The pre-season is winding down. Rookies and hopefuls are filtering back to the farm teams and final rosters are being firmed up. It’s time to start taking stock of what the new season will hold for the Calgary Flames.
Between luncheons with superstars and avoiding Wayne Gretz, I cobbled together some questions (and answers!) and managed to convince both Jean Lefebvre and TLP to provide some of their own unique insight into what I consider key issues of the 09-10 season. Settle in, this post has some volume to it…
1.) Are you concerned about the Flames offense? Why or why not?
Kent: Sorta – I’m not overly concerned since the offense was Calgary’s strong point last year and a full season of Olli Jokinen plus healthy seasons from Langkow and Bourque should fill in the gaps left by the departures of Cammalleri, Lombardi and Bertuzzi.
The only two areas that cause me some anxiety are the power play and injuries. First, the man advantage was a sore point for Calgary last year, not only placing in the bottom third of the league but also giving up a ghastly 15 short handed goals that really ate into the special teams goal differential. While Bouwmeester might add some punch to the PP, Cammalleri was far-and-away the Flames most efficient point producer a man up last season and nobody was brought in to replace him (unless you count Nigel Dawes). Perhaps practising the PP more than once a month will get club back to respectable.
Secondly, thanks to all the expensive defenders, Calgary is light when it comes to established difference makers up front. A long-term injury to Iginla turns Calgary’s depth chart from decent to debatable in one fell swoop.
TLP: Yes – How could you not be? This is a one-and-a-half-line team. The depth drops off a cliff once you get outside of Iginla, Jokinen and Langkow. Hell, Craig Conroy was the fourth leading scorer on the Flames last year, and they lost Mike Cammalleri. I really worry about this team’s ability to score goals, especially considering the roster players aren’t all developing kids, really.
The roster is overly reliant upon the patented Darryl Sutter Reclamation Projects that we get every year with varying degrees of success. Jamie Lundmark was, I think, successful — relative to the expectations anyway — but for every Lundmark, there’s a Tony Amonte or Darren McCarty waiting in the wings. Freddy Sjostrom and Nigel Dawes are guys that come along the same lines as Lundmark, but I feel like Flames fans in general are being overly optimistic about what they can provide.
Rene Bourque really needs to step up huge if this offense has any hope of being what it was last year, about .2 goals a game better than average. I am, however, optimistic that the power play will improve, and as such the diminished depth up front will be disguised a bit.
Jean: No – As long as the Flames deliver on their promise to tighten things up on their side of the centre-ice line. Calgary’s own-zone play was suspect last year and there were many culprits, including Miikka Kiprusoff’s mediocre goaltending, the defensive misadventures of a super-hyped defenceman who was playing nearly half the game on many nights and a head coach who couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything about forwards who were accountable defensively.
Besides, the math of how many goals the Flames have theoretically lost can be tricky. Does the departure of Michael Cammalleri really mean the Flames are short the 39 goals the little forward scored a year ago or is it more like the 26 goals Cammalleri averaged in three seasons with the Kings? And aren’t there any number of players on hand who could pot the 15 goals Todd Bertuzzi managed last season with premium minutes of ice-time? And would they not get those tallies with far fewer theatrics and ill-advised rush-busting tricks of which Big Bert was so fond?
Having used up the quota of cry-in-the-dark questions, let’s conclude with the statement that offence won’t be a huge issue even if they happen to score a couple of fewer goals.
2.) It’s a totally new coaching staff from top to bottom. The Flames are notoriously slow starters anyways, but do you expect some growing pains as the players learn the new systems?
Kent: Briefly – Word is the Devils struggled to find their footing under the first month or so under Sutter before things started to run smoothly. I expect something similar to happen in Calgary, but there’ll be pressure to get things in line quickly. Look for the first couple of weeks to be less polished than the rest of the season.
TLP: Ditto – Yeah, but I think that’s natural both because you’re looking at a new coach and, hey, they’re the Calgary Flames.
