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Core Values: Mark Giordano among few highlights in Flames lineup

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

Mark Giordano is coming off an impressive 2013-14 season. (USATSI)
Mark Giordano is coming off an impressive 2013-14 season. (USATSI)

In the salary cap era, where NHL teams have to be efficient with their money, it's important for each club to have a core group of players who set the foundation on which to build the rest of the team. This group often includes the players who consume the bulk of a team's cap space, while also providing the greatest on-ice impact.

With that in mind, Eye on Hockey introduces our summer series: "Core Values." We'll take the rest of summer to evaluate the group of five to seven players who make up the core of each team. Using criteria like point production, average age, how the players were acquired, total cost and cap hit, we'll detail which teams have the strongest cores and which need work. On top of that, we'll also gaze into the future to look at the players who could one day be part of this crucial group for each team.

The Calgary Flames finished off another disappointing season, the fifth straight without appearing in the playoffs, and it's a good bet to start planning for a sixth. The club is now a decade removed from its last Stanley Cup Final appearance and looks no closer to getting back to relevance than they did last year.

There is very little that can be done to sugarcoat the Flames in their current state. Perhaps they can look to improved play down the stretch last year that saw them finish their last 31 games with an 18-13-0 record including two prolonged winning streaks, but it's hard to look at this roster and see playoffs. Especially not in the brutal West.

Offseason additions of Mason Raymond, Deryk Engelland and Jonas Hiller are unlikely to offset the loss of Mike Cammalleri, the team's leading goal scorer from last year. How they replace Cammalleri's 26 goals is a bit of a mystery.

Perhaps the positive to look for in the Flames is that there is at least a growing prospect pipeline that had become pretty thinned out in years past. The team has started to assemble some promising young forwards, particularly, in the wake of having to part with stars of the past in recent years, most notably Jarome Iginla two years ago.

There's a new general manager in town in Brad Treliving, though team president Brian Burke will likely remain an influential voice in player personnel decisions. The signing of Engelland and trading for Brandon Bollig are pretty good indicators that the Flames are looking for that truculence Burke has touted throughout his career as an NHL executive.

The Western Conference can certainly be rough and tumble, but the lack of skill throughout the Flames' lineup as it is constructed could be cause for concern. The young prospects in the system like last year's star rookie Sean Monahan, college standout Johnny Gaudreau and recent first-round draftees Sam Bennett, Morgan Klimchuck, Mark Jankowski and Emile Poirier likely still need a few years to mature before they can make the impact that will be required for turning this franchise around.

Core Values: Calgary Flames

Players (Age, term remaining on contract): D Mark Giordano (30, 2 years), LW Jiri Hudler (30, 2 years), C Mikael Backlund (25, 1 year), C Sean Monahan (19, 2 years), D T.J. Brodie (24, 1 year), D Dennis Wideman (31, 3 years)

Total cap hit for 2014-15: $17,820,000 (25.8% of salary cap consumed by six players)

Average Age: 26.5

Total point production in 2013-14: 79 goals, 147 assists, 226 points (40.5% of team's total production)

About the Core

Mark Giordano: In a word, Mark Giordano's performance in the 2013-14 season was insane. The veteran defenseman put together a career year, despite breaking his ankle and missing 18 games as a result. In 64 games played, Giordano put up 14 goals and 33 assists for a career-best 47 points, while averaging a career-high 25:14 per game. Had he stayed healthy and the Flames were a bit better, Girodano would have been a clear-cut Norris contender, perhaps even a favorite. Considering his extreme utilization, the top competition he faced, the quality of the Flames around him and the amount of time he missed last season, Giordano was the brightest spot for Calgary and should continue to be as the leaner years continue. He has two more years on his contract and if he stays healthy, he makes Calgary a markedly better team. That shows up no more clearly than in his relative Corsi numbers. It's eye-popping, really. With Giordano on the ice, the Flames were controlling total shot attempts at a rate of 22.8 percent compared to when Giordano is off. That's essentially game-changing. He and T.J. Brodie may have been one of the best pairings in the NHL last season and likely would have been considered as such had the quality of the team around them been better. Having a legitimate No. 1 defenseman of Giordano's quality, however, is something not every team can claim. Even as the Flames struggle, they have a key piece they won't have to try to find in free agency at least over the next few years. How he was acquired: Signed as an undrafted free agent on July 6, 2004

