SUN Hockey Pool

Pick your poison?

ERIC FRANCIS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:58 AM ET

Amongst the many questions Flames GM Darryl Sutter skirted Wednesday was whether the club could afford to keep both Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff long term.

With the two capable of commanding $8 or $9 million a year on the open market come July 2008, few believe Sutter will be able to shoehorn them into a salary cap that should be no more than $50 million by then.

With that in mind, Flames fans are already debating which superstar the team could least afford to lose.

And while 'the vote' has long been split evenly between the goalie and the captain, Detroit's dismantling of the Flames changed everything.

Suddenly, public sentiment has shifted wholeheartedly in Kiprusoff's favour, not only because of his Conn Smythe Trophy-worthy performance against Detroit but also because of Iginla's search for a pound of flesh near the end of Game 5.

As misguided as they are, a shocking number of fans are now critical of Iginla who has been as untouchable a sports icon as the city has ever seen since he won the NHL scoring title.

"I don't think it's warranted," said Rhett Warrener, defending Iginla's admirable grit. "It's pretty funny -- if you recall in '04, every time we lost in the first game of the series there was a mini line brawl. No one was criticizing then. Criticism comes easy when you lose. Iggy is a competitor. He's not a cheap shot guy. He's a hard-nosed, tough, competitive, fiery fella so that's all he did, he just continued to be the same guy he's always been."

Some go as far as to suggest Iginla embarrassed himself and the city with a crosscheck and what some saw as a butt-ending of Mathieu Schneider as he tried to goad him into a fight.

"It looked a little chippy but he certainly didn't hurt anyone or do anything overly malicious," added Warrener. "If we won Game 6 people would say, 'it's because Iggy showed heart.' "

Craig Conroy also defended Iginla by painting an ugly picture of the on-ice scenario late in the game that eventually saw Jamie McLennan suspended for two-handing Johan Franzen in the gut.

"Guys on the (Detroit) bench were saying 'I'm going to kill you,' " said Conroy of the vitriol directed at Iginla. "Then when he's out there all fired up no one wants to do anything. A couple times he just said 'c'mon, let's go -- if you want to do it, do it.' Then he takes the penalty. It was a crosscheck -- I could show you crosschecks Chris Chelios did way worse."

Iginla is unfazed by whatever backlash there may be.

"It doesn't really bother me," he said.

"I still think it is part of hockey. If that's the last game of the series and we're out it doesn't end that way. But at that point there are still games to be played and it's still part of competing. As far as butt-ending -- I didn't mean to butt-end you know. I did mean to hit him with my arms and get in front and do all that but I can understand with the motion it looks like that."

Regardless of Game 5's final moments, Conroy says there's no debate over who to keep.

"I'm a true believer you can have two top guys," said Conroy, citing Tampa Bay's top trio, which accounts for nearly half of the team's cap room.

"I think you've got to keep Miikka and Iggy, lock 'em in, give 'em their money and then work everyone out from there. As big as Miikka is in net, Iggy is just as important up front. He's the franchise. You're not going to find a better ambassador for the team and the way he treats people. They are the two guys that keep this thing going. Everybody else is interchangeable in my mind."

He's absolutely right.

Sign 'em both long-term, Darryl, if at all possible. This summer. Debate closed.


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