they warned us. That may be true, but after the first full season of it, it wasn't all bad.

With 82 games played, we finally know where the Flames stand: 27th in the league. There may have been vast improvement over the second half of the season, but it's still important to remember that even with the team playing better, they still finished fourth last in the league. Whoever the Flames pick with their first rounder is likely going to help, but the rebuild certainly isn't over just yet.

It wasn't a bad first year of rebuilding, though. So, without further ado, here are the five best things about last season:

5. Finnish goalies

For the first time in a decade, the Flames were entering the season without an established starter.

Two of the four goalies who started games for the Flames this season are still with the organization: Karri Ramo and Joni Ortio.

Ramo had a rough start, including, for some reason, Bob Hartley's initial nonsensical hatred of him as he turned to start first Joey MacDonald, and then Reto Berra, over him. Remember back in November when it was non-stop Berra?

But the season ended on a high note for Ramo. He posted the first two shutouts of his career. He started putting together a few streaks of high save percentage games. He finished the season with a .911 SV%: the highest in his NHL career. It's not amazing, but it's respectable: especially when you take into consideration his vast improvement as the season progressed and he got more starts.

And then there's Joni Ortio, our miniature Miikka Kiprusoff. He got nine NHL starts in his first full North American season, posting a SV% of .891. In five of nine starts, he only let in one or two goals against. AND he scored two assists. It's clear he has some work to do, but he's young, there's time, and he showed potential. Being one of the AHL's top goalies hasn't been bad, either.

So long live the Flames' tradition of having a Finnish starter.

4. Sean Monahan (and other rookies)

The Flames saw a lot of young bodies this season, and a lot of them showed promise to become regular NHLers.

Monahan? First Flames rookie to score 20+ goals since Dion Phaneuf. He opened his NHL career with a 22 goal, 34 point season. Some argue that Monahan should have been sent back to the OHL, and I can understand their points, but also, we probably wouldn't have gotten @boringmonahan, so it's a pretty good trade off, I'd say.

And Monahan wasn't the only one. Despite a rough start, Joe Colborne wasn't too far behind Monahan, scoring 10 goals and 28 points in his rookie campaign. Colborne showed vast improvement when he was moved to Monahan's wing, and he may end up staying there a while yet.

Then there's the parade of rookies that got called up to experience their first NHL games. Markus Granlund had a great preseason, was sent down, was called up when injuries struck, and got two goals and an assist in six games. (He was injured 12 seconds into his seventh.)

Max Reinhart managed to get two assists in his eight Flames starts, but is still in the midst of a hell of an AHL season: 20 goals and 58 points in 60 games, more than double what he scored last year.

Corban Knight scored his first NHL goal. So did Kenny Agostino. So did, well, you know, Johnny Gaudreau, who impressed like hell in his NHL debut. And Bill Arnold nearly got his first goal as well.

Then there was Tyler Wotherspoon, who, in his 14 NHL games this season, looked like an NHL defenceman, playing as high as 17 minutes in some games.

And while technically not rookies, both Lance Bouma and Paul Byron established themselves as likely regular NHLers. Which brings us to...

3. Mikael Backlund

Long-heralded by the advanced stats community, but brushed aside by most of the mainstream media, Mikael Backlund finally got to have his breakout year. In 76 games he scored 18 goals and 39 points - all career highs for him - and that was with significant fourth line time earlier in the season.

But once Sean Monahan got hurt, and Hartley was forced to take Backlund off the fourth line and give him better linemates and minutes, the Swedish centre flourished, and never looked back. For the moment at least, he's the Flames' number one centre.

The important thing here is the organization finally appears to see his value, and he'll likely remain a Flame. Which is an extremely good thing: behind only Mark Giordano, he's second on the Flames in CF% with 51.7%. If we switch gears to CF% rel, he's third, behind only Gio and TJ Brodie. He's one of one of only five Flames to finish the season with a CF% above 50%, and the Flames' best possession forward, full stop.

So seeing him finally start to put up the points is great for three reasons:

  1. It provides tangible proof that he helps the Flames when on the ice. Corsi is a great measuring tool, but goals and assists are more direct evidence.
  2. It helps improve his confidence. While always really good, later-season Backlund was trying things that earlier-season Backlund wouldn't have, and he was getting success as a result.
  3. Management probably isn't going to trade the Flames' best centre for beans now.

2. A top defence pairing

The Flames' relative success this season had everything to do with TJ Brodie and, more importantly, Mark Giordano. If you look at the CF% rels of all defencemen in the league, Giordano and Brodie are at the very top, with +10.3% and +8.1%, respectively.

That's the entire league. When corrected for the fact that the two play on a bad team, the Flames' top defence pairing is one of the best out there. Over the course of the entire season, when Brodie was on the ice, the Flames generated a shot differential of +77 - and when Giordano was on the ice, a shot differential of +130. Both also set career highs in goals and points.

There's a reason Giordano's name is being thrown around as a Norris contender. Had he not gotten hurt earlier in the season, he'd be all the closer to it; plus he'd probably have a gold medal.

The only downside to this is that Giordano is 30, and who knows how effective he'll be when the Flames are ready to compete. But in the meantime the Flames, a rebuilding club, actually ended up with one of the best defensive pairs in the league. And that fact alone makes them all the likelier to turn their fortunes around much faster.

And finally...

1. 8-1

Is it petty to revel in this as the best moment of the season? Probably. But the Flames and Oilers have always been tied together, and Battles of Alberta are still heated enough for us.

And think back on all the previous years. Think back on the Oilers' first overalls. Think back on every single "this year is our year" that's been going on since Taylor Hall was drafted. Think back on national media lapping up everything the Oilers did as genius.

Think back on all the people who projected the Oilers to make the playoffs this season. (I didn't even get the link where Adrian Dater predicted the Oilers to be the third best team in the league.)

And then the Flames finished ten points above them in the standings. Six more wins. Three more in regulation or overtime. Four fewer losses. They scored more goals and let in fewer goals against.

Oh, sure, the season series was close heading into this game.

And then the Flames eviscerated them. (The Curtis Glencross hat trick somehow made it even better.)

At the very least, it was extremely gratifying. Fuck you, Edmonton.

Bonus

No, Ladislav Smid isn't exactly a great defenceman. But he's a great dancer.

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