Flames in the face of change

RANDY SPORTAK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:35 PM ET

They weren’t Stanley Cup favourites, but the Flames could have made the playoffs had a few more tipping-point moments gone the right way.

However, those breaks never came and the Flames end up on the outside looking in for a second straight season.

What remains to be seen is whether the Flames will be in a different position when next season begins, or if they’ll be in the same boat.

Will it yet again be a team built around an aging core, forced to piece a team together from spare parts because of so many bad contracts for under-achieving players?

Or, will they make some bold steps, such as trade away a few key players and go for a complete rebuild?

Either way, the Flames will be in tough to even be just as competitive next season.

Those in charge — the ownership, president Ken King and acting GM Jay Feaster, although nobody knows his status going forward — talk about “intellectual honesty” and must take a deep look at their club after what just transpired.

A year ago, the now-deposed Darryl Sutter said all it would take for the Flames to be a playoff team was more 20-goal scorers and a better home record. It wasn’t hard to call it bunk and this season proved Sutter’s theory was off base.

Or did it?

After a dreadful two-month swoon that had the Flames battling to stay ahead of the 30th-place Edmonton Oilers, the Flames went on a fantastic run, 27-11-8 heading into the season finale Saturday night against the Vancouver Canucks.

Nobody should expect a pace like that over a full season, but a solid record over the other 36 games would have translated into a playoff spot.

It’s not hard to figure out why the Flames were a top-calibre team for more than half the season.

Almost every player delivered to expectations offensively, especially captain Jarome Iginla. That balanced attack, aided by a much-improved powerplay, ensured they could be in any game, while their defensive play was much better.

In a nutshell, the Flames followed the system head coach Brent Sutter instilled, and began to believe in it whey they saw the results.

In theory, that could mean a playoff appearance next season, so the braintrust should try to keep as much of this team together as possible.

That theory is flawed, too.

For starters, the Flames will have trouble finding a way to jettison their under-achievers. Ales Kotalik, Niklas Hagman and Matt Stajan all count US$3 million or more against the salary cap and delivered minimal returns. Kotalik and Hagman have another year in their deals, while Stajan has three more seasons.

Those contracts will come into play if the team has any hope of keeping wanted free agents such as Alex Tanguay, Curtis Glencross and Anton Babchuk in the fold.

The Flames will be hard-pressed to find a first-line setup man who can chase 70 points for US$1.7 million, which Tanguay did, or a second-line winger who will pot nearly 25 goals with a US$1.2-million price tag (Glencross) on the free-agency market.

Likewise, those players won’t remain here at those price tags.

Which means the Flames will go one of two ways between now and the 2010-11 curtain raiser. They’ll either go with the bold steps of trading away players such as Iginla, Miikka Kiprusoff and Robyn Regehr to begin an all-out rebuild.

Or, they’ll continue to fill holes around the core group and hope for the best.

Maybe it will work next season, and there will be playoff games in Calgary in the spring of 2012. It may even work out for a few seasons.

Eventually, this team will be forced to make wholesale changes.

It will either be by design or become forced, which happened in Edmonton.

Either way, brace for several more years of nail-biting finishes and possible heartaches before the Flames will again be a Stanley Cup favourite.

randy.sportak@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/RandySportak


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