Flames sittin' pretty

STEVE MACFARLANE -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 8:19 AM ET

The Calgary Flames have a bright future.

Jarome Iginla, arguably the best player in the modern NHL, is locked up for another three years. His linemates, Tony Amonte and Daymond Langkow, form one of the most threatening units in the league.

Young players such as Chuck Kobasew are on the verge of breakout seasons.

Their defence corps is among the best from top to bottom and rookie Dion Phaneuf looks as if he'll be an impact player for years to come.

Best of all, the new salary cap should help ensure the prosperity and competitiveness of small-market franchises across Canada and the U.S. -- allowing teams like the Flames to keep their centrepieces from being lured away on what used to be a very lucrative free-agent market.

The defending Western Conference champions are careful to keep their heads out of the clouds despite entering this season as one of the favourites.

Selected as the league's top team by Sports Illustrated entering the 2005-06 season, the rabid Flames fans inspired by a magical run in the spring of 2004 will expect nothing less than a return to the Stanley Cup final and a different outcome than the Game 7 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Flames also have lofty goals, although they will try to reach them one game at a time.

But GM/head coach Darryl Sutter says expectations don't guarantee the Flames a berth in the post-season.

"There's only a handful of guys in (our locker-room) who have won and they're very strong in their opinions about the difference between good and popular," said Sutter before leaving town for a four-game road swing to start the season.

Sutter and his charges have brushed off the praise but admit there is a different attitude in the room, which stems from their success in the last NHL season.

The players now know that once you make it into the playoffs, anything can happen.

They also know the Flames are only as strong as their weakest link.

With a new American Hockey League affiliate, the Omaha Knights, the Flames now have their own, personal farm team. Top draft picks such as flashy forward Eric Nystrom and goaltender Brent Krahn will hone their skills in Nebraska, learning from some of the veterans on the squad while waiting for their opportunity to shine in the NHL.

Defensive prospects Richie Regehr, younger brother of Flames blueliner Robyn, and Mark Giordano spent the entire pre-season with the big club and are just two of many expected to bloom into potential NHLers with the Knights.

Assistant Flames coach Jim Playfair says setting up the Omaha team and stocking it with talented young players bodes well for the future of the franchise.

"We've got a good young group of kids that are coming along at different ages," said Playfair. "Some of those, they're undrafted players that just wanted a chance. They came in and excelled under the guidance of our entire staff, our entire organization.

"In setting our own team up in Omaha, they'll be a strength of ours. Having the ability to have hands-on, day-to-day contact with those kids and some great coaching down there, that'll allow them to develop and someday push for jobs up here."

Sutter agrees the best way to develop the Flames' top prospects is by using their new AHL affiliate as a real testing ground.

"This was the gameplan -- to have our own team this year and to start prepping for that," said Sutter during training camp. "The only reason that you have a full farm team is because you have good prospects. It serves no purpose to have a full team if you don't have good prospects."


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