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NHL season preview 2015-16: Three big questions facing the Calgary Flames

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The Flames may have surprised in the 2014-15 season, but come 2015-16, they're still rebuilding. As we look forward to the start of the new hockey year, we look at three questions the young, and still playoff-hopeful, Flames will face.

New additions such as Sam Bennett, Dougie Hamilton, and Michael Frolik, along with the return of Mark Giordano, should make things interesting for the Flames this season.
New additions such as Sam Bennett, Dougie Hamilton, and Michael Frolik, along with the return of Mark Giordano, should make things interesting for the Flames this season.
Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

1. What role will youth play throughout the season?

Short answer: A small one.

Long answer: One of those big narratives attached to the Flames last year was their success with inexperienced players. Superstar Johnny Gaudreau, unheralded rookie Josh Jooris, and human missile Micheal Ferland were all newcomers, and all big contributors to the team's accomplishments. Markus Granlund, Joni Ortio, and Sam Bennett also made appearances with the team, stepping up in relief of injured players. The success they saw with their young guns was reflective of the team's achievements in restocking the prospect cabinet with high quality, NHL-caliber guys.

This is mainly due in part to competent drafting. The 2013 draft saw first liner Sean Monahan, along with 2015-16 hopefuls Morgan Klimchuk and Emile Poirier selected in the first round. Bennett was drafted in 2014, and was all you could really need, but the Flames also picked up the promising Brandon Hickey.

And if you just look at rookie and training camp, 2015 might be the best of the bunch. Oliver Kylington, Rasmus Andersson, Pavel Karnaukhov, and Andrew Mangiapane really impressed over the past few weeks.

But it's not just about draft picks. The aforementioned Jooris, as well as Kenney Morrison and Garnet Hathaway were undrafted. Drew Shore, Kenny Agostino, and Dougie Hamilton (only 22 years old!) were trade acquisitions. The Flames have arguably built a top-10 prospect corps only a few years after being in the bottom five in that category.

This influx of new, skilled players has created a problem, if you can call it that. An unintended side effect is that now the team has a lot of NHL guys on their roster. Too many, in fact. The team can make five full lines of players under contract, excluding players like Bennett, Granlund, and Poirier. This is a pretty big problem for younger players in the system, who now have a steeper hill to climb to see NHL time. It gets to the inexplicable level when you remember that this team is more likely to give Brandon Bollig ice time over a younger player.

Last year, they were young out of necessity. Now, they can be young out of luxury. There's no need to rush prospects into the league whenever an injury happens. A few of these players still need AHL seasoning, such as Poirier and Klimchuk, who didn't have the most promising of preseasons. Granlund, still waiver-exempt, could stay down and receive premium playing time in Stockton.

However, should things get desperate, that talent is still available for usage. Poirier and Tyler Wotherspoon are both on the cusp of becoming NHL regulars, and are likely the next men up should something happen. They may not see a lot of professional hockey, but at this point in time, that's probably a good thing.

2. What will the Flames’ goaltending look like, and how will it pan out?

Short Answer: Joni Ortio and one other.

Long Answer: At the end of 2014-15, everything looked clear and comfortable. Jonas Hiller would be the starter and Ortio would be the back up, learning his trade from a mainstay goaltending veteran while also getting valuable NHL ice time.

Then Karri Ramo was re-signed, and the waters turned clear as mud.

Each goalie has been given a chance to make his case in the preseason, with Ortio looking the most impressive of the three - a 35-shot shutout against Colorado being the most impressive performance of the three so far.

It's extremely difficult to think of a situation where the Flames would be willing to lose Ortio, having invested so much time in his development, without getting a return for him. He won't be waived. He might be traded, but again, there's high hopes for the latest Finnish Flames goalie wonder, so it's unlikely the Flames even consider that.

The question is, who will be his partner? You'd have thought Hiller, but then why re-sign Ramo if they were comfortable and happy with Hiller? Reporters suggest Hiller has been a trade target for some time, yet they still haven't been able to move him. Would Ramo be a more attractive trade prospect?

If money could be placed on such an event, you would have to lay it on Ramo and Ortio being the tandem. There's no logical reason why you'd re-sign Ramo if you had no intention of going with him. Ramo will be the starter, with Ortio backing him up, and probably playing more games than he would under Hiller.

Where does that leave Jonas? Maybe when other teams have figured out their own goaltending needs, he might become a more attractive prospect.

3. How will Bob Hartley deploy his players?

Short answer: Top lines get primarily offensive zone starts, top defencemen get primarily defensive zone starts, and everyone else falls somewhere in between.

Long answer: We can likely expect similar deployment as there was last season. Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Jiri Hudler went on an absolute offensive tear to close out the season. This was aided by their starting in the offensive zone. Sure, they saw tough competition - that couldn't be avoided - but Hartley strategized to get them as close to the opponent's net as often as possible, and it paid off. Why wouldn't you repeat that success?

On the other end of the spectrum Mark Giordano, the team's top player (and, before his injury, top scorer) was given the toughest assignments possible. He saw the most difficult competition, and he started primarily in the defensive zone. For the past two seasons he's had incredible success in that role; it should be expected to continue for a third.

Here's where things get tricky: new additions to the team may throw preconceived roles out the window.

Sam Bennett spent most of his time with the Flames in the playoffs. During that time, he was on Mikael Backlund's wing. However, Bennett is expected to start the season at centre. If he does, he's probably getting sheltered zone starts as well - the exact same way the highly skilled Gaudreau did in his rookie year.

That leaves Backlund and Matt Stajan as the centres to take a defensive role on the Flames. Whoever their linemates end up being will be counted upon to take the tougher zone starts so the young stars can score a lot of points.

The biggest question on the forward group, then, is Michael Frolik. Frolik has been heralded as an outstanding defensive player, and someone who would work perfectly with Backlund. However, he's already emerged as one of the Flames' top offensive threats, so starting him in a defensive role doesn't make much sense. To add on to that: part of Gaudreau's success came from having a smart veteran in Hudler alongside him. If Frolik is Bennett's smart veteran, then he'll be placed in position to score moreso than to defend.

As for the backend, things have completely changed thanks to T.J. Brodie's preseason injury. Giordano and Brodie were a stabilizing force in the toughest of circumstances; now, that's not an option. Dougie Hamilton almost certainly takes over that role - a role he was familiar with in Boston.

This does beg the question, though: when Brodie returns to the lineup, will he have lost his partner? It also begs the question: will one of Brodie or Hamilton end up getting greater offensive zone starts?

The way the Flames' defence was structured in 2014-15, Brodie and Giordano handled the hard minutes, while Dennis Wideman and Kris Russell were sheltered in the offensive zone (which did lead to some positive results for Wideman: his 56 points was a career year). If that holds true, and the second pairing remains sheltered, then one of Brodie or Hamilton may very well end up scoring some serious points - potentially more than would have been expected of them originally.

The Flames' top players will be put in position to ensure the team has the greatest success possible. The only thing is, Calgary has more top players to start this season than it did last year, giving the team far more options with which to work. If the original formula doesn't work, players can be swapped: Frolik for Hudler, Brodie for Hamilton, Ferland for Lance Bouma, and several other possibilities.

Hartley tends to put his players in position to have the most success possible, and this should be another season of just that.