8 PM MT
Opposition: Nucks Misconduct
TV: CBC (HD)
The pre-season, for all of its amusements, is still largely an exercise by a team to start the process of finding a style it can trust when the real games begin. Tonight, the NHL season opens, and the Calgary Flames will get the first meaningful examination of this off-season's tactical overhaul. It's a worthy examination at that, because as Kent and I both stated yesterday, this evening's opponent is the likely roadblock between the Flames and a division title.
The opening of a season is always filled with a certain degree of optimism for most teams, and unless you're an Oiler fan, and I don't think this year is any different. Darryl Sutter's decision to replace Mike Keenan with his younger brother has been met, by and large, in a positive fashion. Talk of accountability emanates from the team, and with it an acknowledgement that the previous regime's approach was sub-standard. From my POV, that's largely true. The list of last season's most expensive players included a number of individuals who didn't match expectations, including Phaneuf, Kiprusoff, and to slightly lesser degrees, Iginla and Jokinen in his short time with the Flames. Those players make up about 40% of the payroll, so productivity is a must for any success the Flames achieve. Last year, whatever the reasons, it didn't happen. It wasn't all coaching, but you can't fire 20 players, etc, etc etc, so here we are.
With that in mind, my sense is that this season represents a watershed moment for two Flames in particular. Dion Phaneuf is, by any account, as talented physically as nearly any defenceman in the league. The mental aspects of the game are still in flux for him, and with the new regime's purported emphasis on defensive play, this is an area that he must get better at. The quality of decision making with and without the puck is ultimately what will determine whether he makes that step to be a high-end defenceman, or wallows in Jovo-land.
Miikka Kiprusoff is the other Flame who's work has to be better, and by a considerable amount, if the team has any hope of being more than a low seed in the playoffs. Kelly Hrudey spent a fair bit of time last year noting that Kiprusoff's positioning was off. I'm no goaltending guru, but a lot of pucks did appear to go through him. That can't last. There are plenty of media apologists around, but if Vokoun, Craig Anderson and Mike Smith can put up quality SV% on poor/terrible teams, there isn't any reason Kiprusoff can't. Unless he's done. That, of course, is a potential problem that could hold the Flames back for this year and for three more to follow, given his contract. Here's hoping a clean slate will fix what's been ailing him the last two years.
With that noted, tonight marks the beginning of proper hockey for the Flames. The roster is more or less set, with the four forward lines from Saturday's exhibition match intact. Nigel Dawes gets the first shot at a top-six job, skating alongside Daymond Langkow and Rene Bourque. Dawes had a slightly sporadic exhibition campaign, but there's evidence he has the skill. How consistently he applies that talent will determine how long he stays on the second line, and if he produces, it will go a long way in easing any concerns about scoring. David Moss will join Iginla and Jokinen, a move based on actual good play, rather than other factors. Nice change. He scored 20 goals last year without riding the percentages, so another good season seems fairly likely.
In the bottom groupings, Craig Conroy will center Dustin Boyd and the excellent Curtis Glencross. BTW, I might just call him "the excellent Curtis Glencross" in every pre-game I do until he proves me wrong on a regular basis. I should just save that somewhere to cut and paste, because my suspicion is it could get plenty of use. Dustin Boyd's ascension to third line status is also a good sign, IMO. He didn't get the best shake from Keenan, or the organization in general, and Brent Sutter has noted that he wants Boyd in a more stable role. Those are two pretty fair linemates, so this represents a nice opportunity for him. Glencross, Conroy and Moss were a top-rate third line last year, and a major reason why the Flames could weather some so-so performances by the big money guys. Boyd being productive would allow the team to have a nice offensive balance.
The fourth line will feature the 'Stroms flanking Brandon Prust. My hopes for them are like what I'd have for any fourth line. In other words, don't get killed at EV. Tonight, I'd expect Prust to get in a fight, and the 'Stroms to kill penalties. They look like they might be OK. I know Eric Nystrom had a larger role in last year's playoff, but injuries and some ineffective players led to him getting more ice time. He and Sjostrom should be a decent pair of wingers in this role, and that's just fine. 12 actual NHL players on the forwrd lines, what a concept.
The defence pairings might not be as stable to start. The Herald suggests that Regher and Phaneuf will pair up, with Giordano and Bouwmeester in the second set. I'm not a fan. Phaneuf still has a lot of chaos in his game to work out, and when you play with Regher, you go against the best of the league. We'll see how long it lasts. Gio and Bouwmeester should be fine, and if Sarich is actually ready to go, the third pair should be stable enough. This report from Steve MacFarlane suggested that Sarich may not play, so Kronwall would fill in alongside Pardy.
The opposition, of course, are the defending division champions. Vancouver has some modest injury concerns at this time, with Demitra on the shelf for who knows how long. They still ice a solid crew, and went through the pre-season unscathed in regulation. Burrows will resume his position with the Twins, and pre-season breakout Sergei Shirokov will join Mikael Samuelsson on the Kesler line. I also noted that O'Brien and Bieksa are paired together on D. With the Flames having last change, that would be a pair I'd target, because those two aren't immune from stupid penalties. Luongo's pretty good, though, and as B. Sutter noted yesterday, they have a stable coaching staff and core of players that are comfortable in what they do. That's always an edge.
In terms of what I hope to see, beyond a win, of course, is a continued commitment to two-way play, Kiprusoff looking comfortable, and maybe most importanly, an organized, dangerous PP. Vancouver will be hard to score on as long as Luongo is playing, so the time with an extra man has to be well used. I often joke that Calgary has hockey's worst 5 on 3 PP. If it gets an airing tonight, hopefully it doesn't solely consist of Phaneuf blasting away from the blue.
Here are the prospective line-ups, per the Herald:
Moss/ Jokinen/ Iginla
Dawes/ Langkow/ Bourque
Glencross/ Conroy/ Boyd
Sjostrom/ Nystrom/ Prust
D. Sedin/ H. Sedin/ Burrows
Shirokov/ Kesler/ Samuelsson
Raymond/ Wellwood/ Bernier
Hordichuk/ Johnson/ Rypien Glass?
Game time is 8MT, with coverage on CBC. Fun and games are over. Let's go.
Sarich is out, as feared, and the Dion-Reggie pairing is confirmed. Hmm. Rick Rypien has the flu, so Tanner Glass might draw in for the 'Nucks.