What now for the Flames?

RANDY SPORTAK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:34 PM ET

An obvious reason exists to explain why Flames GM Darryl Sutter said he believes the necessary goal-scoring next season will come internally.

He has no choice but to stick with the guys on his 10th-place team.

Not without some creative moves.

As it stands, counting only players who appear to be slam-dunk NHLers next season, the Flames have 10 forwards, counting 2007 first-round draft choice Mikael Backlund, six defencemen and goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff signed for the

2010-11 season.

The bill for those 17 players adds up to nearly US$54.4 million, which leaves slightly more than

US$4.3 million to ink a back-up goalie, a trio of forwards and defenceman Ian White, the most pressing restricted free agent in the organization.

Of the unrestricted free agents, it’s likely Flames will wave farewell to back-up goalie Vesa Toskala and forward Brian McGrattan without much thought. Veteran Craig Conroy will be 39 years old before the season begins, so a return doesn’t seem likely.

But the Flames should have interest in forwards Christopher Higgins, albeit with a noticeable paycut from his US$2.25 million salary, Eric Nystrom and Jamal Mayers — depending on the asking price.

Still, forget going on a shopping spree. Sutter would first need to hold a clearance sale.

Assuming White signs a long-term deal in the US$2-million range per season, the Flames are in real trouble to fill out their roster.

Especially if they want a fourth-line with any actual talent.

Especially if they want a legitimate back-up goalie who can win 10 games.

Especially if they want enough salary cap space to add a player at the trade deadline or have the needed space if injuries mount.

Which means Sutter’s statements of very little turnover in Monday’s end-of-season media session won’t ring true.

It can’t.

Do the Flames really believe they can be a playoff contender, let alone merit Stanley Cup consideration, with a fourth line and back-up goalie filled with players at the league minimum?

It won’t work. When the Flames had hope of making the playoffs down the stretch, a big factor was their fourth line of Nystrom, Mayers and Curtis Glencross. The collective salary of that trio over the season added up to US$3.2 million.

It sounds funny when the cliche of “your best players have to be your best players” is thrown around ad nauseum, but if the Flames will struggle even more next season if they can’t afford a decent fourth line.

Brett Sutter and Jason Jaffray are good at filling the gaps, but is doesn’t bode well if a team expects to have them on a line with, for example, Nigel Dawes all season.

So what can the Flames do?

One theory making the rounds is Ales Kotalik (US$3 million each of the next two seasons) will ply his trade in Russia’s KHL next season. The Flames would be on the hook for most, if not all of his salary, but at least would save the money against the cap. It’s not wise business financially, but the Flames did it before with Marcus Nilson.

Another scenario is the trade route, with the plan to jettison salary to free up space. Expect it to come with a cost.

For example, any team expected to take on Cory Sarich (US$3.6 million cap hit) or Steve Staios (US$2.7 million) may do it only if the Flames also add a cap-friendly contract — say Curtis Glencross (US$1.2 million) or David Moss (US$1.3 million) — or draft picks, which the Flames don’t have enough of as it is.

That is unless the Flames intend to deal away Robyn Regehr or Jay Bouwmeester, which seems far-fetched.

You know Sutter will have an itchy trigger finger when the free agency season opens.

But first, he must get out from under the financial mess he’s created.

Step right up. The market is about to open.

randy.sportak@sunmedia.ca


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