Kent mentioned that the Devils were a little slow to start, but if the Flames starting slow means they, like the 2008-09 Devs lose just two of their first nine games in regulation, then I’m fine with it.
(I was actually talking about the 07/08 Devils – ed.)
Jean: Nah – Well, familiarity with the coaches, especially at the assistant level, didn’t result in good beginnings so there’s no reason that a behind-the-bench overhaul in and of itself will result in a staggered start.
Besides, all indications are that there’s nothing complicated about what Brent Sutter is preaching and there’s always the steel-toed-cowboy boot acceleration plan for any slow learners in the fold. Nope, if there’s a slow start again, it’ll be for the usual reasons. But with five October games against non-playoff teams in 2008-09 and one with barely-made-it Montreal, there is a golden opportunity to get off to a reekless start. Whether they take advantage of that opportunity or not is another matter.
3.) Which Flames players have to improve or take a step forward this year for the sake of their careers – at least their careers in Calgary?
Kent: A trio – Three guys that spring to mind are Miikka Kiprusoff, Dion Phaneuf and Dustin Boyd – all for different reasons.
Kipper still has his apologists in the fan base and the media, but the truth of the matter is he hasn’t performed up to the level of his contract in the last two seasons and his results have fallen steadily since the Vezina win. If he stumbles again this year under a new coaching staff and defensive system, there’ll be no excuses left and his contract will become a huge problem for the organization.
Phaneuf’s season was mediocre-to-poor last year in just about all facets, but he was especially bad in his own end. Reports of injuries have dulled the criticism somewhat, but based on what I heard in the stands at a recent pre-season game, public opinion is starting to turn on the youngster. Once considered an un-tradable future Captain, Dion is rapidly turning into a lightning rod for snarky comments and disgusted groans. If Phaneuf continues down what I call the “Jovo Path”, he’ll become a scapegoat in short order and trade bait soon after.
Dustin Boyd is one of the youngest forwards to make the big club in recent memory, but he’s basically run in place for the past few seasons. A large part of that has to do with limited opportunities under Keenan (4th line, penalty kills, etc) but the truth is Boyd hasn’t done enough to convince the organization that he’s worthy of usurping anyone above him yet. If he doesn’t stop spinning his wheels this year, he’s in danger of being passed by.
TLP: The Dion – Which Flames players have to improve or take a step forward this year for the sake of their careers – at least their careers in Calgary?
Not to echo Kent too much here (he made a lot of good points, what can I say?), but if Dion Phaneuf doesn’t become the Dion Phaneuf of two years ago, then I don’t know how you can justify giving him significant minutes, regardless of how much he makes. And obviously, given the improved defense, Miikka Kiprusoff needs to not be as actively bad on a night-in, night-out basis as he’s been the last two years. If he is, then I don’t even know what the backup plan is, because Curtis McElhinney has done nothing to prove he can even be a serviceable backup.
Jean: 3 for 3 – It’s got to be Dion Phaneuf. His junior taskmaster/mentor/babysitter is calling the shots and the team has added yet another minute-munching defenceman in Jay Bouwmeester to take some of the pressure off. Injuries were retroactively and generously used to explain his struggles a season ago, but he presumably is healthy now. He’s 24 years old and it’s time for him to decide if he’s going to take the Chris Chelios/Scott Stevens path to genuine stardom or the backroad travelled by much-hyped but forever-flawed defenders such as Bryan McCabe and Ed Jovanovksi.
4.) What do you consider Calgary’s greatest strength?
Kent: The back-end – The blueline, without question. Even if Phaneuf doesn’t get his act to together the Flames have several players that are proven tough match-up guys (Regehr, Bouwmeester, Sarich) as well as some cheap, puck-moving youth battling at the lower end of the roster (Giordano, Pardy, Stralman, Kronwall, Pelech, Palin, Negrin). Not only is there an array of different skill sets, but the group is probably 9 or 10 deep.
