SUN Hockey Pool

Critics play fair with Keenan

STEVE MACFARLANE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:10 AM ET

There are reasons none of the fans in Calgary seem to be calling for Mike Keenan's job right now.

There have to be.

The anti-Jim Playfair campaign was in full effect at this time last year, and his squad of Flames had earned four more points through 66 games than the one Keenan has been guiding in his first year as head coach.

Maybe it's the time factor.

With nearly four years and three seasons separating the present campaign from the Stanley Cup run of 2004, have expectations finally been downgraded to reasonable?

Maybe it's the experience factor. Keenan has won a Cup, after all.

Most likely, it's the tight race for the Northwest Division title. Tied for top spot with the Minnesota Wild heading into yesterday's action, the Flames are still giving their faithful hope for home-ice advantage come playoff time.

With the Vancouver Canucks a handful of points ahead -- and slipping away -- a year ago, the idea of seeing their team potentially miss the playoffs was weighing heavily on the minds of the season-ticket holders in Calgary.

The entire Western Conference is struggling for separation right now thanks to parity induced by the salary cap system, but enough similarities between last year's Flames and the current version exist to make you wonder why the hostility towards Playfair was so unrestrained.

His team was streaky.

So is Keenan's.

They were prone to identity issues. Same goes for this year's group, although GM Darryl Sutter seems to like the mix of personalities better this time around.

On their current pace, the 2007-08 Flames likely wouldn't have made the 2007 post-season.

A great point was recently made by a TV analyst discussing the dismissal of Ottawa Senators coach John Paddock. Hiring an assistant coach as a head coach on the same team is a recipe for disaster.

Formerly a buffer between the big boss and the players, the promoted staffer now has to be the bad cop.

In Playfair's case, some might have thought he was imitating Sutter behind the bench, when really he was just flipping the switch from helper to head honcho.

Had he come to the role from his top post in the AHL, would anyone have questioned his authenticity?

The true test of Keenan's ability to succeed where Playfair failed is about to get underway. Winning just seven of their final 16 games last season, the Flames stumbled into the playoffs.

A 1-4-1 start to that stretch effectively ended their hopes for the division. The six-game win streak that followed was spoiled by losing four straight to end the regular season and limping into the playoffs in the final playoff spot.

Although their record since December is stellar, Keenan's Flames have struggled to put forth a consistent effort in big games. They're all big from here if they want to capture the Northwest crown.

A 9-6-1 finish would give them 96 points, which is commonly viewed as a guaranteed spot in the playoffs.

It might even take less than that this year.

But to secure home ice, they'll need to take aim at the 100-point mark.

Closing out the season with nine games within their division, it will take a team totally prepared for every single one of those big games to reach that goal.

Friday's loss in Anaheim started out sloppy.

Signs of trouble were apparent to Keenan when his players practised poorly Thursday following a day away from the arena.

Keenan's decision to sit Cory Sarich, ending his active iron-man streak, and start Curtis Joseph over Miikka Kiprusoff helped the Flames rebound in Phoenix Saturday.

It makes you wonder why it takes moves like that to motivate players.

At the same time, it seems to support the idea that Keenan may be able to do what Playfair didn't.

The fans, though, will have to wait and see what happens between now and June to make that judgment.

Either way, they should probably start penning the apology letters to Playfair, who can still be found at the Saddledome as a Flames assistant coach.


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