It all seemed so perfect.
Heading into this season, the Calgary Flames supposedly had the perfect core.
They had a group of high-end NHL players which many teams envied.
It was supposedly a coup to have that much talent in the salary cap era.
At forward, Jarome Iginla had Olli Jokinen to centre his line, while Daymond Langkow was the centre of a second line with Rene Bourque coming off his first 20-goal season.
Goalie Miikka Kiprusoff was between the pipes behind a defence corps of Dion Phaneuf — a Norris Trophy finalist just a couple of seasons ago — Jay Bouwmeester — whose escape from the perennially losing Florida Panthers should take his game to another level — and Robyn Regehr — considered one of the best shut-down defencemen in the league.
Talk about a dream scenario.
Iginla and Jokinen should have been good for 40 goals each. Langkow and Bourque should combine for 50.
Bouwmeester and Phaneuf should add up to another
30 goals, at least.
To top it off, new head coach Brent Sutter was to be the superglue, able to put it all together.
What could go wrong?
Well … everything.
Seven months later, the Flames failed to even make the playoffs.
Moreover, almost all of the pieces came nowhere near adding up to the sum of their parts.
Phaneuf, coming off a disappointing season, was certainly going to bounce-back with Brent Sutter at the helm. After all, his former junior coach in Red Deer had to know which buttons to push.
It didn’t happen. Phaneuf’s offensive game was never going to reach the output he had in a 20-goal rookie season, and his defensive lapses were too much to take. He was dealt in a blockbuster deal to the Toronto Maple Leafs, which began a crazy span that saw more mid-season turnover than most people had seen before.
The next day, the disappointing Jokinen — who never found chemistry with Iginla — was traded, finally ending an experiment which cost the team a first-round draft choice and Matthew Lombardi.
Six new players brought in were pegged to provide the depth the team greatly needed, but none of Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman, Ian White, Jamal Mayers, Ales Kotalik and Christopher Higgins came up with the offence the team needed.
The disappointment doesn’t end there.
Regehr, who played for Canada’s 2006 Olympic team and was a candidate for this year’s squad but was coming off a season-ending knee injury, struggled for half the year while paired with Phaneuf.
Bouwmeester, who scored 15 goals in each of the past two seasons, managed just three tallies heading into Saturday night’s season finale against the Vancouver Canucks.
Instead of becoming a Norris Trophy candidate by finally playing for a contender, he failed to answer the critics who said he doesn’t have the passion to elevate his game in crunch-time.
The news was no better at forward.
Langkow, the model of consistency for so many years, mustered only 14 goals in
72 games and appeared to age past his prime almost overnight. Then came the scary neck injury in a March 21 game which required him to be taken off the ice via stretcher.
Then came the plight of Iginla.
In November, when he claimed player of the month honours, it was the only span in which he didn’t fight inconsistency in a ninth straight
Just when it appeared he would carry the team, on the heels of a strong performance en route to winning gold at the Olympics, Iginla’s goal-scoring dried up.
He scored once in 15 games while the team’s playoff hopes disappeared and is now the subject of a polarizing trade debate throughout the city.
Of ‘The Core,’ only Kiprusoff delivered a full-season performance to expectations.
In fact, the 2006 Vezina Trophy winner was at the top of his game, but his campaign ended up wasted by the team’s lack of offensive fire.
Now come the questions.
Do you keep this crew together and expect a bounce-back next season?
Remember … the Flames went from an upper-echelon team in 1990-91 to a non-playoff club the next year and then bounced back with three straight strong seasons.
Do you try to cut away another player in the crew — say Regehr as a package — to try gaining a top prospect or high draft choice?
Do you trade away Iginla and maybe even Kiprusoff, which essentially guts the team and expect to finish near the bottom for a couple of seasons and hope to rebuild. Their ages — both will be 33 when the 2010-11 season opens — certainly bring questions.
One other question remains: Will fans be willing to accept a last-place team?
The off-season will be filled with introspective, and there will be turnover.
What direction the team takes remains to be seen.