As the Calgary Flames enter the off-season, the route to a deep playoff run looks considerably tougher because of the harsh realities of the hockey business that lie ahead for the organization.

The 2021-22 regular season was a rousing success. The team rebuilt its culture and identity under head coach Darryl Sutter. The Flames finished first in the Pacific Division, and both the eye test and the numbers show it was no accident. 

The Flames were aggressive on the forecheck, played with pace, and were remarkably consistent from start to finish. They ranked third in goals against per game (2.51), sixth in goals per game (3.55) and penalty kill percentage (83.2 per cent), and 10th in power play percentage (22.9 per cent). No other team ranked in the top 10 in each of those categories this season.

The Flames were also the only team in NHL history to have four 35-goal scorers (Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, Elias Lindholm, Andrew Mangiapane), plus Jack Adams (Sutter), Selke (Lindholm), and Vezina (Jacob Markstrom) finalists. Over half the roster hit career highs in goals, assists, or points. 

Flames management has shrewdly negotiated several contracts in previous off-seasons that now look team-friendly and set the team up for 2021-22.

They had two 100-point wingers (Gaudreau and Tkachuk) at less than $15 million combined, a 35-goal scorer in Mangiapane at less than $2.5 million, a No. 1 centre in Lindholm at under $5 million, and a legitimate top pairing on the blueline (Rasmus Andersson and Noah Hanifin) at less than $10 million combined.

Because of that smart cap management, the Flames had certain luxuries that other teams did not this season. Calgary could spend more than $10 million on its fourth line (Milan Lucic, Sean Monahan, Brett Ritchie) and nearly $6 million on its third defence pairing (Nikita Zadorov and Erik Gudbranson) and had the assets to improve the team mid-season.

The Flames were remarkably healthy as well. Of all lineup regulars, only Monahan missed significant time because of injury, and the team did not have to play any games with a depleted roster when it had a COVID-19 outbreak in December.

General manager Brad Treliving recognized this was the year the team could make its first deep run since 2004, and improved the group by dealing for Tyler Toffoli, Calle Jarnkrok, and Ryan Carpenter ahead of the trade deadline.

While the Flames did win a division title and first playoff series since 2015, the team – arguably the most talented since the 1989 Stanley Cup winner – could not advance past the second round.

Much reflection will take place over the coming months. 

What if the Flames got average goaltending from Jacob Markstrom versus the Oilers? Were they too rigid in playing style versus Edmonton? Why did some forwards struggle to generate offence? And what if Blake Coleman’s goal late in Game 5 had counted?

One certainty is that the route to the third round and beyond will likely be tougher in 2022-23.

Gaudreau, should he re-sign, is in line for a big pay raise, as are restricted free agents Mangiapane, Tkachuk, and Oliver Kylington. There is a very real chance the Flames must shed more than $10 million in salary to keep those homegrown talents. There will be sacrifices. The more than $16 million invested in the fringes of the roster will be a distant memory. A veteran like Lucic ($5.25 million) or Monahan ($6.375 million), both of whom have trade protection, or young blueliner Juuso Valimaki ($1.55 million), might have to get dealt to make the numbers work.

Flames management has done a good job in finding players through the draft and free agency, and the team will likely remain competitive for a playoff spot next season.

The question is the lost opportunity of 2021-22 and, with everything that went right for the team on and off the ice, when will there will be as good an opportunity for a run to the Stanley Cup again?

Sutter has said that this season was about laying a foundation.

The realities of NHL business will determine just how many of the players who helped lay this foundation in Calgary will be around to see what it becomes.