Great expectations

ERIC FRANCIS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:43 AM ET

The Calgary Flames will win the Northwest Division, finish third in the Western Conference and secure the home-ice advantage they so sorely missed in Game 7 of last year's first-round exit.

But don't take my word for it. Take Wayne Gretzky's instead.

"They'll have a better year than last year," said the Phoenix Coyotes coach of a Flames club that finished seventh in the West.

"There's no reason they couldn't be the team to come out of the West. Size, speed, talent, goaltending ... They've got a great goalie, two of the best defencemen in the league and maybe one of the best forwards in the game, and you can build around that.

"The West is so tight. When you've got talent at that level, you're just trying to find those one or two pieces to get to the next level. They're really close."

After a season in which GM Darryl Sutter focused hard on signing the four pillars of the franchise -- Miikka Kiprusoff, Dion Phaneuf, Robyn Regehr and Jarome Iginla -- he spent what was left of his cap money this summer addressing exactly what Gretzky is talking about: The missing links.

And if the pre-season is any indication of how well Mike Cammalleri, Todd Bertuzzi, Curtis Glencross and Rene Bourque will fit into the lineup, Sutter may just have remedied the club's biggest ailment last year.

"The biggest two gaps in our team last year was the (inconsistent) performance of some of those skilled players and what we got out of our third and fourth line guys who play nine to 12 minutes," said Sutter, who has totally reloaded his third and fourth lines to include some scorers. "They were warriors but scored two or three goals. All these guys here can score 10 or 12 goals. It makes a big difference."

While Bertuzzi and Cammalleri have been pegged for top-six roles all summer, others Sutter hoped would battle to join them rose to the occasion. Not only did Glencross and Bourque play well in camp, but youngsters Dustin Boyd and David Moss stepped up huge by leading the team in pre-season scoring. Any one of them could be asked to play first or second-line minutes at any time.

Not only are the gaps being filled, there are now plenty of options and competition on a roster that has long been devoid of any semblance of depth.

Gone are two of the Flames' top scorers in Kristian Huselius and Alex Tanguay --one-dimensional playmakers who Regehr politely described as soft. When the going got tough (or into the Flames zone), both disappeared.

Their departure is just fine with management, as this year the mantra is to return to being a grittier, more defensive-minded club like the one that got to the finals in 2004.

Easier said than done, especially given Mike Keenan was pushing for that last year, to no avail.

The key to such an approach is having the whole team buy into a system that can only be played if your goalie plays at a world-class level - something Kiprusoff didn't do last year.

"I think (his) fitness was a small part of it, but the biggest thing was philosophy," said Sutter, defending his goalie.

"I think the last two years the philosophy of being the best team in the league in terms of goals against -- which we were -- hasn't been driven home as much. That's very important," Sutter said.

"Everyone always wants to use the defending Stanley Cup champs as the role model. Well, Detroit has the best goals-against average and fewest shots against, and defence wins. We fell to the middle of the pack the last few years in goals-against, and to me, that's unacceptable."

So, too, is finishing anything lower than first in a weakened division with the cast of talent Sutter has surrounded his stars with.


Videos

Photos