I apologize for the lack of updates, as school has just gotten underway and I’m still trying to sort things out. But without further ado, let’s continue our countdown.
The Flames are one of the toughest teams to play against in the league. Like previous versions of Darryl Sutter‘s Flames, this year’s version will continue to play the wear-and-tear type of hockey. For the Flames, despite the fact that they aren’t the league’s most talented team, they’re successful in part because of their playing style. Any hockey system or strategy is only as good as the players on the ice, but the Flames’ particular brand of hockey suits their best players, Jarome Iginla and Dion Phaneuf, perfectly. The two players are the faces of the franchise and can hit and score. They’re players that Mike Keenan and Sutter have a penchant for, and gone are Kristian Huselius and Alex Tanguay, talented players, but not quite the ones that fit. Once again, despite another disappointing showing in the playoffs Sutter elected not to give this team a face lift but rather just tinker around with the supporting players, and they’re better for it.
The key for Calgary has always been finding the right winger for Iginla. Tanguay and Huselius were definitely talented enough, but just couldn’t quite mesh with Iginla, and as a result both are gone. Huselius was not going to be re-signed and management wasn’t going to wait any longer for Tanguay to become the player they wanted him to be. And surprisingly, Sutter got an even smaller forward in Mike Cammalleri, who stands 5’9″, 4 inches shorter than the 6’1″ Tanguay. However, Cammalleri plays with a much more noticeable jam and consistency. After an impressive top line, the second line has been almost completely revamped. Craig Conroy is slotted to be the number two centre, but could very well find himself on the checking line if speedster Matt Lombardi shows that he can handle the duties. New addition Todd Bertuzzi, a player that is very well in the Keenan-Sutter mold, is expected to create traffic in front of the net, and with his ability to play either wing effectively, it would not be surprising to see him line up alongside Iginla should the need arise, giving the Flames one of the biggest lines in the West. Rene Bourque, coming off a 10-goal campaign last year with Chicago, is also a question mark, and the second line spot is his to lose. The Flames’ forwards have their share of holes and question marks, but that shouldn’t be a problem if Phaneuf and Aucoin chip in 30-40 goals combined.
The Flames have one of the deepest and strongest defensive corps in the league. Anders Eriksson and Rhett Warrener, regulars on any other team, will find themselves starting the season in the AHL with Quad City. The return of Mark Giordano, who played for a year in Russia after failing to come to terms on an extension, will definitely improve the Flames’ puck-moving ability. Cory Sarich and Jim Vandermeer will provide a tough veteran presence on the blueline. Adrian Aucoin will man the point with Phaneuf in what could develop into one of the league’s most dangerous powerplays. They will improve on their 19th ranked powerplay from last season.
Despite the Flames’ deep defense, the stats don’t really show it. The PK was ranked only 20th with an 81.5% efficiency and it’s GA was ranked a very pedestrian 16th. A lot of this has to do with Finnish goalie Miikka Kiprusoff‘s notorious slow starts. The athletic and talented netminder seemed to be playing his way out of the lineup after a stretch of horrible games, but by the mid-season mark he was beginning to find his form. It’s a little mysterious that a goalie as talented as him could take so long to get into the groove, but if the Flames want to succeed he really needs to get his game together early on in the season. They can’t afford to be a .500 team all year in a very tough West.
The biggest question mark for the Flames is coaching. While Bertuzzi and Bourque do bring their fair share of question marks, Keenan is the one that’s really going to be put under the microscope this year. He hasn’t had success since 1994, and has since then been labeled as a “destroyer” of sorts of teams. Could he be another one of Sutter’s mistakes, like Jim Playfair? Even though Keenan has mellowed out over the past few years, he really has to be careful as not to turn away his own players. He has been known to bring out the best in underachieving players, and perhaps Bertuzzi could be a huge benefit from that. However, Keenan has a tendency to become quite unpopular in the locker room, including a brief incident in which Iginla and Keenan had allegedly exchanged heated words. For Sutter, this is still Iginla’s team, and should Keenan fail to realize that he’d be the one going out the door.
The Flames are about $1.5m over the cap, which means anywhere from $3-$6m could be moved by Opening Night. Sutter has publicly stated that he has no intention of buying out Warrener and/or Eriksson, which means that perhaps Aucoin may be out the door. The veteran has enjoyed some success in Calgary, but with his upcoming UFA status and his $4m salary he is a prime candidate as trade bait. The one luxury that Sutter has is that all of his key players, Iginla, Phaneuf, Regehr, Kiprusoff, and Langkow, are all signed for years to come.
The Flames are the team to beat in their division. The Northwest is arguably the toughest division in hockey, and the Flames are built just for that. The Flames stumbled out of the gate last year and Keenan is going to make sure that it doesn’t happen again this year. If the Flames get Kiprusoff in a groove fast, they could very well put themselves in a comfortable position. Though winning the division may put the Flames in the top three, they will have an uphill climb in the first round, should they reach it, because quite frankly, the best of the Northwest is not the best of the West.
Mike Cammalleri – Daymond Langkow – Jarome Iginla
Rene Bourque – Craig Conroy – Todd Bertuzzi
Curtis Glencross – Matt Lombardi – David Moss
Eric Nystrom – Wayne Primeau – Dustin Boyd
Dion Phaneuf – Adrian Aucoin
Robyn Regehr – Cory Sarich
Mark Giordano – Jim Vandermeer
Miikka Kiprusoff – Curtis McElhinney
scratches: Andre Roy, Jamie Lundmark, Brandon Prust
Coach: Mike Keenan
GM: Darryl Sutter
Predicted Finish: 1st Northwest, 3rd West