The Flames began last season like they've begun every season since going to the Stanley Cup finals: poorly. The club looked like it was in total disarray after a 6-1 pounding at the hands of the San Jose Sharks and many were preparing Keenan effigies to burn in the streets. A canceled Southern California wine trip and re-structuring of the club's strategy saw the Flames surge come December, however, where the team started to regularly outshoot their opponents and outscore whatever problems they had in their own end.
It was all for naught, however. After the Jokinen trade, Miikka Kiprusoff stepped into an elevator shaft, injuries mounted, cap space dried up and the power play went south. The Flames lost the division lead in the final week and drifted rudderless and under-manned into the first round versus the Blackhawks like dull-eyed cows into an abattoir.
And, with yet another disappointing loss in the opening round, thus came the end of the Mike Keenan era in Calgary. In fact, the bench was sweeped clean by the front office in the off-season, in an attempt to recapture the defensive prowess that saw the club capture a lengthy post-season run and NW Division title with the Elder Sutter steering the ship.
Aside from the big Bouwmeester acquisition, most of Sutter's fiddling was done at the edges of the roster. While Nigel Dawes may challenge for a top 6 position, guys like Sjostrom, Jaffray, Prust, Stralman, Kronwall and McGrattan will be limited to the bottom end of the rotation - if they make the team at all. In fact, there figures to be a mighty battle for the 13th forward and 7th defenseman positions this pre-season.
Of course, the most notable new addition may be behind the bench: Brent Sutter has stated he plans to implement a rigidly structured, more egalitarian strategy in direct contrast to the rather more lasseiz-faire, preferred-player program Mike Keenan had going last season. An expressed goal of the organization at all levels is to reduce shots - and therefore goals - against which was undeniably the team's Achilles Heel last season.
Aside from Cammalleri, who was too pricey to keep after his career season, there was a lot of "addition by subtraction" by Darryl this summer. Todd Bertuzzi, labeled by the skipper himself as "one of the most frustrating players to watch" last year was allowed to walk despite an interest in returning, while bad value contracts in Vandermeer and Primeau were ushered out the door. Of the subtractions, only the aforementioned Cammalleri will be a challenge to fill given Calgary's dearth of offensive additions this summer. the diminutive center/left wing wasn't only the Flames leading PP scorer, he was also one of the top ES point getters for the club as well. If Jokinen doesn't experience a re-awakening and if one of the likes of Dawes or Boyd doesn't step up, the Flames may have problems filling out the top 6.
With Robyn Regehr, Jay Bouwmeester, Cory Sarich, Dion Phaneuf and the underrated Mark Giordano in the top 5, Calgary has one of the best defensive crews in the league (as they should, considering the dollars they've invested). Add in the emerging Adam Pardy as well as Kronwall, Stralman, Pelech and AHL all-star Bret Palin and the club is waist-deep in blueline depth. Should injuries strike or a trade to acquire more forward depth be required, Calgary has the assets on the back-end to handle either situation.
In addition, the Flames have a lot of good value contracts up front. Rene Bourque, David Moss, Curtis Glencross, Craig Conroy were all team leaders at ES last year in various ways and all proved they are legitimate NHLers for bargain basement deals. Add in Sjostrom, Nystrom, Dawes and Boyd and Calgary should have both a cheap and capable bottom 6 component.
Outside of Langkow, Iginla and Olli Jokinen, the club has precious few established top end/PP forwards. In addition, both Iginla and Jokinen had relatively lackluster seasons last year and are on the wrong side of 30. Unless both can bounce back, the Flames may have a hard time scoring against some of the better teams in the league this year. The lack of top-end talent also means that Calgary is exposed to injury risk. For example - if Iginla goes down for any length of time, the Flames top 6 would look something like this:
Not the prettiest picture for team spending to the cap.
The biggest concern is Flameland, however, is the continuing decline of Miikka Kiprusoff. Since leading the Flames to the finals in '04, Kipper's ES SV% has dropped each and every season, culminating in his worse-than-mediocre .903 save rate last year. Although the Flames had one of the most expensive bluelines in the league, Miikka didn't even place inside the top 30 puck-stoppers in terms of SV% - and there's little chance that fatigue or team effects can account for all of his struggles.
Not only does the team not have the depth currently to survive a poor Kiprusoff, but another step back by the 33 year old this year would render his contract an immovable millstone 'round the Franchise's neck.
2009-2010 Calgary Flames Depth Chart:
Bourque - Jokinen - Iginla
Glencross - Langkow - Moss
Dawes - Boyd - Sjostrom
Nystrom - Conroy - Prust
(McGrattan, Lundmark, Greentree, Backlund, Van Der Gulik, Stuart)
Bouwmeester - Regehr
Phaneuf - Sarich
Giordano - Pardy
(Stralman, Kronwall, Pelech, Palin)
There's a lot to like to like about this iteration of the Calgary Flames - they have impressive blueline depth, a bunch of high value contracts in the right age range (25-29) and a whole host of decent players battling to make the team better at the margins. Jay Bouwmeester is a decent bet to emerge as a Norris candidate now that he's in better surroundings. Also, with injuries healed and under the watchful eye of his former Junior coach, Dion Phaneuf is in line for a rebound after what was a fairly dreadful campaign.
While the club isn't long on stars at forward, they may be able to score enough goals by committee considering the number of decent players with good deals Sutter has assembled. If Moss, Glencross, Conroy and Bourque can sustain the gains they made last year while one of Boyd or Dawes takes some strides forward, Calgary should be able to put the puck in the net at a decent clip (as long as Iginla stays healthy, that is). The club will be in even better shape if Olli Jokinen can get back to scoring 30+ goals and 70+ points, even if a majority of his results come against lesser opposition and/or on the power play.
Overall, I'd say the Flames are positioned to challenge for the division crown. If things go well (say, Kipper finally turns things around) Calgary could be a Western Conference Super Power. On the other hand, An Iginla or Kipper decline/injury would probably see the team battling for a play-off spot.