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Huberdeau revitalized, Lindholm's future unclear to start Flames' training camp

CALGARY — Jonathan Huberdeau felt his swagger returning while Elias Lindholm was guarded about his long-term future with the Calgary Flames when they hit the ice Thursday at training camp.

The two forwards, who are expected to figure largely in the Flames' fortunes in 2023-24, played on a line together with newly acquired right-winger Yegor Sharangovich at the Saddledome.

Calgary (38-27-17) missed the Western Conference playoffs by two points in 2022-23.

Huberdeau's 15 goals and 40 assists were well off his career highs of 30 and 85 with the Florida Panthers before his 2022 summer trade to Calgary.

The left-winger said at the end of his first season as a Flame "I completely lost my swagger this year."

It's important to the Flames that the premier playmaker, and their most expensive player at US$10.5 million per year, get it back.

Huberdeau was shocked to be traded and did not flourish under the austere style of coach Darryl Sutter, who was fired. New general manager Craig Conroy promoted Ryan Huska from assistant to the club's next head coach.

"I think, mentally, this summer was huge to get the confidence back," Huberdeau said Thursday. "I've just got to let loose and have fun out there.

"You can just feel the energy around here. Coaching staff is great. Well-structured first practice. They're going to demand a lot out of us. We're going to push each other.

"I think the excitement is higher. Huska is a first-time head coach in the NHL and Conny, he's excited when you talk to him. We want to make the rink fun to come to for everyone and that's what we'll do this year."

Huberdeau's state of mind and the contract status of top centre Lindholm, who is an unrestricted free agent next year, were the hot topics heading into training camp.

Lindholm is one of eight core Flames entering the final years of their contracts. The 28-year-old Swede issued a big breathy sigh before answering the question of what his long-term future is with the club.

"It will be handled when it will be time for that," Lindholm said. "For now, I'm focused on the season and trying to make the most out of it. Try to help this team win as many games as possible.

"I'm not the only guy in this position with one year left on my contract. It's a big decision for both parts and it will take time."

With 22 goals and 42 assists, Lindholm was last season's No. 2 offensive producer in Calgary behind Tyler Toffoli, who was dealt to the New Jersey Devils for Sharangovich.

Lindholm indicated there was little progress on contract negotiations with the Flames.

"We talked early on in the summer and that was the last time we talked, so hasn't been much," he said.

Another development Thursday was the subtraction of defenceman Oliver Kylington from the training camp roster. After Wednesday's medicals and fitness testing, the Flames deemed the 26-year-old Swede unable to participate.

The club called the situation a private and personal matter.

Kylington did not play a game for the Flames last season because of an undisclosed personal issue after he signed a two-year, $5-million contract extension in August, 2022.

The words "compete, commitment, consistency" adorn the Flames' dressing room walls. Goaltender Jacob Markstrom described his feelings at the end of last season as "embarrassment" and "disappointment."

"Those two words showed up in a lot of guys heads and minds after the season, but we're looking ahead," the Swede said. "Everyone is excited. There's a jump in everyone's step."

Lindholm, centre Mikael Backlund, defencemen Kylington, Noah Hanifin, Nikita Zadorov and Chris Tanev are scheduled for unrestricted free agency in 2024 when centre Adam Ruzicka and winger Dillon Dube will be restricted free agents.

But for now, job opportunity is limited largely to the bottom six forwards and sixth and seventh defencemen, while the Flames hope the 26-year-old Sharangovich's finishing skills complement the top line.

"We know he can shoot the puck," Huska said. "That's the reason why we're trying him where he is right now."

The significant change the Flames seek this season, along with a playoff berth, is a more joyful environment.

"It was a long off-season for a lot of guys, clear your mind, get back into shape and ultimately I think that comes with a new organizational change that was needed for everybody," defenceman MacKenzie Weegar said.

"I think a lot of guys are walking around here upbeat, a lot of smiles, clear-minded, fresh, however you want to put it."

Added Huska: "Energy, enthusiasm, we need to have it. In order for our team to play the right way, or the way we want them to play, there has to be some buzz and some life around our room. That's going to be important for us."

The Flames haven't had a captain since Seattle took Mark Giordano in the 2021 expansion draft. Huska intends to name one before Calgary's regular-season opener Oct. 11 against the visiting Winnipeg Jets.

The selection will be made via a combination of player and management consultation, and not a player vote, Huska said.

"There's a lot of conversations," the coach said. "It's a really important role."

Calgary opens the pre-season Sunday against the visiting Vancouver Canucks followed by Monday's split-squad exhibition with the Seattle Kraken.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 21, 2023.



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