SUN Hockey Pool

'Tis the (off)season for change

RANDY SPORTAK -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:28 AM ET

The Calgary Flames' core players are an extremely talented bunch.

Of that, there's no argument.

All of them are inked to long-term deals, too.

It's obvious after the team's seven-game demise to the San Jose Sharks in the opening round of the NHL playoffs much must be done around that group for the Flames to take a step forward.

Continuing with the same-old, same-old obviously won't work if the club wants to indeed become a Stanley Cup contender.

The hands of general manager Darryl Sutter are not tied completely, but even with the salary cap expected to rise -- to around US$56 million -- he'll only be able to do so much between now and the start of the 2008-09 season.

Rest assured, there will be a more than just a few faces moved in and out.

Here's a positional breakdown:

GOAL

Miikka Kiprusoff begins a long contract extension and the pressure will be on for him to return in the fall focused mentally and physically, ready to again be one of the league's top netminders.

Kiprusoff may be a victim of the success he had in his first couple of seasons with the Flames, but he's now had two consecutive middling seasons -- by his standards -- and another slow start while he finds his game can't be tolerated.

Who his back-up may be is interesting. There are rumours Curtis Joseph will be re-signed, or the Flames will finally give Curtis McElhinney a legitimate shot at a full-time NHL job.

Leland Irving, coming off a so-so season, will turn pro but will be seasoned in the minors, likely with Matt Keetley.

Defence

Robyn Regehr and Norris Trophy finalist Dion Phaneuf are the lynch pins. Cory Sarich had an up-and-down season, but won't be going anywhere. Any or all of the trio of vets with larger contracts than their value to the team -- Adrian Aucoin, Rhett Warrener and Anders Eriksson -- could be jettisoned, but Aucoin's no-trade clause and each's salaries may make it impossible. Jim Vandermeer and David Hale are due to be unrestricted free agents. The club would like to keep Vandermeer, but may not be able to without dumping salary elsewhere.

Nobody in the farm system appears ready to jump to the NHL -- Adam Pardy appears closest -- so don't look for help there.

A wildcard is Mark Giordano, who spent the season in Russia instead of playing on a two-way contract. The Flames own his rights and could bring him back in the fold.

RIGHT WING

Jarome Iginla's five-year extension kicks in and David Moss is also signed. Marcus Nilson was a healthy scratch for almost every playoff game but has another year on his deal, too. From there, it's a curious position.

Potential UFA Owen Nolan was among the team's best in the playoffs and might have a year or two left in him. Enforcer Eric Godard is also a pending UFA.

In theory, they could all be back, and there aren't many prospects who could come in and fill a roster spot. One possibility is David Van der Gulik. Jusso Puustinen had a difficult final year of junior and is at least a year away from making the jump.

LEFT WING

Alex Tanguay had an so-so season, was the subject of trade rumours and speculation he was unhappy. He has one year left on his contract before becoming a UFA, and will be the focus of trade talk. However, he's the only proven and top-flight left winger the club has under contract.

Kristian Huselius is as good as gone after a disappointing year and will not likely be pursued by a team that grew tired of his soft, albeit talented, play. But the hole he'll leave behind looms large.

Wayne Primeau is a converted centre but could be a third-line left winger on a full-time basis. Eric Nystrom is a UFA having played fewer than 80 NHL games in his first three pro seasons, but the team would be foolish to let him walk if the salary expectations are reasonable.

Brandon Prust should make the jump, and the team could use his fire, but he's not a second-line winger. Sutter will need to work some magic to fill that void.

CENTRE

Of the club's top four centres, only Matthew Lombardi is officially signed. Despite his failure to score in the playoffs, the speedster made big strides in the last few months and the time has come for him to find the consistency to claim a role on the top two lines.

Daymond Langkow has reportedly agreed to a four-year extension worth US$20 million, so we'll assume he'll stay.

Both Craig Conroy and Stephane Yelle are possible UFAs. Yelle played well in the playoffs, and -- like Nolan -- could be back, but can't play his style of game every night. Conroy is aware he'd have to take a major paycut to stay, was leaned on down the stretch and would be a better third-liner, though capable of jumping in a bigger role if need be, but time will tell if he remains or leaves again.

Dustin Boyd has had a rookie year to learn the ropes and will be counted on to take a bigger step forward.

After that, the pipeline is thin. Mikael Backlund isn't likely ready, Andrei Taratukhin's decision to remain in Russia just before training camp likely meant the end of his life in the organization, and there doesn't appear to be any others knocking on the door all that hard.

Changes are needed, and seeing as the free-agent waters will be shallow this summer, it's most likely the changes Sutter will make will come via trade.


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