There has been a lot of negativity surrounding the Flames this summer, and, although I've certainly been guilty of perpetuating said negativity on occasion, I thought I'd use this opportunity--in the middle of August and a veritable drought in terms of hockey news--to take a rare look on the bright side and compile a list of my top ten things to look forward to this upcoming season.
I admit it, I am one of those fans who gets far too into pre-season hockey. I watch the choppy online feed on my computer, I get upset when the Flames rookie squad loses to the Canucks veterans, and I once attended a game where Brent Krahn recorded a shutout over either the Oilers or the Blackhawks, my memory is a little fuzzy, but I recall the feeling of pride I experienced. Maybe it's because I've already gone without hockey for nearly five months and any semblance of the game somewhat fills that void, but pre season gives us an idea of how the rookies stack up against the vets, is the first real sign that the new season is just around the corner, and affords Saskatchewan-based Flames/Islanders/Panthers fans the rare opportunity to see their team play on home turf.
Hockey almost every day for eight months
The knowledge that there will be at least one hockey game on TV almost every day or evening for the next eight months come October is comforting and satisfying in that familiar, routine kind of way. If you've had a rough day, you can resign yourself to the couch and flip on TSN, Sportsnet, or CBC and block out the world for two and a half hours. It's a guarantee of instant gratification and entertainment, alone or with friends, and even if you're watching the Flames. As I'm sure you're all too aware by now, I'm a terrible procrastinator; during hockey season, that problem intensifies ten fold. Hockey surpasses nearly everything else, which is why I can tell you useless facts like who scored the game winner on April 2nd vs. Colorado. I leave my assignments to the last minute, I'm late for work, I alienate friends at the bar when there's a game on--I can't get enough of it. This aspect of the season, in and of itself, is what I most eagerly anticipate. Plus, no more Pay Per View games means no longer having to pay $14.00 to watch your team cough up a five-goal lead.
And yes, it was Cory Sarich.
Jokinen/Tanguay, Round Two
As contentious as these two signings were, both separately and combined, I would be lying if I said I wasn't curious and even a little excited about the results. If the Flames need one thing to improve this coming season, it's offence, and despite their struggles, these are two guys who can certainly contribute to that, and the pressure will be on to do just that. I have a feeling that this experiment will either succeed or fail outright, completely lacking any middle ground and likely dependent on a variety of circumstances--but it'll be painful frustrating interesting to watch regardless.
The Heritage Classic
Even if I don't magically acquire tickets to the game itself or the subsequent WHL game, the long-awaited Heritage Classic in its entirety is certainly a highlight of the upcoming season. Unless you're the Habs, Penguins, or Steve Staios, participation in an outdoor game is typically a once-in-a-lifetime sort of deal, let alone on home turf. Even if you're not a fan of the retro Calgary Tigers-style jerseys or the fact that the Flames aren't facing off against one of their more modern rivals, all that will likely be forgotten once the team hits the ice at McMahon Stadium in front of upwards of 30,000 people. No matter where the Flames sit in the standings come February 20th, all eyes will be on them. Quite frankly, they'll be hard to miss in those uniforms...
Division Rivalries/Rivalries in General
With the new season comes a clean slate on the divisional front; gone are last season's final tallies and the bragging rights that accompanied them. It's doubtful that the Flames will once again sweep the upstart young Oilers or that Craig Anderson will get the better of them on four of six occasions this coming season, while it seems entirely possible that the Blackhawks will steamroll them once again and that Calgary will struggle to take advantage of at least one cellar-dwelling team (provided they're not in the basement themselves, but this is supposed to be a positive list). The Northwest Division may have lost some of its competitive edge in recent years, but the rivalries within it are always entertaining, usually interesting, and occasionally obscure nonetheless.