Jiri Hudler: A solid veteran forward, Hudler led the Flames with 54 points, which included a career-high 37 assists. Last season marked the third straight season in which Hudler averaged better than 0.6 points per game as well. He's been with the club for two seasons now and has two years remaining on his contract as one of the team's highest-paid forwards. Though it is unlikely Hudler will be part of the long-term future in Calgary at 30 years old, he is a quality stop-gap veteran that can keep the Flames progressing as the younger players gain experience around him. Last year, Hudler proved that he can bring some quality as a top-line player. Considering his seven-season stint with the Detroit Red Wings, which included a Stanley Cup in 2008, his experience is valuable on a roster that hasn't had a lot of experience winning. Hudler plays a far more prominent role in Calgary than he ever did in Detroit and has embraced the extra time with 81 points in 117 games in a Flames uniform. There's really not a lot to get excited about for the Flames up front, but Hudler has been a bright spot. How he was acquired: Signed as an unrestricted free agent on July 2, 2012

Sean Monahan will have to build on his solid rookie campaign. (USATSI)
Sean Monahan will have to build on his solid rookie campaign. (USATSI)

Sean Monahan:After an exciting rookie season in which Monahan finished second on the team with 22 goals, there will be much more expected of the young center in his sophomore campaign. Monahan will turn 20 right at the beginning of the season. He already has solid size and if he bulked up a bit this summer, he'll be even tougher to take off the puck. Monahan created plenty of hype for himself with 10 points in his first 12 games last season. That included six goals. The rest of Monahan's season didn't really live up to that. That really hasn't diminished optimism about the sixth overall pick from the 2013 draft and it shouldn't. He did have a fairly high shooting percentage of 15.7%, so automatically expecting 20 goals next year may be overly-optimistic, but the upside remains prevalent in this young center. He's going to be the centerpiece of the forthcoming youth movement over the next few years and if he can build off a strong rookie showing, Monahan will have a chance to be one of this franchise's stars in the near future. There should be some cautious optimism heading into his sophomore campaign, but the future remains bright for Monahan. How he was acquired: 2013 NHL Entry Draft, first round, sixth overall

Mikael Backlund: Though he only has one year remaining on his contract, Backlund should remain part of the Flames' long-term plans, especially after what he showed last season. Backlund hit career highs in games played (76), goals (18), assists (21), points (39) and average time on ice (18:32). He had five power-play goals and four shorthanded goals as part of his total. Backlund is a versatile center that can play well at both ends of the ice. He's also the best possession driver among the forwards on the Flames roster. He posted a 16.6% relative Corsi. The only forward close to that figure was the now-departed Mike Cammalleri. Though his 39 points don't look terribly inspiring for a top-six center, the Flames weren't a great scoring team in general. His ability to play sound two-way hockey, contribute points and help the Flames maintain possession brings rather tremendous value for his cheap contract. How he was acquired: 2007 NHL Entry Draft, first round, 24th overall

T.J. Brodie: The Flames' No. 2 defenseman much of last season, Brodie played extremely well alongside Giordano for the season. The best part is that he's only 24 years old and would appear to have quite a few strong years ahead of him. Next season is the last on his current contract, so the Flames should be making long-term plans to hold onto their promising top-pairing defenseman. Playing in just his third full-time season in the NHL, Brodie had a career year in 2013-14. He posted 27 assists while averaging 24:04 per game, the second highest average time on ice on the team. Despite being a top defenseman for the team, Brodie didn't see as much power-play time. If he gets some more special teams usage, perhaps his point total will go up with it. Brodie has shown improvement every year as a pro and the best may be yet to come. Having a strong top pairing as the Flames do is going to help a lot once more rookies matriculate to the big club. How he was acquired: 2008 NHL Entry Draft, fourth round, 114th overall.

Dennis Wideman: Included in this group more because of his contract than anything else, next season is essentially sink or swim time for Wideman. As the team's highest-paid player, what is expected of Wideman has far exceeded what he's actually provided. Dealing with injuries certainly hasn't helped, as he missed almost half of last season -- first missing 16 games with a fractured hand, than an additional 17 with an upper-body injury. He's now in Year 3 of a five-year, $26.25 million contract. In the 46 games he did play in last season, Wideman posted 21 points, including just four on the power play despite that being a specialty of his over the years. Despite his favorable zone starts, which included a staggering 62.2% of his shifts starting in the offensive zone, Wideman's possession numbers have been subpar in Calgary, which is surprising for a defenseman with an offensive tint. It wasn't all that long ago that Wideman was a power-play weapon. If he can't become at least that again soon, the Flames are sitting on a bad contract with little flexibility to move it. How he was acquired: Traded from the Washington Capitals for Jordan Henry and a fifth-round draft pick on June 27, 2012

Who's next in line

Sam Bennett will be an important piece of Calgary's future. (USATSI)
Sam Bennett will be an important piece of Calgary's future. (USATSI)

This is the part where Flames fans can start feeling more twinges of optimism. With Sean Monahan graduated to the NHL level full-time, all eyes turn to Sven Baertschi, who has simply struggled to make an impact at the NHL level despite great promise in his skill set. The 21-year-old Swiss winger had 29 points in the AHL last season and also put up 11 points in 26 contests for the Flames. They need him to make the jump and be a full-time top-six guy soon.

