SUN Hockey Pool

Eight too great

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 8:32 AM ET

On a team with the best group of defencemen in hockey today, you might say the Calgary Flames addition of Roman Hamrlik borders on overkill.

You could go as far as to categorize the team's embarrassment of rearguard riches as gluttony, greed or even hoggish.

Yep, the Flames may just have too much talent, too much character and too much potential patrolling the area in front of Miikka Kiprusoff this year. However, being the swell guy he is, Darryl Sutter is willing to shoulder the burden of overseeing a bevy of blueliners supersaturated with skill.

"I think we have seven proven NHL defenceman and Dion (Phaneuf) who has to prove himself," said a rather nonchalant Sutter, finally confirming reports in Saturday's Sun the first pick overall in 1992 had inked a two-year, $7-million US deal.

"We've been talking to him since Aug. 1 and the reason we were really interested in him is he's only 31 years old in comparison to the other guys out there. He's a guy who plays 25 minutes a game and in every situation. He's a top defenceman in the NHL, that's why we wanted him."

Able to shop his considerable talents around after another steady year on Long Island, the 6-ft. 2-in., 210-lb. unrestricted free agent chose Calgary over a host of clubs like Chicago, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and the Rangers, which offered more money and/or longer deals.

"He wants to try and win a championship and that's why he decided to sign with us," said Sutter of the three-time all-star from Zlin, Czech Republic.

"He turned down three- and four-year deals for more money elsewhere. The fact that he was willing to come to us for a two-year deal says a lot."

Although he's now the second-highest paid Flame, he comes at a discount considering former teammate Adrian Aucoin got $4 million a year based on one 40-point season while Hamrlik has six of them, including a 65-point effort in 1995/96. He's a horse. A leader. A Sutter-type.

So where does the signing of a veteran puck-moving defenceman leave a youngster like Jordan Leopold who has shown every indication he's ready to quarterback the powerplay? What does it mean for Toni Lydman, who has likely played his last game as a Flame? How should Andrew Ference, Rhett Warrener, Robyn Regehr or Steve Montador react?

"The most important thing in it to me is that it allows Roman to play the minutes that he should as a top player in the league and it allows Leopold and Phaneuf and Andrew and Monty and Robyn to develop at their own pace instead of saying, 'this is where they'll play and how much they have to play,' " said Sutter, who scoffs at the notion Hamrlik is a 'powerplay specialist.'

"Now, you've got Hamrlik, Lydman, Warrener and Regehr as guys that have played a lot of minutes. There's some pressure on the other guys. Before when they were on a weaker team, the minutes were handed to them but now they have to earn it. And obviously we're not going to keep all eight. We're still two months away from it."

And in that time Sutter will have plenty of options as he decides which one of his elite eight is best used as trade bait either now or come March.

"There are no players that have to be moved," said Sutter, denying plans to move Lydman's $1.9-million salary.

After six seasons with Tampa Bay, Hamrlik was traded to Edmonton. But Hamrlik's escalating salary forced a trade to the Isles, who gave up Eric Brewer and two others for his services. With 117 goals and 324 assists in 873 games, he's now a Flame.

A plethora of pluckiness, a profusion of proficiency, an excess of excellence... call it what you will -- the Flames defence is stacked like no other.

Who thought a small-market team could be so selfish?


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