Salim Valji: New Calgary Flames core emerges in training camp

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Immediately after hearing about the blockbuster trade in the summer that sent Matthew Tkachuk to the Florida Panthers in exchange for Jonathan Huberdeau, MacKenzie Weegar, Cole Swallows and a conditional choice in the first round in 2025, Mikael Backlund went to work.

The 33-year-old Calgary Flames Center did some research and found that that good friend Rasmus Andersson – who has yet to play his 300th NHL career game – is now the second longest serving Flame (after Backlund).

Over the past two seasons, the Flames have undergone a massive shift in personnel on the ice and a new core has emerged. Andersson, Backlund, Huberdeau, Elias Lindholm and newcomer Nazem Kadri are part of a new group of Flames hoping to achieve more this season than previous versions of the team.

“A lot of core players are moving and new, I think, core players,” Andersson said.

“It’s a new core and you want to get to know each other quickly.”

Much of Calgary’s base had already been built when Darryl Sutter was hired as the team’s head coach in March 2021 and evolved as they took the league by surprise and won the Pacific Division title last season. Now, with several new faces in the lineup, they will build on that.

Blake Colemana two-time Stanley Cup champion, was hanging out with “people who don’t know much about hockey” when some of the moves were confirmed.

“Huby is one of the best in the league, really hard to defend,” Coleman said of Huberdeau. The two had battles when Coleman played for the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2019 to 2021.

“A lot of collisions with him. We were always chirping at each other. I saw a lot of him on a shutdown line, clearly he was a really good scorer… Weegs is just a really good competitor, just an all round, really solid defender. I think he’s one of those guys who just does everything right.”

Their Battle Of Florida days are over.

“We were texting right away and laughing at how much we hated playing against each other,” Coleman said.

“It’s one of those things with mutual respect … now we can go after other guys together.”

Coleman, 30, emphasized patience in integrating newcomers and seeing what works and what doesn’t on the ice.

“There is still a lot unknown for the team and the season,” he said.

Backlund said the team’s ice cream product in 2022-23 will look familiar to fans, despite roster sales.

“We’re going to play the same way,” he said.

“We’ve lost some star players, we’ve added some new star players. They come here and they’re going to play their game, but at the same time they’re going to adapt to our group and to our identity and how we play, so we’re going to play the same way as a team. Those guys have different skills than the guys who left, but when you get into it it’s a team game and we have to play the same way we did last season and since Darryl took over.”

One of the questions facing the team this season is whether they will name a captain. Backlund, who has over 800 games to his credit with the franchise, is a natural choice if the Flames are headed that way. No Calgary player has worn the “C” on his chest since then Mark Giordano in 2020-21.

“It worked really well,” Backlund said of the team that had four alternate captains last season.

“At the right time, at a certain time, the team will decide who” [the next captain] will be, when they feel it is the right time.”

Backlund is aware that he is the popular choice.

“It’s nice and an honor to read fans say they want me to be me, but if we keep up… [alternates]”I’ll be very happy with that,” he said.

“[Getting the captaincy] is not something I expect. I expect that we will go the same way as last year.”

SPARKS FROM THE FIRE

-Andersson said he wants to shoot more. He tries to delay his teammates less and get more pucks on the net. Last season, he averaged less than two shots per game. “With the amount I’m on the ice,” he said, “I think I should be around three or four.” [shots] average per game.”

-Despite his status as the second-longest serving Flame, Andersson’s tenure has no perks like a better parking stall: “Backs keeps telling me I still don’t have enough games.”

“He’s still in the middle age bracket,” said Backlund. His spot is closest to the player entrance at the Saddledome.

– Calgary’s new top line of Huberdeau-Lindholm-Toffoli gets a runway to find chemistry. Sutter spoke to Toffoli in the summer about the chance that he will play more minutes.

-Huberdeau is slowly adjusting to Calgary’s elevation. Calgary is the eighth city in elevation in North America at 1,046 feet above sea level. Sunrise, Florida, meanwhile, is at sea level (zero meters altitude).

“Obviously the altitude is much more difficult here,” he said after Sunday’s 4-0 preseason win over Vancouver. “The third shift of the game,” Huberdeau said, was when he noticed the height difference.

-Coleman was with Johnny Gaudreau before free agency struck and confirmed how close the star was to returning to Calgary.

“I was with him a few days before free agency [Sean Monahan]’s wedding and even at that point he was still in a panic, didn’t really know what he wanted to do,” he said. “I think that was really a gametime, sober decision.”

Sonny Milano, in Calgary on a professional tryout, has had a strong training camp so far, scoring in-game in-game and being effective in Sunday’s first preseason tilt. A top nine is up for grabs, and the Flames have informed Milano that he has a real chance here. Colleague PTO Cody Eakin also stood out in a positive way.

-Of MacKenzie Weegarthe Flames now have five of the league’s top 16 blueliners in plus-minus classification last season.

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