The 2011-12 season seems like a long time ago; it was nine months ago that we discussed in this very space how the Flames had again broken all of our hearts by failing to make the playoffs. The frustration started to boil over. When were changes going to be made? When was management finally going to admit that things weren't working with the way the team was currently made up?
Last season's Flames scored the third-least goals in the Western Conference with 202 (tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets) and allowed the fifth most with 226 (tied with the Minnesota Wild). Of the eight teams that made the post-season in 2011-12, only the Chicago Blackhawks allowed more goals than the Flames, and only the L.A. Kings scored less.
In attempts to address some of these concerns in the off-season, Jay Feaster surprised many by winning the bidding war for the services of Roman Cervenka, the 27-year-old Czech forward who impressed scouts with consecutive 30-goal seasons playing for Slavia Praha HC and Avangard Omsk of the KHL, alongside Jaromir Jagr.
The signing of Cervenka, an unproven guy at the NHL level in his late twenties, represented the continuation of something of a shift in philosophy for the Flames, an acknowledgement from Feaster that risks must be taken in order to improve his hockey club--the same kind of risks he took when he traded down to draft Mark Jankowski and traded Tim Erixon to the New York Rangers.
The outcome of the Cervenka signing on the Flames' immediate success or lack thereof is likely the only one that will be clear to observers at the end of the season, and hopefully it isn't one deemed disappointing due to injury. Roman Horak will appear in his second season (or parts of it) for the Flames as a 21-year-old after scoring three goals and 11 points in 61 games for Calgary in 2011-12, certainly too small of a sample size to determine his worth as a player, and Mark Jankowski still needs to finish going through puberty.
Feaster also took risks by not re-signing players. Losing David Moss is perhaps the one that stands out most for many Flames fans. When healthy, Moss drove the play in the right direction, even when he was stuck with dead weight, and the team didn't really replace him in that regard. There are other guys in the lineup capable of driving the bus in that way, but to what extent will they be successful and where will that responsibility fall without a guy like Moss? If goals were what Feaster was looking for in choosing to sign Jiri Hudler over keeping Moss, he might be marginally more successful in that department. Hudler's career high in goals was last season with 25, which is more than every Flames player except for Curtis Glencross and Jarome Iginla scored, but he was also shooting at 19.7%, a full 6% higher than his career average.
Combined with recent injuries and the death of his father, the it could be a bit of a slow go for the Czech this season, who also no longer has the luxury of playing alongside the likes of Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. Winging it in Mowtown describes Hudler as player who has skill and can drive offence with his puck-handling, passing, and scoring touch but is best used as a compliment to more "dangerous" forwards. I like the idea of Sven Baertschi and Mikael Backlund playing together, especially with Glencross they form a nice combination of skill and driving the puck north, but perhaps Hudler would also fit in on that line when he returns. The addition of Baertschi, a healthy Backlund, and a full (ish) season of Mike Cammalleri could potentially be the biggest boon to the Flames' offence in 48-games. The more time these players spend in the opposition's zone, the better
In terms of defence, the hole left in the Flames' top-four by Robyn Regehr was one that certainly needed to be filled, but will 29-year-old Dennis Wideman be sufficient in that role? I like the look of a top-four composed of Jay Bouwmeester, Mark Giordano, Chris Butler and Wideman much more than I like the look of one that includes Cory Sarich or Anton Babchuk. The Flames' blueline scored 125 points last season, and Wideman has the ability to add to that with 11 goals and 46 points last season for the Capitals, but his questionable play in his own zone in Washington was emphasized by the fact that he was playing over his head--starting close to 50% of his shifts in the defensive zone--and that all changed in the playoffs when Wideman became one of the least utilized defenders on the club, especially in the d-zone.
The consensus seems to be that if Bouwmeester and Giordano take on the tough competition leaving Wideman to do his thing offensively and on the powerplay with less responsibility in his own end, the Flames might just be able to pull this off. TJ Brodie will likely excel in his role as a bottom-pairing defender as per usual, but four and a half more years of Wideman makes it somewhat uncertain when Brodie will be tested with tougher competition rather than tasked with babysitting Sarich, which is something I'd like to see, possibly after this season.
In net, concerns about Kiprusoff's age have come to the forefront, but even if he does appear in all 48 games, it will still be reduced workload for the goalie who played 70 of 82 games last season. This could be Leland Irving's last chance to prove himself in the organization as the former first-round pick won the role of Kiprusoff's little-utilized back-up this season after seeing little in the way of playing time in the AHL. Irving's job will be made easier if the Flames can restrict the amount of shots he sees. In the seven games Irving played in last season, he saw fewer than 30 shots in just two of them.
There are some new faces on this Flames team as well as some old faces in new roles (i.e. the Alex Tanguay at centre experiment), and for the club that typically takes a while to find its feet, a slow start would be very detrimental in a shortened season. Anything could happen in a 48-game season and a lengthy streak could go a long way in determining who makes the cut when the Stanley Cup playoffs begin in May, but it will be the most consistent teams that derive its benefits, and last season the Flames were anything but.
This season's iteration of the team is better in some areas and could be worse in others, if only due to the effects of age, and it's difficult to say where that puts them when the buzzer sounds at the end of game 48. The Flames face increased competition from some teams within their division this year (namely the Wild), and while the same teams that made the dance last season are likely to be there again come May, the shortened season may also work to the benefit of some teams that barely missed the cut or deserved a better fate (the Ducks, Stars, and Wild could all bump up a few notches).
While I see it as more likely than not that the Flames end up on the outside looking in again, they could very well be among those teams in the mix or they could end up near the bottom of the heap, it could be a crapshoot, as the West often is. Only time will tell.
Where do you think the Flames will finish this season?