I figured my last day of summer holidays before I head off for my first year of university was as good a time as any to emerge from my self-imposed hiatus from blogging. I have neglected my duty. My team made arguably the biggest splash of any team this past offseason, and, though I’m more optimistic than I can remember myself being in years, even I cannot answer the simple question of what exactly I expect from them this coming season.
The Flames’ relatively stunning acquisition (or at least to me) of Jay Bouwmeester has to have been the most immediately well-received move of the Sutter era in Calgary. (It’s also probably one of the biggest moves in Flames history. I mean really, the Flames, of all teams, managing to get the single most coveted free agent? And signing him BEFORE he became a free agent? Has this ever happened? I’m still in a bit of disbelief it actually happened.) With the move, the Flames’ top three defensemen are all Team Canada invitees (though Bouwmeester at least should make it, I’d be surprised if more than one did. Point still stands, though, the defense seems to be fixed.) Darryl Sutter spent the vast majority of his budgeted offseason on this one player, after he said his #1 priority this offseason was to improve the porous defense. I’d say mission accomplished, at least on paper. But then comes the big question mark…the other half of the team.
Just as many people, if not more, that have praised the Flames’ defense have questioned their offense. I honestly can’t blame them, it doesn’t look like much on paper. But I’ll defend it. The basic line structure is largely dependent on whether top prospect Mikael Backlund can make the opening day roster (Darryl Sutter has said that it’s either the top six or the AHL for the young Swede.) If Backlund made the team (I can’t give an honest opinion on this matter) the top six would look something like this:
Bourque – Jokinen – Iginla
Backlund – Langkow – Moss
Glencross – Conroy – Dawes
Prust – Boyd – Sjostrom
However, if Backlund failed to make it, the top six is a bit more of a mess. One of Curtis Glencross, Nigel Dawes or Dustin Boyd would have to be the second line LW. I love Glencross but don’t think he should be above the third line. I think Dawes might have the offensive talent to moonlight in top six duty, but am not sure how long he could handle it. Boyd is penciled in for fourth line duty without Backlund, yes, but he has the offensive potential and signed a deal that seems to have “prove yourself” written between the lines (one year and one-way, with a paycut from last year.) And the other two wingers up there, aside from Iginla of course, also have question marks. I’m confident Rene Bourque can repeat or exceed his excellent season last year if he stays healthy (which he did before his season was effectively ended by an unpenalized slewfoot late in February.) David Moss had a career year last year with 20 goals on the third line, but can he do the same on the second line? The only two certainties seem to be Olli Jokinen and Iginla. Jokinen has a ton to prove – though I feel he took a bit too much heat for the Flames’ collapse, he still has to shake his reputation of being a chronic team cancer, among other things. He’s also in a contract year.
The optimist’s view states that Bourque can stay healthy and repeat his surprise breakout year last year, as can Moss, and that if the second line LW spot is difficult to fill, Jay Bouwmeester can at least replace Todd Bertuzzi’s point output there last season, and that additional offense from the backend will be provided by Dion Phaneuf if he rebounds from his fairly awful season last year. (It’s worth noting here that the Flames should, if they hired the right assistants, finally have a powerplay after about six decades – I mean years – of suffering under the chronically inept Rich Preston. I laughed and laughed and laughed when Preston was hired to be the Lethbridge Hurricanes coach AND GM.) That’s the optimist’s view, and I really don’t think it’s unreasonable or unrealistic. But if it turns out to be, and the Flames fall short again this season because of not enough offense, nobody can act surprised. Except that begs the question: what exactly can be defined as “falling short” this season for the Flames?
Without going on a long diatribe/rant, let’s just say that the post-lockout Flames have been disappointing to say the least. Last year’s first round exit might have been the bitterest yet, where a spectacular division-race meltdown converged with a failed attempt to get the team over the top, which converged with the realization that the team was coached by someone whose best-before date was 15 years ago, which converged with the worst possible injuries that came at the worst possible time, which converged with horrid cap management, eventually leading to a first round matchup where winning was never a realistic possibility. So clearly, a repeat of the last four years can’t possibly be desirable. And yet Darryl Sutter has purposefully built a team that appears stacked on defense but questionable at best on offense. With the top line center likely a one year rental just as Mike Cammalleri was, and a salary cap many observers have predicted will fall after this season, one might wonder what exactly Sutter’s long term plan is. In my opinion, last season seemed a much more “go-for-it” season – the season he placed more priority on replacing his scoring wingers than upgrading his defense, and spent so dangerously close to the cap. The knowledge that the defense is solidified long-term is comforting but I’m not sure how it affects my expectations for this coming season, or how it affects my overall long-term outlook.
That being said, I fully expect the Northwest Division to once again be won by either the Flames or Canucks, by a thin margin that could even result in the two teams being first round opponents. Last season, I always felt that the Flames had to win the division to get past the first round, as I feared Chicago more than any other team. Now, I am unsure about who will be in that 4-5 position the Flames could be in if they fall short of the division again. Add it to the list of reasons why my expectations and predictions of the Flames this season are murky overall. Doesn’t keep me from still being optimistic though, and anticipating the season ahead with more anticipation than I’ve had in years.
Other, additional notes about the team that I couldn’t manage to fit in elsewhere. Miikka Kiprusoff might have a bit to prove too. With a solidified defense, and a new sane coach who I’m presuming will actually rest Kipper like a normal goalie, I am confident he can return to his old, consistent standard. This actually is possibly the most crucial question facing the Flames. The team’s offseason adjustments can only be good news for him, but if he still is mediocre when it matters, the Flames have a goalie contract on their hands that is on par, if not worse than Cristobal Huet’s in Chicago.
I have not mentioned the hire of Brent Sutter nearly enough. It is possibly just as important as the signing of Bouwmeester. All Sutterite Colony jokes aside, I really believe that Brent was the best coach available, and replacing one of the league’s worst coaches with him can only be an improvement.
Only three weeks left!
(If anyone’s still reading at this point, I’d like to apologize for pulling an Eklund and promising a blog which never came – Part 2 of my post mortem on the Flames back in May. I got very few comments for the entire playoff series, and quickly got sidetracked by homework and other things. By the time I got around to it, it was a bit late for a post mortem).
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Written by Alex Hamilton