Ahead of the upcoming NHL season, Derek Zona of The Copper n' Blue recently conducted a survey of SBN's Western Conference bloggers, asking each manager to estimate where all 15 teams will rank when 82 games are in the books come April.
The results probably won't surprise many regular readers; when the votes were counted, the predictions for the Flames averaged out to a grim 13th place.
After the jump, a look at why the Flames could potentially fall to third-worst in the West in 2011-12.
1) Lack of "elite" forwards:
Stop me if you've heard this one before. The Flames' core group of forwards is aging; players like Jarome Iginla, Alex Tanguay, and Olli Jokinen are less and less likely to produce the point totals they once did and the likes of Curtis Glencross and Rene Bourque, while good players, can't be consistently relied upon to carry the load.
During the off-season, Jay Feaster traded Daymond Langkow, the Flames' best centre and one of their best tough-minutes options at forward for Lee Stempniak, who--although certainly younger and cheaper--is essentially another spare part (see also: Stajan, Matt and Hagman, Niklas) on a Flames squad lacking elite talent.
While Mikael Backlund might see an increased role this season when he returns to the lineup and Roman Horak might turn out to be a player yet, it seems unlikely that either player will be a major difference-maker in 2011-12.
2) Aging starting goaltender:
After another mediocre season in 2010-11, don't expect the soon-to-be 35-year-old Miikka Kiprusoff to bounce back to his 2009-10 level of play any time soon. He might have a slightly better year solely based on percentages alone, but if he plays at a similar level as he did last season it will be even tougher for the Flames to avoid a shortened season for a third consecutive year.
3) Unknown commodities on the blueline:
After the trade that sent Robyn Regehr to Buffalo this summer, the Flames' blueline is in somewhat of a state of disarray. Regehr won't be missed for his offence but he regularly took on the opposition's best players. Now, that role inevitably falls to Jay Bouwmeester, Mark Giordano, and potentially Scott Hannan as the next best players in the Flames' stable of rearguards. After that, the quality of players in the rotation drops off. Cory Sarich (if he's healthy) likely remains the next best defender, then there's Chris Butler, Anton Babchuk, Brett Carson (whose injury status is also questionable) and then a variety of other bottom-pairing options (Jordan Henry, Derek Smith), neither of whom are likely to be much better than the next.
That lineup doesn't inspire much confidence for a variety of reasons; while Bouw is more than capable of playing top competition, the same cannot yet be said of Mark Giordano, and any situation in which Cory Sarich and Anton Babchuk could potentially form your second pairing at some point is one that I don't want to see realized. Even with Regehr in the lineup last season, the Flames' defence was shoddy at times; without him, some players will be forced to play outside of their comfort zones where quality of competition is concerned, and it's hard to believe that the backend is in for much of an improvement this season.
4) The percentages:
While Miikka Kiprusoff might be in line for an improvement this season, several players who had better than average or bounce-back seasons might not be; I'm looking at you Iginla, Glencross, and Bourque. All three scored at a rate higher than their career averages last season. Alex Tanguay and Brendan Morrison are two other players who might find it tough to replicate their 2010-11 success. If the Flames continue to be a relatively successful puck-possession team, this might not be as much of an issue, but a lack of scoring from the top two lines still puts an unnecessary burden on the remainder of the forward corps to score as well as an added pressure on the defence to limit chances and the goaltenders to prevent goals against.
Stay tuned for my reasons why the Flames won't be bottom-feeders, coming up next.