The regular season reached its conclusion this evening, with the playoff matchups now set for next week’s hostilities. Before that gets underway, it’s a good time to have one last look at the news from Calgary and around the league. This time around, the Flames play out the string, the Ducks get home ice, and the ‘Canes fall at the last hurdle.
Last night’s finale was about what I expected. Lots of try, a very good stretch of hockey in the second, and no answer at all when the Canucks decided to hit the switch. The Flames concluded their season having faced the Western Conference playoff teams 34 times, with only 9 wins to show for their endeavours. That’s not remotely good enough, and I didn’t get the sense the Flames were unlucky in the course of playing those games, so 10th place and a middling draft pick aren’t out of line.
The two heartening events of these last few fruitless days have to be the return of Daymond Langkow and the progress made by Mikael Backlund. Langkow is about as he was before he left, in that he isn’t going to set the world on fire offensively, but he knows what he’s doing at both ends of the ice. Four games played, no goals against at EV when he was on the ice. The old saw of the pool hall is that it isn’t what you make, it’s what you leave. It’s fairly obvious that Daymond Langkow understands that premise implicitly. Here’s hoping he has a good summer of continuing rehab, because a tough minutes center would make life much simpler for his team mates.
No one would benefit more from a full return to form by Langkow than Backlund. The 22 year old had a perfectly acceptable rookie year, and finished the season playing on the top line with Iginla and Tanguay. I’m not quite convinced he’s ready for that role full time, but the time for him to assume a regular role in the top nine has to begin next fall. He’s certainly passed at least Matt Stajan in terms of overall play, so if I’m setting a preliminary target for him in 11/12, having a competent year versus middling comp and zone starts would be a proper expectation.
At any rate, with the last irrelevant game in the books, Flames Nation will begin the off-season reviews over the next several days. I’ll have a look at Brent Sutter’s season in the next day or two, and Kent will conclude his series on the Flames’ hubristic former GM later this week.
On the farm, Abbotsford’s year will also end outside the post-season after a loss in Cleveland. Leland Irving has been talked up as having had a good year, but the one prospect that appeared to be making a serious move up the charts was T.J. Brodie. His high ankle sprain last weekend sealed whatever hope the Heat might have held for playoff participation, but he and Tim Erixon hold legitimate promise as NHLers in the near term.
It’s actually not unreasonable to believe at least one of them will be a Flame next October given the precarious cap position the club faces next season. Based on Larry Brooks’ reporting from earlier today, the ceiling should be about 62M should the players invoke their right to apply the escalator clause in the CBA, and the Flames are in the mid 50’s with several free agents to account for. Erixon still needs a contract, and with his draft position in mind, he might have an analogous ticket to Backlund’s 1.275M hit.
The post season schedule is now set after Dallas’ loss to Minnesota in the season’s final game. The Stars rode the percentage train all year, so the fact that they’re golf course bound is no loss as a competitive matter. Dallas’s misstep allowed the Blackhawks back into the 8th spot in the Western Conference playoffs after they lost their last game to Detroit. The Hawks have been fairly iffy over the last couple of weeks, and I suspect that the folks that expect the Hawks to traumatize Roberto Luongo again will be disappointed this year, mostly due to a lack of depth on Chicago’s part. Dave Bolland’s return would help alleviate that problem, so news of his return to the ice will be welcome in the Windy City.
Anaheim concluded a surprising sprint up the standings last night with another win over the cross-town rivals, a game that featured Teemu Selanne engaging in the fistic arts. I was watching the game, and having seen the play by Brad Richardson that led to the outbreak of pleasantries, I have no problem saying Teemu was within his rights to be pissed.
The win over L.A. allowed the Ducks to conclude the year in 4th place, and although they might be as top-heavy as any team in recent memory, that top six and power play are absolutely lethal. That’s the primary reason I’m not writing them off simply because they have bad outshooting numbers, especially since they’ll face Nashville in the first round. I have a lot of admiration for what Barry Trotz and David Poile cobble together every year, but that team is Rinne and a good defence corps, and not much beyond.
