1. Can TJ Brodie and Mark Giordano repeat last year's performance?
Short answer: Yes.
Long answer: You could make a case that last season, Brodie and Giordano formed the league's top defence pairing. Not just Calgary's - the entire league's. Out of every single defenceman, including those on powerhouses like the Kings and Blackhawks, Brodie and Giordano were among, if not the, best.
The corsi% rel statistic - a percentage of a team's shot attempts directed towards the opponent's net vs. their own with the player on ice, relative to his own team (so players on bad teams, like the Flames, don't get hurt) shows Giordano and Brodie were #1 and #2, respectively, out of all regular NHL defencemen. This was all while playing some of the toughest minutes in the league. Out of all regular NHL defenders, Brodie had the worst zone starts, and Giordano wasn't too far behind him on the list. They certainly played the most difficult minutes on the Flames, not only starting some of the least amount of times in the offensive zone, but facing off against the opposition's toughest players as well.
Here's the thing, though: that was last year. Before then, Giordano was pretty good, but nobody saw this season coming. With Jay Bouwmeester gone, he became the de facto number one defenceman, and anointed with the captaincy, Giordano had a year for the ages.
The problem? He's getting older. NHL dmen tend to have their best years in their late 20s or early 30s. Giordano will be 31 this season, so he may yet have a few years of optimal performance left in him. Is he going to be as big a factor when the Flames make their way out of the basement? Probably not, but for next season, he shouldn't regress too much, if at all. There are no real changes for him: he's still the #1 dman, and he's still the captain. If anything, he should have more confidence now, after knowing how close he was to making Team Canada, and if he ever heard some of the faint buzzing saying he should win the Norris Trophy.
He's also keeping the same defence partner who, in and of himself, is incredibly good.
This is Brodie's 24-year-old season. There are two probable directions for his career: either he's already reached his peak, and plays at that level for several years to come (again, not a bad thing: he's tested extremely well in possession statistics for defencemen, all while playing difficult minutes), or he gets even better.
Since he became an NHL regular, Brodie's worst CF% was at 49.8%. His worst fenwick score? 50%. The Flames fare much better when Brodie is on the ice, period. He drives possession, and he's been doing it since he stepped into a full time NHL role at the age of 21.
His ice time has steadily increased. In his first season, he was averaging 16:29 on the ice. Second season, 20:13. Third season, he officially made the top pairing, and was playing roughly 24:04 a game. His zone starts plummeted this season as well - from 52.5% in the offensive zone to 47.6% to 42.2% - and he only got better.
And that isn't even counting the pairing's offensive prowess.
Giordano set career highs in goals (14) and points (47) over the last season, and he did it over just 64 games. (His previous career highs were set when he played all 82 games of the season.) Pro-rating for an 82 game season, he would have had 18 goals (fourth out of all defencemen) and 60 points (third). He didn't even need a substantial increase in ice time to do it, averaging about two additional extra minutes a game compared to last year. His powerplay ice time, however, rose substantially: from 2:10 a game in the 2013 season to 3:26.
But again, that's where Brodie comes in. While there's a chance Brodie may have already peaked possession-wise (though every indication is he's only going to get better), he's certainly going to get better offensively.
Brodie himself had a career season, scoring four goals and 31 points, about double his past performances. It's incredibly early yet, but he's been compared to most recent Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, and they're already following a similar point trajectory. And not only has his ice time gone up (read: more chances to score), but he's going to get more chances than before.
Last season, Brodie averaged 1:46 on the powerplay, fourth out of all Flames defencemen. That should increase this year, because not only has he proved himself as one of the club's top defencemen, but his coach is championing him, hard.
Bob Hartley, on Brodie: "There's only TJ in the entire building that still doesn't know how good he can be if he starts shooting the puck."— Darren Haynes (@DarrenWHaynes) September 22, 2014
Hartley wants Brodie to shoot more. Brodie has established himself as a top pairing defender, but there's tons of room for his offensive game to grow. He has the talent, and this season, he should be getting the opportunities.
All in all? There are three clear paths for Giordano: he builds on his past season, getting even better; he stays about the same, which was one of the best in the league; or he declines, in part due to age, in part due to the possibility of the past season being a fluke. But if Giordano has as good a season this year as he did last year, the Flames will be able to rely on him.
And if he declines? Then there's Brodie, who's probably only going to get better - and he's already really, really good. The two were a formidable pair before, and have all the potential to repeat their performance, with the added benefit of their coach entering the season already knowing exactly how good his top two defencemen are.
2. How big a difference will Jonas Hiller make?
Short answer: A big one. (Big, big, big...)
Long answer: The Flames had absolutely dismal goaltending last season. They were 28th in the league, with a save percentage of .899 - ahead of just the Panthers (.897) and Islanders (.894). In short, they can't get much worse.
Here's the thing, though: the day the Flames signed Hiller, he automatically became one of Calgary's best netminders over the past year.
In 2013-14, the Flames had two primary goaltenders. Karri Ramo played 40 games, while Reto Berra had 29. The rest of the slack came from Joey MacDonald (11) and Joni Ortio (9). Ortio was an injury call up, while MacDonald held the fort until the Flames were comfortable enough with calling up Berra (and resumed the fort when Berra was traded).
Really, though, the show was between Ramo and Berra. Ramo got better as the season went on (he had save percentages below .900 in October and November, but was consistently above .910 the rest of the year), so it wouldn't be far off to assume he'll be able to put in a respectable performance when he starts. Berra, meanwhile, fluctuated, but mostly fared rather poorly (just two months in which his save percentage was above .900: December and February. The rest of the time, he was below .890).
