CALGARY - In a summer in which it appeared Jay Feasterís hands would be tied in so many ways, the Flames GM found some wiggle room in one of the most unlikely of places: Up the middle.
For more than a decade, the Flames have struggled finding quality centremen to not only complement Jarome Iginla, but to round out the other three lines with capable pivots.
Yet, when asked what prompted the move that sent 34-year-old Daymond Langkow to Phoenix for Lee Stempniak Monday, Feaster cited the teamís depth where it matters most.
Make no mistake ó and with no disrespect to Langkow ó the move makes sense on every possible level for the Flames as they save US$2.6 million in salary and nab a younger, more flexible player in the prime of his career.
But it was the startling depth at centre that made the move the biggest of no-brainers.
Although Brendan Morrison worked well with Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay on the top line last year, the club is going to give young Mikael Backlund every chance to start the season between the big boys as Morrisonís knee heals.
Olli Jokinen played a solid second-line role last year and David Moss has the full confidence of the coaching staff that he can continue to improve on his switch last season from wing to centre.
Pricey Matt Stajan is very much a work in progress as the team hopes his conditioning and confidence improved over the summer so he can contribute in a third-line role, at best.
When Morrison returns, heíll fit in nicely wherever needed.
Back to the deal, and itís a beauty for Flames fans who wondered how on Earth Feaster was going to wriggle out of the fiscal handcuffs he inherited this summer.
Feaster insists it was the Coyotesí interest in Langkow that started the conversation ó a chat that ended with the Flames asking Langkow to do what Robyn Regehr did earlier this summer: Waive his no-trade clause.
Langkow did so most likely because of his history in Phoenix, allowing the Flames to sever ties with a $4.5 million contract that would have ended unceremoniously next spring.
Despite his stirring comeback from a neck injury late last season, the gritty leader is still a risky proposition given his age, his injury, his style of play and the year off ó a gamble the Flames couldnít afford to lose given his price tag.
With the 28-year-old Stempiak, you have a two-time 27-goal scorer who is in search of a new contract next year when his $1.9 million (cap-hit) deal runs out.
Even Feaster said Monday what everyone in the hockey world already knew about Stempniak, which is that the versatile winger has always played his best hockey in contract years.
If heís comfortable in Calgary, produces as a top-six forward and returns to form, chances are good he and the club will be able to come to terms moving forward.
After all, thanks to moves like these, the Flames will certainly have the cap room.
For those unable to read between the lines, this most certainly means Niklas Hagman has all but been written off as a Flame. Given his $3-million price tag, heíll have to be one of the best goal scorers in camp to avoid being sent down to the minors, where heíd collect the final year of his deal outside of the Flames cap.
All told, Feaster now has more than $3 million to peruse waiver wires, trade options and even free agency from now until seasonís end ó a number he could double should Hagman be sent down.
Not a bad off-season for a fellow whose goal was to shed salary and get younger while also retaining key building blocks moving forward.
Few could have guessed the teamís newly-perceived flood of talent up the middle would help the cause.