SUN Hockey Pool

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RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:48 AM ET

Two years ago, nothing much was expected from the Flames.

Gearing up for the 2003-04 campaign, Calgary's NHL squad was coming off its seventh straight non-playoff season -- the longest active drought at the time.

At best, said the experts, they had an outside chance at the playoffs but needed all the stars to fall into alignment for it to happen.

Most pundits around the league, though, figured it would be another dark April.

Another early garbage bag day, with more of the same old lines trotted out.

Fast forward to the fall of 2005 and the Flames may be the hottest team in hockey.

The Flames aren't just expected to be competitive in the quest for the Stanley Cup, which begins tonight with the start of the 2005-06 regular season.

The Flames are expected to win it.

Among those making that prediction are the experts at Sports Illustrated.

That's right, the perennial weaklings could be on the verge of not only duplicating the thrilling playoff run of 2004 but going one win better.

Even the longest-serving Flame, captain Jarome Iginla, has never been in this position in the Stampede City.

"It's a nice compliment. It's nice to have different expectations at the start of the season than being picked just out of the playoffs," Iginla said.

"But we know it's going to be tough. Nobody in our room is getting ahead of it."

It's an understandable position to take.

After all, we're talking about one long rebuilding process.

Prior to the 2004 playoffs, Iginla was the lone Flame to have skated in the post-season with a Flaming C on his chest.

And that was way back in the spring of 1996, when he joined the team for the final two playoff games after completing his last junior season in Kamloops.

It wasn't until that fall he even skated in an NHL regular-season game.

"If you look at it, the rebuilding cycle in the NHL, when teams commit to it and do it with younger players, is about five years. We took a little longer: Seven years," Iginla said. "We made some very good trades. Getting Robyn (Regehr) in the Theo (Fleury) trade was a big one."

Can't argue that seeing as Regehr -- who is out a few weeks due to a knee injury suffered late in the pre-season -- is the linchpin of arguably the league's best defence corps, one of the reasons the Flames are being tagged as a Cup contender.

"We've got a good, young defence and that's such a big part of the game," said Iginla. "It's not just not getting scored on but also being part of the offence, making things into three-on-twos and two-on-ones."

Maybe even a bigger reason is No. 1 goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff.

Acquired from San Jose when Roman Turek went down with a knee injury, he burst onto the scene, setting a league- record 1.69 goals-against average, and backstopped the club all the way to the Stanley Cup final.

Iginla absolutely gushes about the impact the calm, cool and collected Kiprusoff has had on the squad.

"Getting Kipper, you can't overstate how big that's been," said the captain who went through so many lows in the Stampede City before experiencing a true high.

Of course, Kiprusoff isn't the only astute trade made in recent years by a trio of general managers: Al Coates, Craig Button and Darryl Sutter.

Iginla arrived in the Joe Nieuwendyk deal, while Daymond Langkow, Steve Reinprecht, Stephane Yelle, Shean Donovan, Marcus Nilson, Rhett Warrener and Jordan Leopold -- just to name a few -- also came the trade route.

Of those on the opening-day roster, only Chuck Kobasew, Dion Phaneuf and Matthew Lombardi were acquired through the draft.

Granted, Eric Nystrom and Brent Krahn are on the cusp, so the draft record will certainly improve.

Add a few free agents -- Roman Hamrlik, Tony Amonte and Darren McCarty -- and the pieces all fall together to build one of the deepest rosters Flames fans have seen in more than a decade.

Certainly the best Iginla's been part of.

"That's what top teams have. It's not just one line and two defencemen or whatever. It is all the way through," he said.

"What I like about our team is we have different styles of players and different styles of lines. Yeah, we have lines that are more offensive but we also have lines that are very hard to play against and can still score goals while shutting down top lines.

"I like that. I think we can play all the way through, it's not just about scoring and not just about defence."

"Now we just have to go out and have success again."


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