Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving says he is impressed with how his team came together this season through some unprecedented times — from a very public coaching change to a playoff run isolated from friends and family.
He also believes another first-round playoff exit is unacceptable for a team that has much higher aspirations.
Whether the Flames are a team close to breaking out, or one in need of a major overhaul, will be the big question the team's management will wrestle with this off-season.
"Do I think there's some growth in the group? Yes," Treliving said Monday, four days after the Flames were bounced from the NHL post-season by the Dallas Stars. "But we're also in the business of winning. And I don't want there to be confusion that we think there was growth but we think there's another level that we should achieve, and could have achieved. I feel strongly that we should still be playing."
The Flames have been past the first round of the playoffs just once in the past 11 seasons, and their past two eliminations have been particularly frustrating. Calgary finished first in the Western Conference in 2018-19 before making a meek first-round exit in a five-game loss to Colorado.
With much of the core of that team intact, the Flames beat an undermanned Winnipeg Jets team in four games in a playoff qualifying series, and then took a 2-1 lead in their first-round series with the Stars.
Then the Flames flamed out. On the verge of going up 3-1, Calgary allowed the Stars to tie Game 4 in the final minute of regulation before Alexander Radulov's overtime goal game the Stars a 5-4 win.
Dallas squeaked by Calgary 2-1 in Game 5, but the Flames looked poised to take Game 6 when they raced out to a quick 3-0 lead. They wouldn't score again, as the Stars poured in seven unanswered goals to move on to the second round.
Flames interim head coach Geoff Ward took some heat when he pulled goaltender Cam Talbot with the game tied 3-3. Backup David Rittich surrendered three goals on nine shots before Talbot returned to the game.
"We're disappointed with the way it ended," said Flames defenceman Mark Giordano. "The Dallas series is still fresh in our minds. We felt like there's those critical moments and different opportunities to grab hold of that one, and the game that sticks out is the overtime game.
"Obviously them being able to get a late one, and then score to tie the series, whereas we would have been up 3-1, that's the one that's fresh in our mind. But our guys, we're a tight group. We came a lot closer together as the year went on and through this whole process, and there's a lot of things to be proud of too."
A step in the right direction might not be enough for Giordano, who succeeded Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla as captain before the 2013-14 season. With every season, his window to lead the Flames to a Stanley Cup closes a little more.
"As every year goes by it gets tougher and tougher," Giordano said. "We came into the bubble and I thought right off the bat we were playing with a ton of grit, something that we lacked in years past. I thought that carried over into the Dallas series but again they're a great team, a veteran team, and at critical moments they made sure they were able to grab momentum from us.
"It's disappointing, again. You go into every playoffs with a lot of excitement and hope and it really felt like we accomplished a lot of good things throughout those series, but at the end of the day we still lost in the first round, and every year that that happens is a lost opportunity."
Still, Treliving said he thought his team adapted well to life in the NHL's western playoff bubble in Edmonton, made necessary because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and said there will be no knee-jerk decisions when addressing the future of his team.
"I think when you don't achieve what you hope, and when I say that I think I'm speaking for our fanbase, everybody sometimes wants a body on the tarmac," Treliving said. "Those are all things we're going to evaluate. We're going to evaluate how we take that next step that we need to take.
"There's always speculation when you end your season prematurely. I'm just going to step back and analyze it with our organization and we'll address the things that we need to address. But you're not going to make change just to make change. I've never felt that, never believed it."
One member of the Flames who faces an uncertain future is Ward, who looked all but certain at one point in time to have the interim tag removed from his job title.
Ward was abruptly promoted from associate coach in November after Bill Peters resigned amid allegations of misconduct, including directing racial slurs at former NHL player Akim Aliu when Peters was an AHL coach. A .500 team then, the Flames rallied from the controversy to go 24-15-3 with Ward.
Ward said Monday he would like to be back, but would let his body of work speak for him. While Treliving said Ward did a good job under exceptional circumstances, he didn't give the coach a firm endorsement Monday.
"When you go through all the emotional stuff you go through at the end of a season, I think it's important to look at it through a clear, unemotional lens," Treliving said of assembling his coaching staff for next season. "We'll act at the appropriate time, and we'll give it the appropriate time to review."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 24, 2020.
Curtis Withers, The Canadian Press