The other two series pit a wounded L.A. team against the Sharks, which looks like a layup for San Jose, and Detroit versus the Coyotes in a redux of last spring’s 7 gamer. Henrik Zetterberg will start that series in the pressbox due to an ongoing knee injury and although Nik Kronwall will likely be ready, Zetterberg’s absence might give the Yotes some hope.
The Hurricanes had everything in their hands last night. Win against Tampa and move on, lose and stay home for the spring. Home it is after a 6-2 loss to the Lightning, a game that was almost in the books after 13 minutes. The Canes face a few off-season questions of their own, with Joni Pitkanen, Erik Cole, Chad LaRose, Cory Stillman and Jussi Jokinen all headed for UFA status, so the makeup of that club could be significantly different come July. Pitkanen will draw particular interest as a mobile top 4 defenceman that isn’t over the age of 30. That’s not a commodity that’s on the market in vast numbers every summer, and this year’s crop of UFA defenders is quite thin.
The beneficiaries of Carolina’s fall are the Rangers, who looked after their own patch with a win against New Jersey to conclude their regular season. If they were healthy, I’d give them at the very least a puncher’s chance against the Caps, but Callahan is a major loss for the Rags. Lundqvist could steal a series, of course, just as Halak did last year and as he very nearly did versus Washington two years ago, but I still get the sense they’ll need all hands on deck to take out the top seed.
As a result of Philly’s slight slide, they’ll draw the Sabres in round one. That whole series might rest on the health of one Chris F. Pronger. Buffalo has played very well to get to the 7th seed in the conference, but if the big galoot from Dryden is good to go, the Flyers should be fine. Without him, they’re just another decent team with a hole or two that might be had. Philly does have plenty of depth up front, and that might be enough for them to make another run this spring if their goalies don’t have a meltdown.
The remaining series out East feature the Habs and Bruins in the 265,798th renewal of hostilities, and a Tampa-Pittsburgh in a series that I have no feel for at all. Tampa has terrific outshooting numbers and competent goaltending from Roloson, but I just never get the feeling that they’re actually that good. If the Pens were healthy, they’d be easy favourites, but they haven’t been healthy at any point this year and there’s no news on the Sid front as of tonight, even as Guy Boucher does the sensible thing by preparing his team for Crosby’s presence.
Teams that are going nowhere also made news over the last couple of days, with the firings of Cory Clouston and Peter DeBoer happening in Ottawa and Miami. DeBoer in particular got a bit of a bad deal, since he’s never had anything remotely resembling a playoff team at hand, but organizations always seem to think that a new coach will make average players over-perform. Just note that when that sort of thing does occur, better players and an uptick in percentages are usually at the root of any improvement, and vice versa. Let’s put it this way: Joe Sacco is exactly as smart as he was at this time last season. Joel Quennville is as well, and so is Alain Vigneault.
The Thrashers off-ice situation might be at least as big a mess as the scenario in Phoenix. There’s no real sense that a serious player is ready to buy the club, mystery men aside. I’ll confess as a semi-interested observer of this nonsense, my first instinct when word of this “Balkan” silliness cropped up was to compare John Kincade’s murky acquaintance to Big Bird’s imaginary pal, and I’ve heard nothing to dissuade me of that feeling. As I’ve mentioned occasionally in the past, I’ll believe that a NHL team will move only when it occurs. but the financials in both Atlanta and Phoenix must give the Board of Governors some pause. It’s hard to sell potential new owners on the health of their investment when the losses are real, and spectacular.
That’s all for this week. The round-up might make a post-season appearance or two along the way, but I would like to take this chance to offer my thanks to all of you for your contributions to this feature, and for dropping by Flames Nation throughout the season. Enjoy your summer.