Flames pumped as big Mats beefs up rivalry

IAN BUSBY

, Last Updated: 8:38 AM ET

Their closest rivals in the standings have landed the big fish, but that doesn't mean the Calgary Flames are conceding the division race.

With the Vancouver Canucks signing former Toronto Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin Thursday, the wet coasters have made a move to get stronger offensively. But the Flames, who entered yesterday tied with the Canucks for the Northwest Division lead, don't believe this changes the balance of power.

"You have to wait and see how it all plays out," said Flames forward Craig Conroy.

"Just because you put a great player on a new team doesn't mean it will automatically be a success. But it can't hurt.

"They really wanted him. They offered him $10-million, and that's a big chunk of money. He's a little older, like myself, but he's a great player and another weapon they have."

As an unrestricted free agent, Sundin took his sweet time deciding where or when to play. He won't join the Canucks until after Christmas.

The Flames next face the Canucks Feb. 17 at the Saddledome. By then, he should be in mid-season form, which won't be the case now.

"What we've seen the past couple of years when players have taken some time off ... they've struggled when back in action right off the bat," said Flames defenceman Robyn Regehr. "I expect the same with Mats."

Regehr contends the pending return of goalie Roberto Luongo will have more impact than anything Sundin does.

"Luongo means much more to their team than Sundin, and that's not a slight to Mats," Regehr said.

"The way their team is structured, Roberto Luongo is their most important player.

"Do we have to worry about Sundin? I wouldn't say that. We have a favourable schedule right now, and we have to take advantage (during a five-game home stretch).

"We know down the stretch, when we're all playing each other, how hard it will be to gain ground."

Flames captain Jarome Iginla said his team isn't worried about Sundin's presence in the division race. But he's happy the constant speculation over where the Swedish star would land is over.

"Now that he's there, it's exciting," Iginla said. "Vancouver is one of our biggest rivals. There are more things that go into a team than just one player.

"He's going to help them. From our point of view, we're just going to keep getting better. We've been battling with them at the top of the division for many years. We don't expect this year to be any different."

The biggest winners may be fans, especially those diehards of the Maple Leafs who will get to see their former hero at the Saddledome.

"He's a big man, and it makes the most competitive division more competitive," said Flames head coach Mike Keenan. "It's part of what we deal with in this division. It's exciting to have those challenges in front of us. It's exciting for the fans of our division. They get to see real competitive hockey."


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