SUN Hockey Pool

Playoffs now end-game for Flames

ERIC FRANCIS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:29 AM ET

The puck hasn’t even dropped on the 2010-11 NHL season and more than 15,000 playoff tickets have already been snapped up by Calgary Flames season-ticket holders.

OK, so they haven’t been paid for — they’ve just been included in season-ticket packages for convenience sake.

But the unprecedented printing move reeks of irony given the dramatic turn in expectations around these parts.

Flames fans have spent the last five autumns debating whether the team is indeed a Stanley Cup contender.

No longer.

Now the decidedly muted discussion revolves around whether they’re simply playoff-bound or not.

It’s an interesting shift in expectations given the team really hasn’t changed much over the last few years.

And that, in many people’s eyes, is exactly why the club is being picked by many to sit out the spring tourney for the second year in a row — because the competition has improved while the aging Flames remain stagnant given their shortage of skilled youth.Ask 10 people whether the Flames will make the playoffs and be prepared for a noticeable split.

After all, for every reason given for why they should be able to crack the top eight, there’s an argument for why they won’t:

POINT: With so many veterans like Jarome Iginla, Olli Jokinen, Daymond Langkow, Jay Bouwmeester and former 20-goal man David Moss having off-years, all it takes is for a few of them to get back on track offensively for the club to challenge for the division again.

COUNTERPOINT: Curtis Glencross, Rene Bourque and Mark Giordano all had

breakout seasons last year, and if they don’t continue to produce, the team will need to make up that shortfall elsewhere.

POINT: Miikka Kiprusoff proved last year he’s still one of the world’s premier goaltenders, giving the club a chance every night with his brilliance.

POINT: Kiprusoff should arguably have been a Vezina finalist last year, and the club still missed the playoffs by six points. If he falters in any way — plays like he did two and three years back or gets injured — the club could challenge the Edmonton Oilers for that first pick in the draft.

Make no mistake, the even-keeled nature of the club during its 7-0 preseason has buoyed expectations and taken the sting out of a summer of discontent.

But nobody is foolish enough to suggest the Flames are capable of challenging a team as deep and as accomplished as the Vancouver Canucks for the division title. However, the base for a solid defensive structure was set by Flames head coach Brent Sutter last year, opening the door for a more upbeat approach this year in which the team’s vaunted defencemen are encouraged to join the rush and contribute offensively.

The difference between 29th in scoring last year and being middle of the pack was the club’s powerplay, which should be much better with Alex Tanguay running it from the point or down low.

Bouwmeester is keen to get back into being a two-way defencman, Jarome Iginla has something to prove and should be able to do so with Tanguay by his side, and Rene Bourque has 35-goal potential if he can stay healthy.

Injuries could prove to be problematic for a team that lacks depth like the Flames, prompting Darryl Sutter to acquire Brendan Morrison Monday to help bolster the depleted ranks up the middle.

Of course, the Olli Jokinen redux experiment will go a long way in determining the club’s fate and that of Darryl Sutter’s future.

It says here the Flames will remain one of the league’s best defensive clubs and will find ways to make up the scoring deficiencies of a year ago.

The Flames will finish eighth in the west.

twitter.com/ericfrancis


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