SUN Hockey Pool

On-paper promise translates to ice

ERIC FRANCIS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:19 AM ET

It's hard to remember the last time there was this much optimism surrounding the Calgary Flames.

Not the kind of blind optimism that envelops even the Atlanta Thrashers, the Los Angeles Kings and the Toronto Maple Leafs every fall.

But genuine this-may-be-the-year type confidence that is completely warranted given the circumstances.

Yes, on paper, the Flames entered the season as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders with all the tools necessary to make a lengthy run -- the goalie, the bolstered defence, the depth at forward, the leadership, the sold-out building and a respected coach who could bring it all together.

However, some needed convincing Mike Cammalleri's 39 goals could be replaced, Miikka Kiprusoff was still a world-class goalie, Dion Phaneuf could play defence and Jarome Iginla could return to his old form.

Nine games in, all those concerns have been addressed in a positive fashion.

Everyone is scoring goals, ol' Kipper has been the team's best player a la 2004, Phaneuf is the team's goal-scoring leader capable of holding his own defensively and the captain bounced back from a slow start to remind us of his brilliance Tuesday.

The team leads the loop in scoring despite being outshot nightly and sports a fancy 6-2-1 record, which is one win shy of tying the club's best start ever.

Injuries haven't been a problem, the depth on the blueline has been stunning, Rene Bourque is the team's leading scorer, Curtis Glencross is the team's best two-way player, Eric Nystrom will eclipse last year's point totals within weeks and Mark Giordano is one of the best fourth defencemen in the league.

Oh, and the league's best free-agent addition of the summer, Jay Bouwmeester, is proving to be ... well ... the best free-agent signing of the summer.

Go through the lineup, and with the exception of Olli Jokinen and Daymond Langkow, everyone has impressed, including tough-guy Brian McGrattan who answered questions about his NHL future with a Gordie Howe hat-trick in his first home game.

And can anyone really be that concerned Jokinen will eventually be able to effectively harness his size and scoring touch? If the four-time 30-goal scorer is essentially a third-line spare part so far, it's a wonderful part to have.

Langkow will find his way -- he always does.

Here's the best part of it all if you're a Flames fan -- it's only going to get better.

The club has done a brilliant job taking pressure off by suggesting it would take time for the players to grasp Brent Sutter's structured game plan.

Despite sizable lapses in most of their outings to date, the Flames record is considered almost a bonus. If these results are part of the "growing pains" for which we braced, surely a division title isn't out of the question.

But don't take our word on it -- listen to Columbus Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock, owner of one of the game's biggest brains.

"You see more and more minutes Calgary is doing it, and in a month or so, you'll see them doing it for 60 minutes," said Hitchcock of the Flames' new system, weighted heavily on defence and accountability. "It's what Brent's trying to do with the team and make them dependable for 200 feet. You can't do it on 150 feet. It's like on-the-job training, and I can see them getting better every day because he's pounding away on all these little details you have to take care of in your own zone before you can even think of moving to the neutral zone."

The belief this club is on the right path is overwhelming.

And it's been a long while since that could be said at this time of year with a straight face.

ERIC.FRANCIS@SUNMEDIA.CA


Videos

Photos