Decision time


By TODD SAELHOF -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 1:19 PM ET


 What a season for the Calgary Flames.

 And what a post-season, as well.

 So what's next for a team with a future that's burning oh-so bright?

 How about a critical off-season.

 Beyond today's thank-you rally, tomorrow's NHL awards show and the 2004 NHL Entry Draft June 26-27 in North Carolina, the Flames have a number of commitments on tap for the summer.

 At the top of the priority list, GM-head coach Darryl Sutter has a bevy of personnel decisions to make in the coming months.

 Fortunately, it's not about rebuilding since his club proved it has what it takes to be a Stanley Cup contender. After all, the Flames did ride a remarkable season all the way to Game 7 of the final series.

 "This is going to be a very good team," said Flames assistant captain Craig Conroy in the wake of Monday's 2-1 Game 7 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. "And I'd love to stay."

 Conroy heads a list of five Flames who are set to become unrestricted free agents July 1. The others are forwards Chris Simon, Dave Lowry, Krzysztof Oliwa and Dean McAmmond.

 The Flames receive no compensation if an unrestricted free agent signs a contract with another team.

 They receive compensation, however, if any restricted free agents elect to sign elsewhere.

 Heading that list is Jarome Iginla, although in the unlikely event the captain was to sign an offer sheet with another club the Flames would have first right to match the offer or receive five first-round draft picks as compensation.

 Among the Flames' restricted free agents are forwards Marcus Nilson and Ville Nieminen and defencemen Jordan Leopold and Denis Gauthier.

 Perhaps the most important one, though, is goalie Miikka Kiprusoff. Like budding blueline star Leopold, the Vezina Trophy candidate is looking for a big bump in salary since his $880,000 contract this past season was a bargain for the Flames. Leopold made just $900,000 on the campaign.

 But unfinished business should keep Iginla, Leopold and Kiprusoff with the Flames. That's why Conroy would like to stay, too.

 But that decision will fall to Sutter. The GM-head coach may opt to save money, allowing the $2.2-million Conroy to sign elsewhere, especially with raises expected by Iginla, Leopold and Kiprusoff.

 The question for Sutter is whether Conroy is worth the money that is necessary to keep him. The affable centreman was second in team scoring in the regular season (47 points).

 And what of the other unrestricted free agents?

 There is talk the 39-year-old Lowry will retire after having his NHL career resurrected by Sutter last season. Despite his outstanding leadership, Lowry was a part-time player last season.

 At 30, McAmmond's health is uncertain since an injured back kept him out of the playoffs entirely. At the very least, the injury could affect his value in signing with the Flames or any other NHL team.

 Also 30, Oliwa's future with the Flames is uncertain despite a total commitment to his role with the club.

 The much-travelled Polish Hammer led the team in penalty minutes (247) and proved a valuable commodity as the Flames' enforcer.

 However, when Simon -- who can also drop the mitts -- was acquired at the trade deadline in March, he was considered a long-term hire by Sutter and not simply a player brought in as a rental. Simon was targeted by Sutter as a free agent last summer before he signed a one-year deal with the Rangers. <


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