Battle to be waged into future

ERIC FRANCIS, CALGARY SUN

, Last Updated: 7:17 AM ET

Even the most stubborn of Calgary Flames fans will admit the crop of youngsters buzzing around in Edmonton Oilers silks these days are an exciting bunch to watch.

Despite a stunning array of injuries to their captain, leading scorer, top goalie and powerplay quarterback, the Oil's slick new recruits have the club precariously close to snagging the most unlikely of playoff berths.

Full marks for their tenacity, heart and, most importantly, their ability to steal games after regulation.

But to suggest for a second the future is brighter for NHL fans north of Red Deer than south of it is a bigger stretch than calling yourself the City of Champions nearly two decades after your last Stanley Cup win.

Yet, therein lies one of the juiciest debates the Battle of Alberta has produced in a long, long time.

Yes, the Oil leads the league with 12 double-digit goal scorers, despite icing 16 players under age 26.

But simply put, the Flames are the envy of the NHL in terms of building blocks for the future.

Defying conventional wisdom that suggested the salary cap era would prohibit clubs from collecting superstars as used to be the case with the old New York Rangers or Detroit Red Wings, Darryl Sutter has four of the league's very best locked up for the next six years.

With the game's best leader (Jarome Iginla), most complete and feared defenceman (Dion Phaneuf), a Vezina-winning goalie (Miikka Kiprusoff) and one of the top stay-at-home defenders (Robyn Regehr) all inked to lengthy extensions this year, the Flames are essentially guaranteed to avoid the type of sorry season the Oilers had last year. And Sutter did it by getting each player to leave money on the table because they want to be here. Kevin Lowe doesn't have that luxury as few NHLers want to play in Edmonton.

Of course, that could change with this resurgence.

As promising as every member of the Conga Line -- Andrew Cogliano, Robert Nilsson and 18-year-old Sam Gagner -- is, it would be foolish to suggest any of them could ever come close to being a goal scorer, leader or competitor like Iginla.

No defenceman in the Oilers system -- or the world for that matter -- has a chance at being as fiery or gifted as Phaneuf or as steady and reliable as Regehr.

Yes, Mathieu Garon has been a pleasant surprise, but until he leads a team to the Cup final, wins a Vezina or sets a modern day record for goals-against average, comparing him to Kiprusoff is a fool's game.

Oilers fans, of course, will dismiss the comparison of superstars and point to the collective whole Craig MacTavish has directed to shocking heights this year despite massive man-games lost to injury. And while the heart and attitude is indeed impressive, Flames fans saw the same thing a handful of years ago en route to the Cup final, only to see it disappear when the NHL resumed. Chemistry can be a fickle thing.

Indeed, Sutter's biggest challenge over the next few years will be filling the gaps between his stars and rounding out his roster with solid depth and support cheaply. The draft picks Edmonton is leaning on now will play a big role in whether the Flames can progress from contenders to favourites.

The problem Lowe faces will not only be trying to ensure a team that won 15 games in the shootout can repeat that remarkable feat but finding the cap room down the road to keep all his budding young stars in town.

The Oilers have more depth and a better chance at making a bigger jump in status.

The Flames have more studs and stability but none of the top young prospects Edmonton boasts.

Perhaps the only way to ultimately settle the debate is to have one team win the Cup or have them meet in the playoffs -- something more and more likely with the rival teams both heading in the right direction.

Advantage Flames. For now.


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