SUN Hockey Pool

Seven burning questions

RANDY SPORTAK -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:51 AM ET

Today it begins anew for the Calgary Flames.

The Callaways have been put away for the winter, with the vets arriving at the Saddledome this morning for the annual pre-season physicals and workouts.

The tests are hard, but nothing compared to the season-long final exam.

With the euphoric playoff run of 2004 a distant memory, this year's Flames go into camp with many questions surrounding them.

Here are a few of those queries front and centre on our minds heading into the 2008-09 season.

- Will this year be a step forward or more of the same, limping into the playoffs and dusted off in the first round?

Nothing like facing a tough question right off the hop.

Are the Flames better than last season? Talent-wise, probably not. However, that talent -- notably Alex Tanguay and Kristian Huselius -- sure didn't achieve a whole lot when it came to crunch time, and we're not just talking about the opening-round playoff loss against San Jose.

There have been many changes among the forward ranks. Gone are those two skilled but maddeningly inconsistent left wingers, along with Owen Nolan, Stephane Yelle, Marcus Nilson and bit parts Mark Smith and tough guy Eric Godard.

The replacements -- Mike Cammalleri, Todd Bertuzzi, Rene Bourque, Curtis Glencross, Andre Roy and Brandon Prust -- don't provide as much top-end talent, but they do collectively have more grit, speed and size.

Combine that with a younger group that will be hungrily battling for ice time. Players such as Eric Nystrom, Dustin Boyd and David Moss are all expected to battle for a bigger role and more ice time.

All that could put them back atop the Northwest Division, which has become very mediocre with the Edmonton Oilers the only team that could be headed in the right direction.

Even with the growing pains they'll experience from the infusion of youth, the Flames are good enough to win the division, earn a higher first-round seeding in the playoffs and therefore have a better chance of advancing to at least the second round.

Of course, that was the feeling about last year's team, and it fell short of claiming that banner.

- Will Miikka Kiprusoff bounce back to be among the NHL's elite goalkeepers or was last year's middling campaign the beginning of a trend?

With his athleticism, coaching, composure and skills, Kiprusoff has all he needs to be worthy of the massive contract extension that kicks in this season -- six years, US$35 million.

But in the three seasons since the lockout, Kiprusoff's goals-against average has climbed from 2.07 to 2.46 to 2.69 while his save percentage has fallen from .923 to .917 to .906.

Adding to those worries, the soon-to-be 32-year-old is on the downslope of his career and didn't 'steal' many games last season and didn't record his first shutout until late February; one of only two on the campaign.

Kiprusoff's conditioning has been called into question in the past due to his slow starts to the season, so the onus will be on him to be strong from the beginning and disprove that theory.

Maybe, then, he'll build the momentum needed to return to his former lofty heights.

It says here he has a few great years left in him. After that? Well, we'll see.

- What impact will Todd Bertuzzi have?

In our pool, we're banking on 45 goals, 95 points, 120 penalty minutes.

OK, now it's time to be serious.

Much of Bertuzzi's season depends on how the big man is used. Putting him on a top line with Jarome Iginla and Daymond Langkow would be his best-case scenario for the bounce-back he's been looking for ever since being traded from Vancouver to Florida at the 2006 draft.

Another possibility is as the cornerstone to a second line with Matthew Lombardi and Rene Bourque, but seeing as those two have much more speed, we're not sure if that would be a great fit, even if Bertuzzi is leaner than years past.

For all those wanting to say he'll be a detriment to the team in the dressing room, think again. That room belongs to others here, and Bertuzzi is happy that is the case, and he knows full well Iginla stuck out his neck and reputation for him -- which should also be motivating.

Realistically, it's fair to expect Bertuzzi will collect around 20 goals and 45 points, but should first-line duties and powerplay time come free, and he stays injury free, don't be shocked if he has something along the lines of a 25-goal, 60-point year, which would be better than what Alex Tanguay provided last season.

- Is Matthew Lombardi ready to be a full-time, second-line centre?

Back in the 2006-07 season, Lombardi was in that position until Craig Conroy was re-acquired from Los Angeles. In the 49 games before that trade, the speedy Lombardi netted 15 goals and 33 points. His production went south in the reduced role and last year he managed only 14 goals and 36 points.

Lombardi is a couple of years older since being thrust into that audition and much more experienced, so it's not unrealistic to believe he can be better this time around.

Another option is to move Lombardi to the wing with Mike Cammalleri in the middle.

The good news for the Flames is they have options for that second-line centre slot -- Craig Conroy or Dustin Boyd for starters -- but this is a golden chance for Lombardi to prove he is indeed capable of being on the top two lines on a full-time basis.

If he doesn't, he could become trade bait.

- Who replaces the offence Alex Tanguay and Kristian Huselius provided?

The most skilled addition is Cammalleri, who is also more versatile, too, being able to play left wing and centre -- and rest assured we'll see him in those roles. He's also capable of manning a point on the powerplay, which should help Dion Phaneuf's point shot .

After that, though, the Flames really need a scoring-by-committee approach to come through. Todd Bertuzzi should contribute more offence than Owen Nolan provided, while Bourque, a good bet to also be on the second line, must pick up the slack.

