ON THE DECLINE: Brendan Morrison
It was a summer of change at the Saddledome. Feeling a salary-cap crunch with two consecutive seasons sans playoffs, the Calgary Flames needed a makeover.
New general manager Jay Feaster seemed to have his hands tied but managed to be busy over the warm months. He gave the squad a fresh look early in his tenure of official duty after taking over for the departed Darryl Sutter on an interim basis just after Christmas.
He sent veterans Robyn Regehr and Daymond Langkow to the Buffalo Sabres and Phoenix Coyotes, respectively, bringing back younger players and prospects in the process while freeing up salary-cap space that could allow him to make a deal during the season should the team show promise of returning to the playoffs.
The youth movement has unofficially begun. And while the core is still made up of experienced players like star Jarome Iginla, setup man Alex Tanguay and minute-eater Jay Bouwmeester, centre Mikael Backlund and defenceman Mark Giordano among others will take on larger roles, with plenty of hungry prospects eager to show their stripes via callup.
More change is coming, but the team believes enough has been made to make playoffs a real possibility.
If anything, the Flames have upgraded their forward ranks. If everyone picks up where they left off last season, scoring shouldn’t be a problem. Captain Iginla will be reunited with his favourite setup man of the past few years in the re-signed Tanguay. Curtis Glencross is looking to duplicate his breakout campaign with another 20-30 goals, and Rene Bourque put up 27 tallies during a season in which he rarely felt quite right. Niklas Hagman and Matt Stajan worked especially hard over the summer to prepare for bounce-back seasons, and the Flames added sometime sniper Lee Stempniak in the Langkow swap - and historically he has done great things in contract years. If the Flames fail in their quest for the post-season, it’s unlikely it will be because of a lack of firepower.
For the first time since 1999, the Flames don’t have cornerstone defender Regehr in the lineup. And he is not a rearguard whose presence is easy to replace. Cory Sarich and newcomer Scott Hannan can provide some toughness on the back end, and Giordano is ready for a leap in responsibility. But, behind Bouwmeester and Giordano, there are plenty of questions about the blue-line crew. Sarich has been hurting for months and Hannan’s best days may be behind him. Chris Butler - part of the return in the Regehr trade - has potential but until the regular-season starts he’s still an unknown commodity. Anton Babchuk returns, as does Brett Carson, but none of the seven players on one-way contracts can offer what Regehr does.
It seems like a hot topic every season and then cools off by the end of yet another 70-plus game campaign from first-stringer Miikka Kiprusoff. This time, the Flames swear it will be different. With Kiprusoff getting up in age - despite seemingly improving his fitness every off-season - the 34-year-old is expected to see a little more of the bench with giant backup Henrik Karlsson taking on a larger role. The team liked what it saw from the big Swede between the pipes in his first NHL season and wants to manage Kiprusoff’s minutes so his practice time is effective and he remains at the top of his game all year long.
Folks quickly saw what a regime change can do for a club when Darryl Sutter was turfed as general manager just after Christmas in favour of Jay Feaster.
The team was invigorated, going on a spectacular run that wound up just short of what it needed to qualify in the top eight of the Western Conference. Feaster and coach Brent Sutter have a symbiotic relationship, with Sutter really having full control of his team and Feaster ensuring they have all the right pieces to make the coach’s vision a reality.
Communication is key, and while mixed messages were allegedly part of the team’s problem over the past couple of seasons, everyone from the players to the biggest of the brass seems to be on the same page now.
The streak they went on in an attempt to turn last season around fell short, but the carryover could be what clinches them a spot in the playoffs this time around. Learning exactly what they need to do to earn victories, the Flames know how critical a strong start is - and they feel they have the pieces to make that happen despite their terrible beginning a year ago. The locker-room grew tighter during the Flames’ rock-bottom down period last season, and meshed to new heights as they climbed out of the gutter and made a serious bid for the post-season, becoming a top-10 NHL team over the final few months before the ride finally ended.