This upcoming season, it's likely to be two goalies once again handling the bulk of the Flames' games: Ramo, and now Hiller. Hiller provides far more NHL experience, and has consistently been above .910 throughout his career (his lowest save percentage was .910, in a year in which he started 73 games, which probably is not going to happen this year). Hiller declined as this past season went on, falling below .900 in March and April, but this was also a time when he was being pushed out of the Ducks organization. While Hiller is already 32 years old, a fresh start in an new organization that clearly wanted him should help.
Probably the best metric to measure a goalie's performance is with save percentage at even strength. Last season, Ramo had an ESSV% of .919, putting him within the league's top 50. His SV% in all situations was .911. The league average last year was .914, and has been in about that ballpark the past few years. Taking Ramo's improvement into account, it wouldn't be a poor assumption to assume he's able to play at least league average.
Hiller's 2013-14 ESSV%, meanwhile, was .925. With Calgary, Berra's was .903. That's a pretty massive difference.
For the sake of simplicity, let's assume Ramo and Hiller play 41 games each (also, it's entirely possible that's exactly what happens). Let's say Ramo's all-encompassing save percentage is last season's average, .914%. Hiller hasn't hit a +.920 SV% in three years, but his career average is .916%: let's use that.
If Ramo has just a league average SV%, and Hiller manages a career average, and both play half the season each, then the Flames' team SV% will be .915%, a full 16 points up on their 2013-14 performance. Compared to 2013-14 numbers, that save percentage would tie them for seventh in the league, alongside the Sharks and Blue Jackets, two playoff teams. (The only team with a higher SV% that didn't make the playoffs was the Washington Capitals.)
Even if neither goalies makes any improvements, and both stick with the .911 SV% they had in 2013-14, then that's still 12 points up on last year, and a save percentage that would tie them for 17th in the league.
Now, this doesn't mean the Flames are going to make the playoffs this season. They probably won't. The Sabres had a team .914 SV%, and we all know how brutally their season went. What it does mean, however, is that Flames goaltending should be vastly improved this upcoming season, by simple virtue of swapping out Berra for Hiller. And that's probably going to lead to more wins.
3. Will the Flames be in the Connor McDavid sweepstakes?
Short answer: No.
Long answer: Last season, the Sabres were the worst team in the NHL, and in a league of their own in accomplishing that feat: 52 points. The Panthers and Oilers rounded out the bottom three, with 66 and 67 points, respectively. The Flames were in a third tier of awful, managing 77 points; there was no way any of the three teams below could catch them.
So just think about how terrible the Flames were last year, and remember: even then they weren't bad enough to land a top two pick. That was largely thanks to Brodie, Giordano, and Mikael Backlund: Calgary's golden trio of possession players. All three are back this year, and as long as all three are mostly healthy (Giordano was the only one to really suffer injury), then those three on their own could very well prevent the Flames from selecting McDavid, or Jack Eichel, for that matter.
Brodie and Giordano's chances for repeating their performance were measured in question #1. They'll probably be able to do it. Backlund, on the other hand... Well, he should only be able to have an even better year.
It took Bob Hartley about half a season to realize Backlund was actually his #1 centre. That included time spent with Backlund on the fourth line, getting pushed down by Matt Stajan, Sean Monahan, and Joe Colborne. That included a game in which he was actually a healthy scratch. For a guy who was Calgary's best forward, Backlund wasn't averaging over 20 minutes a game until January.
Last season, Backlund had his best offensive year, with 18 goals and 39 points. He was third in goal scoring and fourth in points for the Flames in a season in which he wasn't given the respect he deserved from the start. He was also third in corsi, at 51.64%, behind just the two defencemen, and was just below Brodie's 7.87 in corsi% rel with 7.24 for another third place finish.
Imagine what the Flames can do with a full year of Backlund on the top line, facing top competition, and performing well, as he is wont to do. Remember: out of all regular centres, Backlund was third in the league in corsi% rel, below just Selke-winner Patrice Bergeron and Mikko Koivu. Fourth in the league was Sidney Crosby. Backlund is a very, very good player, and without him playing a second of fourth line time this season, the Flames should be much better.
On the other hand, Calgary did lose a few key players in the off-season. Mike Cammalleri and Lee Stempniak, two of the Flames' best regulars, both departed; Cammalleri for nothing, and Stempniak for what eventually turned into Brandon Bollig (which is really messed up, if you think about it. Who trades Stempniak for Bollig?). The Flames don't really have anybody to replace them. They brought in veteran wingers Mason Raymond and Devin Setoguchi, who don't even come close to replicating the possession statistics Cammalleri and Stempniak were capable of (although strictly on a points basis, they may not be too far off). Cammalleri and Stempniak's departures are definitely going to hurt the Flames, who are already in pretty poor territory.
But then, we just addressed the massive shift in goaltending in question #2. If Ramo and Hiller just replicate their 2013-14 seasons - and that's ignoring Ramo's improvement over the year, as well as how Hiller may perform on a new team - then that much-increased team save percentage may very well be able to set off at least some of the holes in the lineup Cammalleri and Stempniak left.
All in all, the Flames should be looking at roughly the same amount of winning as they had last season, if not a little better. And they were in a tier above the bottom three teams. Of those three, probably only the Panthers have done enough to climb out of the depths of the basement.
To get McDavid, you're going to either need to finish last, or win the lottery. Under the lottery's new rules, which give teams with better records a better chance of winning, that just may happen for the Flames. But is Calgary a contender to be the worst team in the league?
Well, if Backlund, Brodie, or Giordano are out long term, maybe.
But otherwise, no. They're not.