Mike's Keen on coming back

ERIC FRANCIS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:04 AM ET

Two years into a three-year contract that came with sky-high expectations, Mike Keenan wanted to let everyone know yesterday he, too, expects certain things.

He expects to be back next season.

He expects Olli Jokinen to anchor the powerplay from the blueline, he expects Jarome Iginla and Dion Phaneuf to be better and he expects to give Miikka Kiprusoff more rest.

Yes, he expects plenty of people to call for his head over the Flames' latest first-round exit, but he also expects people to understand there are legitimate explanations for why his team fell short once again.

"There are never excuses, but there are reasons," the Flames coach repeated his mantra of the month yesterday when surrounded by a wall of skeptical journalists.

"If you're rational about it and draw some perspective... in the end, the players weren't given a fair opportunity due to medical reasons. With our complete team against Chicago, there's room for debate over what the results could have been -- we might not be standing here today."

But there we were on another April garbage bag day, reflecting on another solid regular season punctuated by springtime decay -- the exact thing Keenan was brought in to avoid. And while everyone in Calgary is well aware the team was decimated by injuries down the stretch and throughout their six-game series with Chicago, a large number of people still see Keenan as the obvious fall guy.

"I've worked in the media and I know what your job is -- I know you have to give an opinion," said Keenan, 59, calmly pleading for perspective to rule the day.

"It doesn't distract me at all -- I guess that's through experience. I've been through a lot professionally and personally, and you know if you've done a good job or not or if your team has improved or not. You have 30 teams, and 14 were extremely disappointed. You've got some great coaches who just got knocked out in the first round again. Does that mean the guy in San Jose didn't do his job or the guy in New Jersey didn't do his job? There are so many variables involved in this and that's why the Cup is so precious and so difficult to win."

Asked if he was a "lame-duck coach" entering the final year of his deal, the fourth-winningest coach of all time didn't flinch.

"It's not a tough position for me, and I expect to fulfill my contract -- that will be decided by (GM) Darryl (Sutter) and his staff," said Keenan, who has only seen the second round once since guiding the Rangers to the Stanley Cup in 1994.

"I enjoyed this year and I think a lot of players made some progress, the coaching staff was extremely hard working, and the players were extremely cooperative."

Indeed, he was part of the mix that allowed Rene Bourque and Curtis Glencross to flourish, David Moss and Eric Nystrom to emerge and Adam Pardy to develop rapidly. His crew gets full marks for scratching up 98 points, challenging for the division and spending the better part of two months teasing fans over Christmas their Flames were amongst the NHL's elite.

However, it was on Keenan's watch the powerplay disappeared, the emphasis on defence was ignored, and the group faltered when it mattered most, led by surprisingly pedestrian efforts of his three biggest stars -- Iginla, Phaneuf and Kiprusoff.

On a day when players cleared their lockers and said goodbyes, Sutter sent word he wouldn't address the masses until next week. While he, too, will lean heavily on injuries to explain the club's latest setback, the question is whether he thinks the group has stagnated under Keenan.

"We had the ingredients to do well as a healthy group, but for me, it all came down to the parity of the league and how important it is to stay healthy," said Keenan. "I've had a lot of experience with playoff-ready teams, and this team was going to be in that position again."

Was being the operative word.


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