It was the four words every hockey fans dreads hearing: "eliminated from playoff contention." A 2-1 loss to the San Jose Sharks on April 6th brought the Calgary Flames' roller coaster ride of a season to an abrupt halt, and those four words became a reality for the first time in five seasons. The mid-season makeover that saw the Flames ship defenceman Dion Phanuef to the Leafs and Olli Jokinen and Brandon Prust to the Rangers in return for scoring help down the stretch appeared to be all for naught. Now, a new season is upon us; a clean slate, if you will. All 30 teams are even at zeroes, and the games start to count tomorrow night.
The long off-season that followed brought with it more questions than answers. Familiar faces Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay were brought back at a discount in hopes of reviving captain Jarome Iginla and the team's sagging offense and, with doubts about if and when centre Daymond Langkow will return to the Flames lineup after suffering a frightening neck injury, 39-year-old Craig Conroy returns for another season on a two-way deal. Forwards Tim Jackman and Raitis Ivanans were presumably brought in in hopes of adding a little sandpaper to the bottom end of the roster, although that will surely prove difficult to do from the penalty box, which is where Ivanans will likely be spending the majority of his time. Gone from the forward ranks are Eric Nystrom, Nigel Dawes, Chris Higgins, Jamal Mayers, and Brian McGrattan--all of whom have found employment elsewhere for one reason or another. Status quo reigns supreme, for the time being, on the crowded blueline, apart from the addition of rookie T.J. Brodie, who appears to have earned a stay with the big club after an impressive camp, while unknown Swedish ‘tender Henrik Karlsson takes Vesa Toskala's place behind Miikka Kiprusoff at a much more cap-friendly rate of $500K.
Now, the Flames find themselves down a few men after an undefeated pre-season; forwards Matt Stajan (shoulder), David Moss (shoulder), Ales Kotalik (knee), and the aforementioned Daymond Langkow (LTIR) are all on the shelf indefinitely, starting the season on injured reserve, all but forcing management's hand into the recent signing of veteran centre Brendan Morrison. It would appear that the first hurdle on the Flames' road to post-season redemption has already presented itself prior to the start of the season--and their success in overcoming it will likely determine whether or not they reach their final destination.
As has become the norm with the Flames in most seasons since the lockout, the team's strengths lay on the back end. The team achieved its goal of reducing shots against in Brent Sutter's first season as head coach, allowing approximately 0.9 fewer shots/game than in 2008-09, good for a total of 69 fewer shots altogether, and enough to vault the Flames back into the top half of the league in most defensive categories. With virtually no change on the blueline this summer, I expect this to remain relatively constant.
While allowing less shots and less possession time in the defensive zone typically leads to less goals, the team was still getting outshot on a regular basis, allowing 0.2 more shots than they were generating per game. The only regular defenders that finished in the black in terms of Corsi/60 were Robyn Regehr, Adam Pardy, Mark Giordano, Cory Sarich, and Ian White, whose underlying numbers were no doubt skewed by his time in Toronto before joining the Flames. Only Regehr and White regularly played against top quality opposition. There's no doubt about it that Mikka Kiprusoff's play last season was the sole factor in the reduction of the team's goals against; his .928 EV SV% was tied for second-best amongst goalies that played 70 or more games last season and he gave the Flames a chance in multiple games that they had no business winning. Kipper will be hard pressed to repeat last season's magnificence as he approaches age 34, but that's not to say we still can't expect an above-average season out of him--after all, Martin Broduer led the league in starts and wins last season at 37-years-old. The addition of Henrik Karlsson as Kipper's backup could finally give the Flames the reliable goalie tandem they've been dreaming of, and at just the right time.
I hesitate to add the Flames' top line as a strength prior to the start of the season, but the trio of Tanguay-Jokinen-Iginla is almost certainly an upgrade over last season's incessant rotation. In fact, the top six as a whole, prior to Daymond Langkow's injury complications and the injury to Matt Stajan, appears to be superior to its previous iteration--at least on paper. While there are well-founded doubts that this top line can take on similar quality opposition and win the possession battle in their declining years, a wait-and-see approach is warranted here. Unless Sutter chooses to feed the likes of Conroy, Bourque, and Hagman/Glencross to the wolves, Iggy et al. will likely be his only option; regardless, the coaching staff will have to manage the bench carefully until some of the walking wounded return to health.