TLP: Ditto – I think the top two pairings make up the best top-four in the NHL. I mean, if Phaneuf really was simply overworked and hampered by a slew of injuries, last year and he’s totally refocused on hockey now, then that’s got to be a terrifying prospect to all NHL forwards. Even if you don’t have to go against the punishing pair of Regehr-Sarich, then you’re facing off with a very strong two-way duo of Bouwmeester-Phaneuf. Not good news no matter which way you slice it.
Jean: Pretty silly question, Kent* – With Robyn Regehr, Jay Bouwmeester, Cory Sarich and Phaneuf, the Flames have a back-end quartet that is at least part of the argument when it comes to determining the best blue-line brigade in the league. Adam Pardy and Mark Giordano were already perfectly serviceable bottom-pairing guys but now there’s Anton Stralman pushing the issue. Assuming those are your big-league seven, that still leaves Staffan Kronwall, Matt Pelech and John Negrin one Westjet flight away in Abbotsford.
*(In retrospect…yeah, it was. But it sets up the next question nicely – ed.)
5.) Alternatively, what’s Calgary’s biggest weakness?
Kent: The crease – Until Kipper and CuMac prove me wrong, goaltending. It was the Flames Achilles Heel for much of the season last year and it was only their high powered offense that kept them in the play-off hunt. A lot of folks are hoping an improved defensive system will right the puck-stopping ship, but skaters can only do so much – ultimately, it’s up to the goalie to stop the puck.
TLP: The front end – Forward depth, as discussed earlier. If anything happens to a guy like Rene Bourque or Dustin Boyd, then there’s only one line to shut down. If, God forbid, anything happens Olli Jokinen or Jarome Iginla, the team can’t score at all. It would get ugly in a hurry.
Jean: Another vote for (against?) Kipper – If you go down the list of the NHL’s goaltending victory leaders in 2008-09, you have to go all the way down to Marty Turco to find a netminder who had a worse save percentage than wins leader Kiprusoff and down a little further to Jose Theodore to unearth a chap with an inferior goals-against average. Needless to say, that wasn’t exactly the high-rent district of puck-repelling a winter ago. The oft-cited declining trend of Kiprusoff’s numbers over the past four seasons aren’t encouraging on the eve of a new season.
6.) How much trouble is Sutter in if things somehow go sideways again this season?
Kent: Some – Bob McKenzie of TSN was on the radio today. He said that the Flames organization, like Kipper, is out of excuses. If Brent Sutter and the new coaching crew can’t coax more than a first round exit out of this rather expensive roster, some hard questions are going to be asked of everyone from Jarome Iginla all the way up to the architect of the club himself. I don’t think Darryl could be fired over another early departure from the post-season, but he’d definitely be on shakier ground with the fans and his bosses alike.
TLP: More than some – Oooo, a lot. He might not get the axe, but the ownership group would have to ask itself why it’s paying these ridiculous sums of money for a top-heavy lineup that still can’t repeat, or even be a reasonable facsimile of that wonderful 2003-04 team. Like Kent said (again!), he won’t get tossed, but it would become far more like that he’d be asked to dismantle the club from the expensive players down. In today’s NHL, you can’t get away with having so many expensive players who contribute so little relative to their lofty salaries.
Jean – *derisive chortle* – While having his brother on board as the fourth coach in his GM-ing regime would seem to be Darryl’s last stand, the idea that Sutter is in any kind of imminent trouble is met with scoffs and laughter in the biggest and plushest corner offices at the Saddledome. By all visible evidence, first-round exits notwithstanding, there is genuine appreciation in the hierarchy for Calgary’s perennial contender status after years of darkness and it doesn’t look like that will change within the next 12 to 18 months or so.
(I suspect Jean is right. As long as the Flames continue to attract season ticket holders like money attracts bimbos, Sutter is safe regardless of first round outcomes – ed.)