A few weeks ago, word was that Daymond Langkow was nearing 100% and may be able to return to duty a lot sooner than expected. Cap problems bloomed in light of the news, but the Flames center depth wasn’t in question. Fast forward to this past Wednesday morning and the situation has reverse itself: Langkow is out indefinitely, Stajan is down for the count and ‘tweener Ryan Stone hasn’t even skated yet. Calgary’s cap problems have noticeably receded into the background, giving the stage to their sudden dearth of centermen.
And the spotlight might ultimately fall on the elder statesmen of the club, one Craig Conroy. There was consternation in some quarters when the old man was re-signed, but there’s no question now that his importance has increased exponentially in the last week or so.
Here is the Flames current depth chart, sans the injured fellows:
Tanguay – Joinen – Iginla
Hagman – Conroy – Bourque
Glencross – Moss(?) – Kotalik
Ivanans – Backlund – Jackman
Mitch Wahl (?)
Of that group, you have precisely one center who has successfully and routinely faced other top lines at the NHL level and managed to keep his head above water: Craig Conroy. Olli Jokinen is obviously the more dangerous player (at both ends of the rink), but the club suffered through an object lesson the last time he was in town; the take-away being "keep Olli away from the big boys". David Moss is a good third line player and he may make a good third line center, but I wouldn’t hand him more responsibility than that. Mikael Backlund – now penciled into the "second line" spot according to the coach – has raw skills and may be able to do some damage at the good end of the rink, but isn’t anywhere near the complete player he’d have to be to do the heavy lifting.
So in all probability, the Flames will enter the season featuring three centers they have to shelter to one degree or another. I was fairly sure Conroy was going to get a lot of lousy circumstances even with Langkow and Stajan in the line-up: now I’m certain of it. This is often a conundrum faced by lower budget clubs in the league and they typically resort to something similar: burying one guy (or one line) as much as possible so as to give the rest of the team a better chance to score. In Nashville, it was David Legwand and Joel Ward who faced the big boys and started out in their own zone about 60% of the time last year. In Phoenix, future Selke candidate Martin Hanzal gets fed to the wolves.
So expect the affable one to start two out of every three shifts in his own zone and to be killing every other penalty. Expect his numbers to suffer as a result and for a portion of the fanbase to criticize both him and Sutter mercilessly. And expect his coaching staff and team mates to love him for it.