The rotating door that seems to be the Flames' back-up goalie position has opened for Swedish 'tender Henrik Karlsson this summer; acquired in a trade with the Sharks at the draft, Karlsson has been playing the KHL, where his size and abilities had many comparing him to Jonas Gustavsson, who was heralded as the best goalie not playing in the NHL before signing with the Maple Leafs last summer. The soon-to-be 27-year old will be suiting up for the Flames for a cool $500K this season, and I'd say that if he wins even ten games or so he'll be well worth the money. If he manages to instill enough confidence in the Flames' coaching staff to play him more than that, an area in which every other Flames back-up has failed in each of the past five seasons, he'll be a steal. Kiprusoff will be 34 in October and although Karlsson isn't exactly a spring chicken himself, he provides some insurance should Kipper's numbers fall off a cliff in the near future, which is somewhat comforting considering every other goalie prospect in the Flames' system seem to be a ways away from setting foot in an NHL arena. And as far as we known, he's free of any heart ailments.
Trades, Movement, and the Like
As painful and sickening as watching trades occurring that involve your team can be, the exchange of players is a necessary and often exciting part of the season, spurring on heated debate over winners, losers, and the potential of any prospects acquired in a given deal (although in Calgary's case it's typically 'losers,' and 'none'). With the Flames currently exceeding the cap ceiling by more than $2M after the signings of Ian White and Craig Conroy and training camp quickly approaching, some of this movement will likely occur sooner rather than later, and I doubt any of us will be surprised if and when said impending move doesn't match any of the cap-friendly solutions involving Ales Kotalik or Steve Staios that we've come up with since last season ended. Despite the fact that the market for trades and signings at each position is typically predictable, there's always one team or one deal that throws a curveball at the rest of the league, and that, along with the inherent human aspect of exchanging players as property, is what makes these transactions so interesting to observe.
The Baby Flames
For the first time in a while, the Flames have a number of young prospects that are generating some excitement or at the very least, curiosity; this coming AHL season will be the first of the professional variety for the likes of Mitch Wahl, Lance Bouma, Bryan Cameron, T.J. Brodie, and Greg Nemisz. The Heat will be a young team hard pressed to repeat last season's unlikely appearance in the second round of the Calder Cup playoffs, but it will be interesting to see how these guys stack up against some of the older players in the system and the experience will undoubtably prove valuable. With the back-up position with the big club filled, the battle for crease supremacy in Abbotsford will be an interesting one to watch as well, as Matt Keetley and Leland Irving compete with newcomer J.P. Lamoureux in net. After the departure of some veterans on the blueline in Brett Palin and Brad Cole and with Matt Pelech in the running for a job with the Flames, T.J. Brodie and Chris Breen could see their minutes upped in their first pro seasons, especially considering the injury-prone nature of the Heat's blueline last season. Tracking the progress of these players and the entire team this coming season will certainly be a priority for me.
Highlight Reel Goals, Saves, and Hits
There's certainly something to be said about the pleasure of watching what are, in hindsight, some of the best plays of the season unfold live before your eyes. Last season Mark Giordano destroyed Dustin Brown with about five hits and a magnificent elbow dodge in a single game; he was also the artist of this fine goal in a game against the Coyotes. Miikka Kiprusoff's terrific kick save from his stomach to prevent the puck from crossing the goal line in a tight one against the Sharks was by far one of the best and most memorable of the season. Who and what will it be this year?
Comebacks, Blowouts, and Missed Chances
The highest highs and the lowest lows--these are what makes any sport worth watching. From the elation of November's hot streak to that feel-good shootout victory over the Canucks in spite of the laser pointer, and all the way to the horrific and seemingly endless nine game losing streak, the anxiety-ridden playoff push, and then the final gut punch that was elimination from post season contention--the very ups and downs that drag you along with them and make watching your team unbearable at times are the same ones that make it so great. Opinions on every aspect of the team flow freely and vary in accordance with hot and cold streaks, and, as we all became well aware of last season, so do rumours. Exhilaration followed by dire frustration pushes some to their breaking points, only to bounce back several games later or when the new season eventually rolls around. One doesn't become a fan of a particular team without acknowledging to some degree that their daily lives will be put through the wringer for the next however many months. It's the nature of the beast, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't sort of looking forward to it.
What makes your list?