The 2012-13 season is a new start for the Flames. 3 long years under Brent Sutter's two-way D system is over.
Not to knock the system, it worked in L.A. and won the Kings the Cup. In Calgary the players simply never fit it. Like Cinderella's step-sisters trying to cram their feet into that inflexible glass slipper. The Flames just didn't have the right players to excel at it.
Jay Feaster, to the exasperation of many at this point, has not given up and went to work trying to get a playoff team in place for next season. The rebuild crowd just shakes their head, the thinning of the Sea of Red has begun and time will tell if the upcoming season produces a playoff team.
It is clearly the goal and numerous changes have occurred. The first step is a new coaching staff with a new more offensive minded philosophy. Will this work?
It rests on the following list of 5 players whose performance will be key to the Flames success or lack of it next season.
#5 Roman Cervenka
Feaster was quickly out of the gate in the off-season and had the Flames in Europe to sign Cervenka first. They were the first team to sit down with him and they inked him at no cost to the team in players or prospects.
He is on a entry level contract for one year that many misinterpreted at first. He only receives his max pay if he hits his bonus targets.
Cervenka has had success in the KHL but that means little. His ability to make the cultural adjustment and adjust to the NHL style and smaller rink will have a impact on the Flames. Many challenges await Cervenka in his NHL rookie year. Whether he rises to the challenge or withers in the face of them remains to be seen.
Regardless, his performance will be factor for the upcoming season.
Recently acquired Jiri Hudler, also a Czech, will help him in language issues and will likely room with him for the season to help him adjust. The Flames woes at the #1 C position are well known and Cervenka may help fill this void. He will certainly play with quality wingers like Jarome Iginla, Alex Tanguay or Mike Cammalleri and have every opportunity to show what he can do.
Cervenka does not need to put up 70 points but if he can manage 50 points on the season and not be a liability on the ice, his signing bodes well for a Flames team looking to evolve into a more offensive machine.
#4 Sven Baertschi
Sven is not only the best prospect in the Flames system he is the best forward prospect they have had in decades. His last year vastly exceeded expectations on the Portland Winterhawks and in the few games he was called up to the Flames last year he shone, scoring 3 goals in 5 games and playing excellent hockey at the NHL level.
Positionally responsible, a nose for the net and calmness under pressure with the puck. Baertschi at this early stage is something for Flames fans to be excited about. He will only get better.
With such a dismal prospect cupboard, considered by some to be one of the worst in the NHL, Sven is a wild rose growing in an untended and neglected garden. He should make the team next season, he may be up and down on the roster but he should see NHL games.
The Flames have not traditionally rushed their prospects, giving them time to develop down on the Heat under Troy Ward's tutelage. I don't expect Sven to necessarily make the team out of camp but he may.
I do definitely expect to see him called up on the Flames as the season goes on though. Flames fans will definitely see some Sven next season and he may carve out a roster spot for himself based strictly on his own merit.
The Flames are deep on LW and it is Sven's natural position, so expect to see him on the third line and for a team looking to go offensive for next season the Swiss sensation may be the perfect fit. If, and it is a big IF, he continues to shine the Flames may have just the player to emerge as a young star.
There is a long road to travel for Baertschi before he prove that though.
#3 Mikael Backlund
Mikael Backlund must emerge this season.
The clock is ticking and this is his most important season personally as a player and to the Flames. He is very important to the Flames success this season, as again, one of those Centers the Flames desperately need.
The Center position in Calgary has been a vulnerability for over 20 years and Backlund has certainly had his time to develop at this point.
Advanced stats advocates drool over his numbers, his Corsi and so forth but the casual observer can also see Backlund's hockey smarts, without getting into the underlying numbers. His positional responsibility and his ability to drive the play north BUT for a more bottom-line evaluator such as myself he has also shown a trend to being injury prone and he simply has not contributed to scoring.
Backlund is former first round pick and was touted as a excellent two-way Center.
