SUN Hockey Pool

The loneliest number

STEVE MACFARLANE -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 8:02 AM ET

This season could decide Matthew Lombardi's future as a Calgary Flame.

Assuming he makes it through this winter's trade deadline with the Flaming C still sewn on his jersey, as the Flames seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach with the young forward.

The 24-year-old centre signed a one-year, $800,000 deal yesterday but it took a long summer of negotiating with GM Darryl Sutter to get it done.

The fact the deal took so long to finalize has some thinking Lombardi's future lies elsewhere.

More telling, if you're of that train of thought, is the fact only a one-year pact could be agreed upon.

"It just wasn't working out for anything else, for a longer term," said Lombardi over a weak cellphone connection from Montreal last night. "We just weren't agreeing on it. And that's fine, we came to agreements on doing a one-year and I'm happy with that. That's all that counts."

Despite being last to be checked off on the off-season to-do list, Lombardi is happy with the way it worked out and looking forward to the new season.

"There's nothing really bad to say in terms of the way it went," he said. "Everything went well. Obviously it took some time but that's part of the process.

"At the end of the day, I'm excited that it's done and I get to move forward."

Lombardi received nearly a $300K raise after posting 26 points in 55 games last year but the Flames will no doubt be scrutinizing every play the talented but, thus far, unlucky NHL speedster makes.

Injuries have derailed Lombardi's progress since he burst onto the scene with a promising 16-goal rookie season in 2003-04.

A vicious elbow from Wings defenceman Derian Hatcher ended Lombardi's first foray into the NHL playoffs and left the youngster with a bitter taste in his mouth during 11 months of inactivity courtesy of the concussion.

He got his legs back under him during the lockout, appearing in nine games with the Lowell Lock Monsters of the AHL and started last season with the Flames as one of their more consistent centres, contributing three assists over the first six games.

Then his legs were taken out from under him again when he slid into the side boards feet first and suffered the dreaded high-ankle sprain, which sidelined him for two months.

When he returned, he showed glimpses of the flash-and-dash player he could become but also went through long periods of virtual invisibility.

That's something Lombardi is looking to rectify this fall.

"I just want to be as consistent as I can, showing up every night," said Lombardi. "I didn't put the puck in the net as much as I wanted to last year. I definitely want to be more ... opportunistic is maybe a good word.

"Being consistent is going to be a huge thing."

With fellow centre Jamie Lundmark -- just a year older than Lombardi and practically his clone aside from a right-handed shot -- showing a penchant for playmaking while posting 10 points in a dozen games as a Flame last season, icetime down the middle is at a premium.

At centre, Stephane Yelle will eat up defensive minutes, while Daymond Langkow should again be the No. 1 guy unless lex Tanguay makes the transition from left wing. That leaves Lundmark and Lombardi to battle it out for second-line honours.

Sutter is no longer behind the bench but it seems he still knows how to motivate his players. Handing the kid a single-season contract has the Montreal product as focused as ever. Lombardi agrees the time is now for him to show what he can do on the ice.

"There's always going to be a sense of urgency there and I think it's going to be a good thing," said Lombardi, who says he passed up arbitration this year to negotiate a deal. "I'm real optimistic, real positive about the upcoming season. I have a lot of confidence."

If Lombardi lives up to his potential and has the kind of breakout campaign most think he's capable of, the Flames will have to fork out a lot more cash to sign him to a long-term deal than they would have this summer.

The shoe would then be on the other foot and it just might come back to kick the Flames in the backside.


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