The 2002-03 season was a tumultuous year for the Calgary Flames that saw the team filled with turmoil, change, and disappointment. They entered the 2003-04 season with a different head coach, a different general manager and a different captain than they began the previous season. Heck, they even changed the colour scheme of their home and away jerseys.
And all that new energy seemed to gel quickly with the returning core of the team, as the Flames had one of the most astonishing 118 games of hockey we’ve ever seen around these parts.
Three amazing things happened for the Calgary Flames in 2003-04.
- They made the post-season for the first time since 1996.
- They won a playoff round for the first time since 1989.
- They made a trip to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1989.
The biggest question subsequently was “how?” The short answer: keeping the things that worked from the Craig Button era and complementing them with some new additions from new GM/coach Darryl Sutter. Arguably the biggest off-season move was Craig Conroy stepping down as captain, allowing Jarome Iginla to ascend to the throne and set the tone for the team from game to game. Conroy stayed on as an alternate captain.
The amazing thing in retrospect is how consistent the Flames were from game to game. Their longest winning streak? They had three instances of four in a row. Their longest skid? A three-game losing streak. Beyond that, it was win-one, lose-one, with occasional pairs of wins here and there throughout the entire season. They were never in contention for a division title or anything, but they were consistently in the playoff mix and before you know it, they had quietly clinched a spot.
The playoffs themselves showed the value of having a group of NHL bodies that could consistently buy-in to a style of play…and the limitations that a Flames club without a lot of non-NHL depth faced in the later rounds. They really ran through bodies near the end – losing some via unforeseen injuries (Lombardi) – but many because of how taking their physical style of game was.
In the playoffs, the Flames beat Vancouver because they had better goaltending. They beat Detroit and San Jose because many different parts of the line-up got going as those series went on – something afforded to them because of their hot goaltending. And they lost to Tampa Bay because they, quite simply, did not have enough left in the tank in terms of functional human bodies to play their brand of hockey.
But despite the disappointment – it was one hell of a run.
The Flames used three goaltenders during the regular season: Miikka Kiprusoff started 38 games (the most of the three) and had the best even-strength save percentage at .941. That’s really good. Jamie McLennan started 24 games before being traded to the Rangers, posting a .924 even-strength mark. Roman Turek started 18 games and had a .910 even-strength save percentage, which is still decent albeit a tad below average. Kiprusoff actually improved upon his save percentage in the playoffs, posting a .943 even-strength number through 26 starts against the NHL’s best teams.
With a lot of ground work already laid by his predecessors, Darryl Sutter made a lot of minor trades to shore up his roster during the year.
- July 3, 2003: traded Chris Drury and Steve Begin to Buffalo for Steven Reinprecht and Rhett Warrener.
- July 16, 2003: traded Bob Boughner to Carolina for fourth and fifth round picks.
- November 14, 2003: traded a second round pick to San Jose for third-string goalie Miikka Kiprusoff.
- January 9, 2004: traded a fifth round pick to San Jose for Lynn Loyns.
- February 24, 2004: traded Jason Morgan and a conditional draft pick to Chicago for Ville Nieminen.
- March 6, 2004: traded Jamie McLennan, Greg Moore and Blair Betts to the NY Rangers for Chris Simon and a seventh round pick.
- March 8, 2004: traded a second round pick to Florida for Marcus Nilson.
- June 25, 2004: traded down in the first round (from 19 to 24) with the NY Rangers, also giving up an eighth round pick in exchange for another second round pick.
- June 26, 2004: traded down in the second round with Columbus, gaining back a third round pick.
Sutter added Krzysztof Oliwa and minor leaguers Matt Davidson and Jesse Wallin during the summer of 2003 via free agency.
The 2004 Draft class was an unimpressive lot, though.
Bless him, but when Brandon Prust is far-and-away the best player you drafted in a draft where you had this many picks, you’re doing something the wrong way.
RETHINKING THE 2003-04 FLAMES
In terms of possession stats, the 2003-04 Flames were a good team with above-average numbers and above average on-ice results, but hardly world-beaters. They boasted a 52.1 Corsi For percentage – 12th in the league if you combine post-season and regular season rankings. Their season-long PDO averaged out to roughly 100.6, compared to Tampa Bay’s 101.1.
Here’s how Calgary and Tampa fared throughout the season in a rolling 10-game average.
The Flames lost a ton of bodies and cooled down just as the Lightning heated up. Other than that, the Flames rode the percentages up and down throughout the year, but never really lived or died by them – even when their numbers were cresting, they still alternated wins and losses fairly consistently during the entire season.
In short? It was injuries and the bounces that cost the Flames some hardware. They played well enough that they weren’t dependent on them to win, but they played just poorly enough that they cost them in the end.