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Winning culture, new arena keys to player retention in Calgary, say Flames

The Scotiabank Saddledome is shown with Calgary's downtown area in the background on Tuesday, April 25, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh The Scotiabank Saddledome is shown with Calgary's downtown area in the background on Tuesday, April 25, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
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CALGARY -

Winning more games and the construction of a new arena will convince more NHL players that Calgary is a desirable place to play, some Flames said as they headed for the exits Friday.

Calgary finished 17 points out of the playoffs with a 38-39-5 record, and missed the post-season a second straight year. The Flames have won two playoff series in the last 20 years.

A 2-6-1 start to 2023-24 combined with trades of big-name pending free agents unwilling to sign contract extensions impeded the club's progress.

Winning records in November, January and February had the Flames flirting with the playoffs, but that ended with the trade deadline.

Of seven key Flames with a year remaining on their contracts a year ago, only Mikael Backlund signed an extension. Five didn't and were dealt, starting with 34-goal man Tyler Toffoli last summer.

New general manager Craig Conroy also traded top centre Elias Lindholm and defencemen Chris Tanev, Noah Hanifin and Nikita Zadorov in-season when terms could not be reached.

"Our management was dealt a tough hand," said forward Blake Coleman. "It was a lot of contract stuff going on, and guys weren't totally sure they were going to be here, or wanting to be here.

"We had to find ways to play through that. For the most part, we drowned it out and guys went about their business, but ultimately we lost a lot of a lot of really good players and some teammates and friends.

"It's challenging to win when you're subtracting a lot of really good pieces from your team. After the (trade) deadline, the writing's on the wall a little bit."

Winger Dillon Dube, a restricted a free agent, went on indefinite leave Jan. 21 before he and other members of Canada's 2018 junior men's hockey team were charged with sexual assault. The allegations have yet to be proven in court.

Defencemen Olivier Kylington returned to the lineup in January after sitting out a season and a half to address his mental health.

So it was a season of roster flux under Conroy and new head coach Ryan Huska. Both were promoted from assistant positions.

"I never really felt the effort wasn't there this year," Conroy said. "The start of the year really set us back. If we don't get off to that start, who knows? It probably doesn't change that we have to move the other guys when we did because we just couldn't come to terms with them."

Trades brought forwards Yegor Sharangovich and Andrei Kuzmenko and defenceman Danill Miromanov to Calgary's lineup immediately.

But a return of four prospects and seven draft picks — including two first-rounders — on those transactions signalled a retooling.

A worrisome trend in Calgary began in 2022 when Johnny Gaudreau signed elsewhere and Matthew Tkachuk wanted out with a year remaining on his contract. The latter scenario repeated last summer with Toffoli.

Defenceman MacKenzie Weegar says winning and making playoffs are primary magnets for players.

"I don't know if there's this black cloud over Calgary right now and it's trying to find a way to shift that, to make guys want to be here again, and want to play here, and that's establishing that winning culture again," Weegar said.

"That black cloud goes away pretty quick when you start winning and making playoffs."

The city and the Flames have an agreement in place to replace the 41-year-old Saddledome, which is the oldest NHL building behind New York's Madison Square Garden, but shovels have yet to hit the ground.

"I love playing in the Saddledome, but it's one of the oldest . . . so that's a big factor I'm sure for guys," said Backlund, who became captain in his 16th season as a Flame.

"It's in the process. Hopefully it gets done here sooner or later. Will love to play in that arena, but they've got to get going here soon. I'm not getting younger."

Bright spots for Calgary were career high 20 goals by Weegar and 30 from Coleman. Sharangovich became the NHL's highest-scoring Belarusian in a single season with 31 goals and 28 assists.

Nazem Kadri's 29 goals and 46 assists for 75 points was the second-most in his career after his 87 points with Colorado in 2021-22.

Jonathan Huberdeau said a year ago "I completely lost my swagger." The left-winger believes he gained some back with 12 goals and 40 assists in 81 games this season.

The highest-paid Flame at US$10.5 million a year survived a demoralizing December drought for a better back half of the season.

"I was grabbing that stick really tight in December," Huberdeau recalled. "After the New Year, my game got better. My defensive game got better since. Obviously that's not what I'm paid for. I want to get back to 70, 80 points."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 19, 2024.

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