Where the Flames expect to improve most in the offence department is on the third/fourth lines. Craig Conroy won't put up the numbers like he used to, but with players like Dustin Boyd, Curtis Glencross and David Moss to skate with, he should anchor the best third line this team's had in years.

Calgary is by no means a team that will win 6-5 games night after night, but it's not as thin offensively as perceived.

And seeing how little Tanguay and Huselius provided down the stretch and in the post-season, it's not unreasonable to believe the Flames will be just as good if not better in that department.

- Where does Mark Giordano fit into the defence corps?

Great question. First, we have to figure out what will be the defence corps, and that's tricky right now.

Robyn Regehr and Dion Phaneuf are the cornerstones to the top-two pairings. Rugged Jim Vandermeer is destined mainly for the third duo.

Here is where it gets dicey. Calgary has to trim payroll to be within the NHL's salary cap, with the blueline the likely area to face the knife, and none of the other four are totally immune from being moved.

Odds are Cory Sarich (US$3.6 milion cap hit) won't be dealt, so he'd likely return to skate with Regehr. Adrian Aucoin (US$4 million) has a no-trade clause to go with a hefty salary and couldn't easily be moved. It makes sense to put him with Phaneuf, but Aucoin actually played better when on the third pairing last year.

Giordano, back after a season spent in Russia, Aucoin and Vandermeer could all take turns with Phaneuf depending on the situation.

That leaves Rhett Warrener (US$2.35 million) and Anders Eriksson (US$1.5 million). Both were on waivers in the summer, both are candidates for a trade or demotion to the minors with almost no chance of returning and both have contracts that have put the team in a bit of a bind.

In the summer, GM Darryl Sutter said those vets will have to compete for a job with the team. He has to have been looking for a way to somehow unload one of them. An ideal situation would be to move both Warrener and Eriksson and have a younger and cheaper skater such as Adam Pardy as the seventh defenceman.

- How many rookies should Flames fans expect to see this season?

On a full-time roster spot basis, likely just one: Brandon Prust. The agitating winger has a one-way contract and the club really could use the energy and moxie Prust would provide on the fourth line.

Prust is by no means a heavyweight fighter, a role Andre Roy was brought in for, but he is always game for a dust-up and willing to be a disturber the Flames have lacked since Ville Nieminen departed.

Mikael Backlund is a super looking prospect, but the club's first-round choice from 2007 is still eligible for junior and doesn't need to be forced into the lineup. He's most likely going back to Sweden to play in the second division for his hometown team and will be the lynch pin forward for what should be a very good team at the world juniors.

That's not to say the 19-year-old forward can't make the team, but to accommodate him would mean sending a Dustin Boyd to the minors or trading away a forward or two to make room so Backlund would be in a big enough role.

WHO'S GOING CAMPING AT THE SADDLEDOME

FORWARDS

-75 John Armstrong, C, 20

-60 Mikael Backlund, C, 19

7 Todd Bertuzzi, RW, 33

17 Rene Bourque, LW, 26

41 Dustin Boyd, C, 22

13 Mike Cammalleri, LW, 26

-74 Hugo Carpentier, C, 20

62 Kris Chucko, RW, 22

24 Craig Conroy, C, 37

-65 Adam Cracknell, RW, 23

53 Cam Cunning, LW, 23

39 Carsen Germyn, RW, 26

20 Curtis Glencross, LW, 25

-47 Kyle Greentree, LW, 24

12 Jarome Iginla, RW, 31

22 Daymond Langkow, C, 31

18 Matthew Lombardi, C, 26

45 Jamie Lundmark, C, 27

25 David Moss, RW, 26

26 Marcus Nilson, LW, 30

23 Eric Nystrom, LW, 25

63 Warren Peters, C, 26

19 Wayne Primeau, C, 32

29 Brandon Prust, LW, 24

27 Andre Roy, LW, 33

-43 Dan Ryder, C, 21

-68 Aki Seitsonen, RW, 22

-42 Brett Sutter, LW, 21

-64 Jonathan Tremblay, RW, 24

59 David Van Der Gulik, LW, 25

46 Peter Vandermeer, LW, 32

-69 J.D. Watt, RW, 21

DEFENCEMEN

33 Adrian Aucoin, D, 35

-67 Gord Baldwin, D, 21

-49 Brad Cole, D, 21

8 Anders Eriksson, D, 33

5 Mark Giordano, D, 24

-61 John Negrin, D, 19

50 Brett Palin, D, 24

55 Adam Pardy, D, 24

-56 Matt Pelech, D, 21

3 Dion Phaneuf, D, 23

28 Robyn Regehr, D, 28

6 Cory Sarich, D, 30

71 Dan Sprang, D, 25

4 Jim Vandermeer, D, 28

44 Rhett Warrener, D, 32

-78 Ryan Wilson, D, 21

GOALIES

-35 Leland Irving, G, 20

-36 Matt Keetley, G, 22

34 Miikka Kiprusoff, G, 31

-38 Kevin Lalande, G, 21

1 Curtis McElhinney, G, 25

--attended prospects camp


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