SUN Hockey Pool

Time is now for Flames

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:40 AM ET

Deep in the midst of a sweltering summer heat wave may be an odd time to talk about the clock running out on the Calgary Flames.

But it is now, with Darryl Sutter contemplating his future as coach, the reality is obvious: The Flames have less than two years left to win the Stanley Cup.

After that, the club will lose Jarome Iginla and/or Miikka Kiprusoff, kicking off what will become an annual dismantling around the NHL.

With average players such as Colin White signing six-year deals worth $18 million, it's clear the new CBA has done little to eliminate the mind-boggling contract insanity casual fans figured would disappear.

Instead, expensive player rentals appear to be the way of the future, as teams on the brink of breaking through look to plug holes with proven stars.

It means, as most fans feared, superstars such as Kiprusoff and Iginla will easily fetch close to the league's maximum salary once they hit unrestricted free agency at the end of the 2007-08 campaign.

Unable to ink two such studs at once and remain competitive, the Flames will be at a crossroads trying to decide who they can least afford to lose.

Complicating matters will be the fact Robyn Regehr's bargain-basement five-year, $10-million contract will also expire in two years. Ditto for Dion Phaneuf's inexpensive entry deal.

All (except Iginla who is already near the player maximum at $7 million) will command massive pay hikes on a team that is already close to the salary-cap limit. This despite the fact its Vezina Trophy winner will make just $3.5 million -- less than half of what he'll be worth on an open market.

Don't be fooled into believing the cap will continue to grow by $4-million as it did this year, either.

Other deals expiring that year include last year's first-liners Daymond Langkow and Kristian Huselius, Stephane Yelle, Andrew Ference, Andrei Zyuzin and potential 30-goal scorer Chuck Kobasew.

Given just how small a window the Flames and every other challenger has at melding their talent into championship form, Sutter essentially has no choice but to return as coach.

Wanting desperately to focus solely on GM duties for two years now, Sutter felt compelled to stay on as coach after the lockout due to the short turnaround from deal to the opening day of camp.

This time, no doubt, he has an even increased desire to watch from above full time while scouting prospects and prospective acquisitions. However, he knows his team needs his guidance and leadership, as no coach could squeeze as much out of his troops as he does.

Alex Tanguay, who has never played a game under Sutter, said he was looking forward to doing so. Jeff Friesen signed here to prove to Sutter he can be even better than the last time he played for him.

Changing streams now and adding an outsider to a tight-knit group that wins only when every player buys into Sutter's concepts would set the club's progress back at least a year.

Sutter knows that and will thus announce soon he is staying on as coach.

With players reaching unrestricted free agency status earlier than ever, the player movement the NHL has staunched for years will be rampant.

That's what salary caps do, contrary to what the masses believed when the CBA was ratified last summer.

It forces top teams to shed talent as the Red Wings, Avalanche and Senators can attest.

So, enjoy your time off this summer, coach.

Because in just a few months the official countdown begins.


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