I see the defensive ability of him as a forward but have not seen the offensive production at all. I have seen him shoot the puck right into the chest of the opposing goalie, I have seen him rush his shot on open nets. I have seen him take injuries, not in bone rattling hits but awkward contact that I shake my head on how a player can be hurt on the play.
If he wants to avoid injury he has to muscle up. That helps to a degree. At the age of 23 the baby fat argument is gone, as is the growth argument, he should be in the most pristine physical condition of his adult life.
Touted with great playmaking, passing abilities and an accurate shot before he came to the NHL, I simply have not seen it.
Hope for Flames fans rests in the very strong possibility that the young Backlund offensive abilities were stifled under Brent Sutter's obsessive-compulsive two-way system. Under Hartley Backlund's offensive game may finally emerge as was expected.
Like Cervenka he will be paired with top Vet Wingers and he will be a key player for the Flames in the upcoming season.
#2 Dennis Wideman
The Flames signing of what would have been a coveted UFA early is another notch for Jay Feaster.
Wideman fits the Flames well on paper. He brings that right-handed shot. He brings an injection to the PP. He addresses the lack of expected offense from Jbo and he is more physical. Wideman should round out the Flames top 4 D very well.
The fretting over Wideman is his cost, term and of course the traditional Flames NMC. For a rebuild crowd not a move they like BUT for a lets make the playoffs next season crowd the acquisition fits well.
A few years ago the Flames D was seen as one of the best in the NHL with Phaneuf, Regher, Jbo, Gio and a hard hitting Cory Sarich near his peak. That was before Darryl Sutter put back a few bottles of Crown Royal and got on the trading phone.
The Flames D has taken a hard hit since those days.
Jbo is highly competent defensively but never emerged as advertised offensively. Phaneuf was traded for 2nd rate used up Leafs in one of the worst trades in Flames history and Robyn Regehr began a significant decline and again was moved.
Today the Flames have the all-around Gio, top rate defensive D man Jbo (who is paid like a top-rate two-way D man) and Chris Butler who is emerging as a reasonable top 4 defensive D man. Gone is the thundering hitters from the top 4 excluding Gio, although an aging Cory Sarich still can throw the body, it will be from 5-6 pairing now.
Wideman fits and he helps bolster the D for next season. His more offensive abilities will help address a hole that Anton Babchuk certainly never filled.
The bottom line on Wideman is simple. He simply has to earn his pay next season and if he does the Flames chances of making the playoffs certainly jump with it.
#1 Miikka Kiprusoff
Once again the man who will carry the Flames like Atlas is Kipper.
Still seen around the NHL as one of the top Goaltenders he will face enormous challenges next season. Gone will be that D system to help him in his duties.
Flames analysts have for years watched Kipper turn in the good season and the bad season. No one really knows what will happen next season but rest assured the work-horse the Flames have taken for granted for years will have the responsibility again.
The perpetual question mark on the Flames back-up has never gone away. Every season starts with the same promise of Kipper playing less games and every season ends with him still playing 70+ games. Leland Irving has had flashes of solid play but he is far from proven. Karri Ramo is not going to be with the Flames next season so once again it all rests on the man between the pipes.
Some may be wondering why so many of the Flames Vets were ignored in this top 5 players who need to perform for next season.
The reason is pretty straight-forward. It is simply assumed they will perform. Jarome will score his 30 goals. Tangs will continue with his slick passing. Cammy will continue to snap in the one-timers on the PP. Jbo will perform as a top minutes eating D man. Gio will be that all-around D man and leader etc.
The existing Flames Vets simply must meet their proven levels again. It is expected but they are not enough. The Flames have missed the playoffs for 3 straight years now with these performances.
Kipper is the one who will have the biggest challenge with a new offensive system that will likely have less attention to D. He will be expected to make those saves.
There is lots of vitriol out there for the Flames but don't believe the hype too much. They are going into next season as a legitimate playoff contender. Feaster has made changes that just may get them in but the above 5 players will play a big role, there is no doubt about it.