One area where the Flames experienced a significant downgrade is their bottom-six. The losses of Brandon Prust and Nigel Dawes, both high energy players who skated well and out-chanced the opposition on a regular basis, were never remedied during the off-season and, arguably, nor was the loss of Eric Nystrom. At any rate, Tim Jackman, Raitis Ivanans, and Stefan Meyer are likely not effective replacements. The addition of Brendan Morrison may help in this regard, as he should be able to hold his own against bottom-end competition and still has his hands about him, but he's no exactly a speed demon--something that is becoming an increasingly important asset in a bottom-six player. Ryan Stone may eventually prove to be a decent addition when healthy, but if and when that happens, the local product is most likely Abbotsford-bound. Glencross, Backlund, and Jackman could make a decent third line yet, but I suspect said arrangement will be scrapped when Stajan, Moss and/or Kotalik return to the lineup. Injuries have certainly had a hand in the thinning out of the bottom-end of the roster, even prior to the start of the season.
The Flames' possession game was one their major weaknesses last season, after being so strong the season prior. The team often struggled entering the offensive zone and establishing zone presence, and when they did, players too often opted to pass or cycle the puck around, looking for the perfect shot, rather than aiming to increase shot volume. This usually resulted in a turnover or a pass being picked off, and the puck was back in the defensive zone in no time. In fact, the Flames actually won more games when they were outshot last season than when they were outshooting the opposition--winning .474% of the games where the competition get the better of them on the shot clock as opposed to .432% when the final tally was tilted in their favour. Lack of shots was certainly one of the factors contributing to the team's precipitous drop in offence last season, which saw the Flames finish second last in the league in goals for with only 137 ES goals and 201 altogether.
Shots were down nearly all across the board, and it's rather telling that the players who finished third and fourth in shots on the team were traded at the end of January. A number of forwards saw their shooting percentages take a tumble last season; David Moss, Ales Kotalik, Olli Jokinen, Craig Conroy, Chris Higgins, Jay Bouwmeester, and even Mikael Backlund were victims of bad puck luck. While the percentages will no doubt normalize to some degree, especially with players taking more shots, it remains to be seen whether this will be enough to vault the Flames back into the post-season.
Lastly, the powerplay--arguably the Achilles heel of the squad for the last two seasons, at least. The man advantage converted on only 16% of their opportunities last season, good for just 43 goals--dead last in the league. The Flames were also near the bottom of the league in total powerplay opportunities, and only seven regular Flames players drew more penalties than they took--three of whom (Stajan, Hagman, and Higgins) spent little over a quarter of the season with the team. With the creativity Alex Tanguay brings with the extra man and the likes of White, Giordano, Bouwmeester, and possibly Brodie on the back end, the potential for improvement on the powerplay is certainly there, and part of it probably comes down to coaching, quite honestly. Brent Sutter has discussed preaching a more offense-focused game this season now that the team seems to be where he wants it defensively, so whether that means a creative departure from last season's conservative and often too safe style of play both at even strength and with the man advantage remains to be seen. If the Flames hope to improve upon their offence as a whole this season, a more efficient powerplay would be as good a place as any to start.
**=Long Term Injured Reserve
The success or failure of the Flames' season seems to be hinging on an awful lot of 'ifs.' If Jarome Iginla turns things around, if Alex Tanguay is the skilled playmaker we all remember, and if Miikka Kiprusoff turns away every shot he sees, they're a playoff team. If Iggy continues his apparent decline, Jokinen still can't find the back of the net, Rene Bourque can't stay healthy, and the rest of the top six can't pick up the slack, they're not. Naturally, this doesn't do much to ease to my already hesitant attitude towards prognosticating. Vancouver is almost certainly the team to beat this season in the Northwest, and none of the remaining three teams have gotten significantly better or worse over the course of the summer, in my opinion. The injuries the Flames suffered in camp make it difficult to have a very positive outlook to start the season, and even once Stajan, Moss, Kotalik, and Langkow *fingers crossed* return to the lineup, a lot of things will likely have to go right for the Flames to make it back into the conference's top eight.
I think the team's top-six is certainly an improvement over last season, even if it is at the expense of the bottom end of the roster, and is capable of inflicting some damage. The blueline is still a generally solid group, and even all $2.7M of Steady Steve Staios is still a decently capable NHL defenceman when his minutes are managed properly. And of course, even an average Kiprusoff trumps a fair number of NHL goalies on most nights. My optimistic side predicts a 7th or 8th place finish for the 2010-11 Flames, while the nagging pessimist inside me sees the team finishing on the outside looking in. The evidence presented in the next few months will inevitably sway me one way or the other.