Flames' fall from glory

STEVE MACFARLANE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:00 PM ET

Stepping forward in a major way in 2004, the Calgary Flames have done nothing but backpedal in the years since.

Snapping an eight-year drought in the final season of the NHLís clutch-and-grab era, the Flames returned to the Stanley Cup final for the first time since winning it in 1989.

It lifted the city to a high it never came entirely down from until now ó a result of the team missing the playoffs after five straight entries in the spring tournament.

Expectations ó maybe unrealistic ones ó were set because of that season.

During all those previous years of early summers, fans would have been thankful for even a brief glimpse of their Flames in the playoffs.

Gradually now, they have tired of seeing the team get punted in the first round.

Kicking off the post-lockout NHL with their first division title in 11 years, the Flames did nothing to dissuade their followers from believing they would be Cup contenders again.

But losing a lacklustre Game 7 at home to the Anaheim Ducks in the first round in 2006 showed the first crack in the dam built around the Sea of Red.

A disappointing regular-season in 2006-07 that saw them squeak into the playoffs in eighth spot and a first-round exit to the Detroit Red Wings led to first-year head coach Jim Playfairís demotion to associate and the hiring of old taskmaster Mike Keenan to whip the Flames back into shape Darryl Sutter style.

Not much changed.

They won one more game, finished third in the division once again and faced the San Jose Sharks in a seventh-versus-second scenario in 2008.

Although the Flames forced a seventh game, the series ended in controversy when Keenan, also known as Captain Hook, yanked starting goalie Miikka Kiprusoff when the game was still reasonably within reach.

The trickle of corrosion in that dam of faith began flowing in a steady stream.

Keenan came back and guided the team to a more respectable record, good enough for fifth in the Western Conference.

Unfortunately for the Flames, they drew the upstart Chicago Blackhawks, a team loaded with young and hungry kids eager to show they were in a different class than the more veteran Flames.

Clearly, the Blackhawks were, as they disposed of their opponent in six games after sweeping the regular-season series.

See you later, Keenan. Welcome aboard, Brent Sutter.

Same olí, same olí Flames.

Make it eight straight wins for the Blackhawks after another sweep this season ó part of a campaign that saw the Flames lose 9-1 to the Sharks, 6-5 and 6-1 to the Blackhawks (the first a six-goal comeback by the Windy City bunch) and a collection of nine consecutive losses in January they never recovered from once Darryl Sutter himself pushed the panic button by shipping out Dion Phaneuf and a soon-to-be-free Olli Jokinen for a bunch of guys who had been losing even more spectacularly in Toronto and New York.

The dam keeping the Sea of Red together has completely blown apart, and the cityís hockey fanbase is flooded in its own collective tears.

Here are some of the lowlights of the regression since 2004:

2005-06

The off-season was ominous when GM Sutter let clutch performer Martin Gelinas go and brought aboard Tony Amonte and Darren McCarty. They also drafted Dan Ryder that spring.

A 4-7-2 start had people panicking, but a solid finish of the regular season left doubts behind until the playoffs proved the Flames were missing some sort of killer instinct as they floundered against the Ducks in Game 6 with a chance to end the series. More disastrous was they didnít even bother to show up in Game 7 when they fell 3-0 at the Saddledome.

Playoffs: Team falls to the Ducks in seven games in first round.

2006-07

Adding Alex Tanguay to the team at the draft had hopes high again in spite of the failing against the Ducks.

Jim Playfair was promoted to head coach when Darryl Sutter became a full-time GM.

Scoring goals wasnít a problem ó the team finished sixth in that category ó but there was a lack of passion even after Sutter brought Craig Conroy back to the team in a deal with the Los Angeles Kings.

A more memorable deal was the one that brought defenceman Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau to the Flames for Chuck Kobasew and Andrew Ference for the stretch drive. The teamís response was barely clinging to eighth spot and a first-round matchup with the Detroit Red Wings.

After being smacked in the stomach by goalie Jamie McLennanís stick in a forgettable Game 5, Wings forward Johan Franzen scored the series clincher in Calgary the next night.

Playoffs: Team falls to the Red Wings in six games in the first round.

2007-08

Ring in the Iron age ó Mike Keenan replaces Playfair as the coaching carousel continues.

Spending too much money on defencemen becomes a trend, with Sutter overpaying for Cory Sarich in free agency and picking up US$4-million Adrian Aucoin in a trade.

An aging Owen Nolan is brought aboard, along with former Sharks stalwart Mark Smith. Nolan does a little, while Smith does nothing. Sutter quibbles with Mark Giordano, and the d-man heads to Russia instead of the AHL.

The team looks like it has no direction ó and no confidence in an unpredictable coach. Goalie Miikka Kiprusoff has his worst season and doesnít address the media after the playoff exit was finalized by Keenan pulling him against the Sharks.

Playoffs: Team falls to the Sharks in seven games in the first round.

2008-09

Keenan comes back, but no one knows why.

The revolving door of players keeps twirling, with Michael Cammalleri replacing Alex Tanguay. Todd Bertuzzi is signed as a UFA, along with Curtis Glencross. Kristian Huselius and Nolan walk.

At the trade deadline, Sutter picked up struggling Olli Jokinen, hoping heíd regain form and gives up the farm for him.

Jokinen starts strong but fizzles down the stretch, and the banged-up Flames canít contend with the Blackhawks in the post-season.

Playoffs: Team falls to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games in the first round.

2009-10

Brent Sutter takes over, and the entire coaching staff is replaced except for assistant Rob Cookson.

They pick up d-man Jay Bouwmeester, but lose offensive talents Bertuzzi and Cammalleri in free agency. That would prove disastrous, as a lack of goal scoring ultimately leads to their demise.

At the top of their division in early January, a nine-game losing skid drops them to eighth in the conference and to third in the Northwest. Darryl Sutter panics and sends his favourite draft, Dion Phaneuf, packing and brings in Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman, Jamal Mayers and Ian White. He then dumps Jokinen and Brandon Prust for Christopher Higgins and Ales Kotalik.

Those moves donít pan out, and the team has its worst season in Sutterís reign, leaving many to wonder his fate.

Playoffs: Team misses the post-season.


Videos

Photos