1. Less than a year into the rebuilding process, what is going to be the biggest challenge for the Flames this season?
Despite the excitement surrounding the Flames having several young and talented prospects competing for a roster spot for the first time in a long time, there is little doubt that the team is going to struggle immensely when it comes to winning games on a consistent basis this season, especially now that they will be going up against strong divisional opponents like the Kings and Sharks more frequently. No matter how good a young player like Sven Baertschi may be, if the team isn't winning and hasn't made the playoffs in four years, they're likely going to have a hard time putting bums in the seats, especially if ticket prices remain as high as they have been.
I think the biggest challenge for the Flames, however, will be their lack of depth. Their forward group, while composed of some above average players, lacks any real standouts so far, which is an especially large problem for a top six that will be going up against the likes of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Ryan Getzlaf, Anze Kopitar, and the Sedins...the list goes on. There are some very talented players in the Flames' new division, and they're going to have a tough time keeping up and an even tougher time outscoring the opposition with the way the roster is currently constructed. The defence will likely have an equally tough time containing the aforementioned players without Jay Bouwmeester's presence in the top four rotation.
2. After Miikka Kiprusoff's retirement, who will be the starting goalie for the Flames this year?
The Flames find themselves in a territory they haven't waded into for nearly a decade after franchise best goalie Kiprusoff officially retired in September. With no clear cut number one netminder, it appears that Joey MacDonald and Karri Ramo will be splitting the puck-stopping duties, with the possibility of an occasional appearance by Reto Berra. While MacDonald has the advantage of experience and played well last season when Kiprusoff went down with a knee injury, he has never been a starter and at 33 years of age, likely never will be. Ramo, on the other hand, has only 52 games of NHL experience, of which he has a record of 11-21-10. His NHL average SV% is .895. He has never played more than 45 games in a season, which equals out to just over half a season in the NHL.
However, his play the past four years for Avangard Omsk of the KHL has bolstered his reputation, with an average SV% of .923 during that time. Of course the question remains whether or not he will be able to sustain that upon returning to a league where the quality of competition is generally higher. It was rumoured that Ramo's return to North America was conditional on him essentially being guaranteed an NHL job, which might make it tough for a guy like Berra to get his foot in the door, and means that MacDonald would be the one to get demoted if the powers that be decided a shake-up was in order.
Quite simply, the starting job is anyone's to lose. Goaltending is a job where so much of a player's performance is determined by chance and factors outside of their control, which makes it even more difficult for one particular player to rise above the rest and stay there consistently, especially when there are two others of similar skill level waiting for him to screw up so that they can have their chance to prove themselves. The hope is that competition, fear or losing and fear of being replaced will fuel each of the Flames' three prospective goaltenders to be the best they can be every game and eliminate complacency, which can be very tough for players on a team in the Flames' situation, where the future is murky and nobody is really sure when things are going to start to get better.
3. With all the cap space they still have, will the Flames attempt to acquire a player to bolster their lineup, or will they wait it out for a potential lottery pick?
Last season, Jay Feaster showed that he was still willing to take risks to improve his team when he filed an offer sheet for Colorado's Ryan O'Reilly. While it was a poorly thought-out move that could have backfired and cost the Flames dearly had the Avalanche not matched, it showed that even though the Flames may be a rebuilding team, that doesn't mean they can't vie for talented players who will improve the roster they've got now and possibly the one they'll have several years from now, as long they're not giving up future assets in return. Young players who are discontented like O'Reilly was are certainly ideal targets for the Flames if Hockey Operations hopes to improve the current iteration of their squad going forward, which I hope it does, because the roster looks bleak in its current state.
That being said, management does need to tread carefully and avoid any situations in which the Flames could face losing draft picks or young prospects just for the sake of acquiring help for right now and/or for a couple years down the road, and Feaster and Co. especially need to avoid any mid-season panic trades when management is struck by the likely realization of how poorly the team is performing and the fact that attendance might be suffering. The team is not far enough along in the rebuilding process yet where they can willingly part with assets of unknown future value. Weighing the risks and benefits of acquiring a promising but established young player now versus the potential of being able to do so through the draft without giving up anything in return will be crucial going forward this season.