Cruickshank: Nine burning questions surrounding the Calgary Flames
With shortened season soon upon them, local NHL club faces several hot button topics
Expect the Flames to lean heavily on goalie Miikka Kirprusoff again. Here, Calgary Flames goalie Miikka Kiprusoff keeps his eye on the play against the Phoenix Coyotes during third period NHL action during their exhibition game at the Scotiabank Saddledome on September 29, 2011.
Photograph by: Colleen De Neve, Calgary Herald
Ready or not, here they come.
The Calgary Flames, out of the spotlight since the summer, are once again shouldering the full weight of a city’s expectations.
The National Hockey League and the Players’ Association have hogged headlines since the lockout’s start on Sept. 16. But now, with a collective bargaining agreement struck this past weekend, focus can return to the teams — and to the nitpicking of their (hockey-related) shortcomings.
The Flames, who haven’t graced the post-season since 2009, offer an assortment of compelling issues as they rush into the 2013 season. Let the soap opera resume.
1. What can the remade coaching staff provide?
By mutual agreement, Brent Sutter left the Flames after three (playoff-less) seasons, a development that allowed general manager Jay Feaster to assemble his own coaching staff. He brought aboard Bob Hartley, who, in turn, nabbed Jacques Cloutier and Martin Gelinas as assistants.
When last seen behind an NHL bench, Hartley was in the process of going 0-6-0 with the 2007-08 Atlanta Thrashers. But he’s also a man who’s won championships at every level, including the 2001 Stanley Cup with the star-studded Colorado Avalanche.
Hartley’s immediate challenge? To avoid a pokey start, deadly in a condensed schedule. (Last year, they opened 2-4-1. The year before, 7-10-0.)
2. Will Miikka Kiprusoff make 70 appearances?
If it was possible, yes. But with the reduced schedule, the Flames’ most valuable player will play fewer than 70 games for the first time since the 2004-05 lockout. But this isn’t to downplay his worth. If anything, with the upcoming sprint to the regular-season’s finish line, Kiprusoff’s gaffe-covering capabilities are more precious than ever.
Sure, he may be 36 years old, but he’s critical to the Flames’ playoff chances. Starting goaltending is one head-scratcher the club does not have.
As for second-string toil, that’s up to Henrik Karlsson and Leland Irving. There are probably six starts up for grabs.
3. What is Jarome Iginla’s future in Calgary?
According to the Flames, the captain’s future is, in fact, in Calgary. This has been repeated over and over again.
But the lockout has fast-forwarded things to this juncture — January in the final year of No. 12’s contract. Which may cause panic in some quarters.
Others, however, are assuming that one of the first check marks on the Flames’ to-do list is re-signing Iginla.
Imagine the distractions if the trade deadline — whenever that is — approaches and the face of the franchise remains contractually unextended.
Having invested 1,242 regular- and post-season games into the Flames — a full 15 seasons’ worth — Iginla has drawn a salary of $7 million since 2003-04.
4. What does the Swiss lad do for an encore?
One of last winter’s bright spots was the brief appearance of Sven Baertschi, who scored three times in five outings and injected some much-needed excitement into the lineup (and into the Saddledome).
The recent lockout allowed Baertschi, 20, to step full-time into the professional ranks at the American Hockey League level. With the Abbotsford Heat, the gung-ho winger quickly proved that he’s capable. Now the rookie joins the Flames for his crack at the big leagues.
Where will he fit in? And what, realistically, can be expected from him?
5. What impact can the newcomers have?
Dennis Wideman, whose rights were acquired for Jordan Henry and a fifth-round pick, can produce from the blue line. Last season, with the Washington Capitals, he piled up 46 points. With the 2008-09 Boston Bruins, Wideman reached the 50-point plateau.
While a look at Roman Cervenka, currently dealing with blood-clot troubles, may have to wait, fans should be able to assess fellow Czech forward Jiri Hudler right away. A free-agent signing, Hudler, 29, twice gathered 50 points on behalf of the Detroit Red Wings. Last season, he scored 25 times.
6. How does the Flames’ blue line shape up?
The team has eight defencemen on one-way deals, plus T.J. Brodie and Steve McCarthy, who’s a newbie and a former favourite of Hartley’s (in Atlanta and Zurich).
Of those 10, only seven or eight can stay in Calgary. And if Hartley opts to keep together Jay Bouwmeester and Chris Butler, and goes for a Mark Giordano-Dennis Wideman pairing, what is the configuration of the third duo? And what exactly do you need from the fifth and sixth and seventh defenders? In this day and age, is sandpaper a requisite? If so, Cory Sarich’s snarl fits the bill. Then where do Anton Babchuk, Derek Smith, Brett Carson, Brodie and McCarthy fall in?
7. Who supplies the grit up front?
For starters, there’s Tim Jackman. Only nine NHLers dropped their gloves more times last season than the hard-nosed winger. So no worries there. Curtis Glencross and Jarome Iginla can be called upon for surly behaviour, too.
But general manager Jay Feaster acknowledged — as recently as Sunday — that his club still requires an upgrade in grumpiness. Lance Bouma, a grinder-in-training, is sidelined for the rest of the season with knee issues. And Tom Kostopoulos remains unsigned.
Steve Begin, a known commodity in these parts, will be on hand to audition for a rugged role. And Akim Aliu, the Game 82 sensation, may get a peek, too.
8. Who the heck are the Flames playing? And how many times?
While specifics of the regular-season schedule remain unknown, teams will likely remain inside their respective conferences.
What does that mean for the Flames?
Last season against their Western Conference foes, the Calgarians went 31-22-11 — 15-6-3 versus the Northwest Division, 7-11-2 versus the Central Division, 9-5-6 versus the Pacific Division.
Then again, their division rivals added plenty of spice in the off-season. The Flames will now have to deal with the likes of Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, P.A. Parenteau, Nail Yakupov, Justin Schultz and Jason Garrison.
9. Who grabs centre stage for the Flames?
This is a work in progress.
Gone are veteran pivots Olli Jokinen and David Moss. Michael Cammalleri and Roman Cervenka can both play in the middle, but that’s not either one’s natural positions. Jiri Hudler is listed as a centre, but he took only seven faceoffs last season.
The rest of the candidates include Matt Stajan, Mikael Backlund, Blair Jones, Roman Horak and Ben Street, who is in the midst of his third minor-league season.
In a related matter, the team must improve its faceoff work. Winning only 46.2 per cent of their draws, the Flames were dead last in 2011-12.
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