Another exciting prospect that could make an impact at the NHL level this year is Johnny Gaudreau, last year's Hobey Baker winner at Boston College. Gaudreau had the best season in college hockey in about a decade with 80 points in 40 games for BC last season. The supremely skilled, yet undersized forward is going to have a chance to make the NHL roster right out of camp. In his one and only game after signing last season, Gaudreau scored a goal. He also starred for Team USA at the World Championship in the spring against pros.

The Flames' first-round picks over the last few years have looked pretty solid as well. Sam Bennett, who was selected fourth overall in 2013 is the most exciting of them all. As a 17-year-old, Bennett starred for the OHL's Kingston Frontenacs with 91 points. It was a 51-point improvement from his previous junior campaign. It would probably be unwise for the Flames to burn a year of his entry-level contract next season, but if Bennett is ready for the NHL, that may be best for his development seeing as he would have to be sent back to the OHL next year after seemingly mastering it in his draft season.

There is also plenty of optimism surrounding Morgan Klimchuk and Emile Poirier, each selected late in the first round in 2013. Neither seems likely to make the NHL roster next year, but both have been extremely productive in their most recent junior seasons. Klimchuk had 74 points in 57 games for the Regina Pats in the WHL, while Poirier had 87 in 63 games for the Gatineau Olympiques in the QMJHL. Poirier also had four points in two AHL games last season.

Flames fans will also be keeping a close eye on the duo at Providence College, former first-rounder Mark Jankowski and top goalie prospect Jon Gillies. Both will be heading into their junior years at Providence, which could be a strong team in Hockey East next year. Gillies has been one of the top goalies in college hockey over the last two years with a career .931 save percentage.

Among the others that could be seeing more NHL time soon as Joni Ortio, Markus Granlund, Tyler Wotherspoon, Max Reinhart and Bill Arnold.

Overview

The Flames appear to be headed for another tough season, even though they looked pretty strong down the stretch last year.

That said, this is an interesting core in that it is among the most affordable in the NHL. The Flames are going to have a lot of room to re-sign important players like Mark Giordano, Mikael Backlund and T.J. Brodie to long-term contracts as a result. That's certainly a positive.

And even though the team is still waiting on their young players, the veterans not mentioned among the core should have some say in keeping the Flames relevant over these next few years.

Players that received core consideration included Matt Stajan, who often finds himself dealing with a lot of the tough defensive minutes among forwards. The same goes for David Jones. Both of those players missed significant time last season for various reasons, but remain serviceable veteran players that could make an even larger impact next season.

Free-agent acquisition Mason Raymond is likely to play a significant role among forwards. He resurrected his career last season with 19 goals and 45 points for the Maple Leafs. His speed can be deadly and the Flames likely can give him a substantial role to try to build off of last season.

Curtis Glencross was also a major injury loss last season. He had 24 points in 38 games, 12 of which came during that strong stretch late in the season. He has just one year remaining on his contract before coming an unrestricted free agent, so if he can stay healthy, there could be a big year ahead for him.

The team also went out and signed Devin Setoguchi, who is likely looking for a more established role on this team. He comes on the cheap and could bring value for his contract.

There's not a ton of exciting talent up front, but if Calgary can get through this season and hope the reinforcements in the form of the top prospects are closer to being ready next year or the year after, they can start transitioning to a younger group around then.

The team should be much better in net after the Flames had a .902 team save percentage last season. Jonas Hiller has a .916 career save percentage, though he hasn't looked particularly great over the last three seasons. Even with that in mind, he's still an improvement over what the Flames were trotting out last season.

As noted, the defense is great at the top with Giordano and Brodie holding things down. Wideman needs to bring more next season, but Calgary got a pretty strong campaign out of Kris Russell. There's also Ladislav Smid, who can play strong shut-down style defense.

The club also added Deryk Engelland on a three-year deal that was widely panned as one of the worst doled out in free agency. More of an enforcer type, Engelland is being paid like a guy who is going to play a fair amount with an annual average just shy of $3 million. It's hard to see where he will help improve the Flames defensively, though.

Calgary does not appear to be a team that is rebuilding currently, but this roster as constructed looks more like a placeholder. It is hard to see the Flames coming close to making the playoffs in the tough Pacific Division. As players like Sam Bennett, Sven Baertschi and Johnny Gaudreau assert themselves, improvement should come. For now, the Flames appear to be running in place with little chance of moving forward into regular playoff contenders for at least a few more years.

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