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Class in session for young Flames down the stretch


In a perfect world, the Calgary Flames’ remaining nine games will have an impact well beyond this season.

The Flames are sitting nine points out of the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference and will be mathematically eliminated from postseason contention in the coming days. 

Faced with those long odds, the focus has shifted from immediate wins to building a culture that rookies like Connor Zary, Martin Pospisil, Dustin Wolf, and others can learn from and grow into.

That includes preparation for games, compete level, attention to detail, and taking care of themselves off the ice. 

“They have to learn to play the game hard and play every game like it’s the last one they may play,” head coach Ryan Huska said of the younger Flames before their 4-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday night.

“That should be your mentality all the time, whether you’re in game one of the regular season or game 82, if you’re in the playoffs or you’re out of the playoffs. If you don’t play with that mindset, then you’re not going to improve, and people will pass you by eventually. They need to make sure they’re ready to go all the time.”

The Flames blocked 18 shots on Saturday night, with blueliner MacKenzie Weegar stepping in front of seven on his own. After the heroic effort, he said that he hoped his younger teammates witnessed how tough it is to win, night in and night out. 

“The sacrifice for the body that it takes to win,” he said of the lessons he hopes teammates are learning. “For the young guys, that’s big. You’ve gotta get dirty and sore sometimes to gut out victories like this…just the dedication it takes to get victories like that.”

“It’s a hard league to win in,” said defenceman Rasmus Andersson. “You’ve got to pay the price night in and night out.”

Andersson also spoke about how challenging it can be for young players in today’s game, both on and off the ice.

“The NHL is a lot about knowing your role and thriving with your role,” he said. “If you get an opportunity, take advantage of it. That’s what I think our young players have done this year.

“I think [Martin Pospisil] is a pest out there, night in and night out. It’s him understanding his role. I think Matty [Coronato] has been excellent since he got back, and I think [Connor Zary] has been good all year. The opportunity’s there and you have to take it when you get it and I think our young guys have done a really good job with that.”

There are stages to a hockey career, and the younger Flames are currently at the stage where everything is new and fun for them. They don’t have the weight of expectations or leadership responsibilities. They can just play and experience the NHL lifestyle for the first time.

“When it’s your first year, everything is exciting,” Andersson said. “You’re just riding along. You see New York, you see Florida, you see the big cities. You stay at nice hotels. You fly private. I think the first year, you’re just enjoying it.”

Those expectations will come soon, however, and the Flames rookies will have to learn to how to manage the outside noise.

“A lot of young players, it’s the second year that can be challenging,” Andersson said. “I think that’s when you realize that you get paid a lot of money to do this and it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, even though it is…we all love our job and we all love playing in the NHL and playing for the Flames, but it’s a mental grind and it’s a physical grind a lot of nights.

“It can be challenging…you have ups and downs. With the social media world, you read how terrible you are one game and how good you are the next. You’ve got to learn how to cope with everything.”

There are also the off-ice changes that the likes of Zary, Coronato, Pospisil, and Wolf may soon experience as they get older.

“Eventually, when you get a family and a wife and kids, it sucks to be without them,” Andersson said. “You’re gone for large periods of time during most of the year. It’s a learning curve.”

The rookies are taking notes. 

“A guy like [Mikael Backlund] who just does everything the right way,” Coronato, 21, said of who he’s observing. “You watch how he goes about pre-game like stretching and how he eats.”

Zary, 22, says he’s learned how different games are in March compared to November. 

“As the year goes on, it gets later in the year and games get tighter,” he said. “Everyone plays a little harder and teams start to get ready for playoffs…the pace gets up a little more…every little inch [on the ice] counts and it’s those little things that matter at this time of year.”

While Andersson would surely prefer to be playing meaningful games right now, he has seen the fruits of the Flames’ youth movement and the value to be gained in the coming weeks as the season comes to an end.

“I’ve thought our young players have been excellent all year,” he said. “They’ve been really taking advantage of their opportunity. They should be proud of themselves.”