I have a soft spot for the Calgary Flames. I fell in love with them, mostly their fans, when they were in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The sea of red that attends each home game is quite a spectacle to witness on television. I can’t imagine what it’s like to go to a game there.
But enough of the sappy yearning for western Canadian hockey. The Flames finished 2007-2008 with 94 points, good enough for the seventh seed in the Western Conference Playoffs. The run was short-lived, as San Jose deposited of the Flames in a hard-fought, seven-game opening-round series (how’s that for hyphens?!).
This season is a blank slate, but it appears making the playoffs will be a bit harder. Serious changes with serious implications have altered this team’s makeup.
Before free agency started July 1, Calgary placed two veteran defensemen on waivers. Anders Eriksson and Rhett Warrener, both nearing their mid-30s, didn’t provide the quality of play that merits the salary they are set to earn. Thus, the two are no longer in red and black.
With the dumping of those aged veterans, the Flames picked up a significant amount of young talent on their blue line. Three defensemen 24-years-old or younger were signed as well as 28-year-old Jim Vandermeer.
Ryan Wilson, a high-scoring defenseman from the OHL’s Sarnia Sting, was signed by Calgary. He put up 71 points (7 G – 64 A) in 58 games last season. Along with Wilson is former Flame, Mark Giordano. Giordano left Calgary to play in Moscow for a year. He returns boasting 89 PIM in 50 games overseas.
The other two defensemen signed are also familiar to the Flames’ organization. Vandermeer played in Calgary last year, seeing time in 75 games and registering a plus-6 rating. Finally Adam Pardy, an AHL prospect, was re-signed.
Vandermeer and Giordano are likely the two that will start in Calgary at the beginning of the year. The Flames aren’t hurting though, as there defense wasn’t bad last season. Though they finished next to last in goals allowed in the Northwest, their conference standing was ninth. There is obviously room for improvement, however there is no need to panic.
Five guys played 75 games or more on the blue line, all finishing with a positive plus/minus rating. This is outstanding. Dion Phaneuf and Adrian Aucoin continued to contribute offensively.
Phaneuf finished fourth on the team in scoring with 60 points (17 G – 43 A). Not too many clubs have the benefit of a defenseman being 20-goal scoring threat.
He’s not only a scorer though. Phaneuf can throw his body around when he wants to.
Add to that the 35 points by Aucoin (10 G – 25 A), and this team is in pretty good shape.
With nearly all of the core guys back on the blue line, as well as increased youth to add depth, this unit appears to be strong and improving.
As did the defense, offense finished the year in the middle of the Western Conference standings. The left wing was the strongest position. Alex Tanguay and Kristian Huselius were both in the top five in scoring on the team. However, that area took a huge hit when both left to play elsewhere.
Huselius is now a Columbus Blue Jacket, signing there as a free agent. Tanguay was traded to Montreal along with a fifth round draft selection in 2008. In return, the Flames received a first round selection in 2008 and a second round selection in 2009.
Being that so much talent left, there should be much concern in Calgary. This is because the highest scoring left winger acquired as a replacement is Todd Bertuzzi. Such a huge drop in efficiency will undoubtedly be evident this season.
This will be the new position of strength. Daymond Langkow (65 pts., 30+35) and Matthew Lombardi (36 pts., 14+22) will center the top two lines.
The third and fourth lines are in decent shape as well. Craig Conroy was re-signed just before free agency began, and will look to build upon a season in which he posted 34 points (12 G – 22 A). Wayne Primeau will likely man the fourth line.
Calgary also has depth with youngsters Brandon Prust and Jamie Lundmark developing in th minors.
The right wing is lead by Jerome Iginla. His 98 points (50 G – 48 A) led the team in scoring. He is back, but others are gone.
Eric Godard and Owen Nolan left in free agency. Godard is now a Pittsburgh Penguin while Nolan signed in Minnesota. Replacements for these two are, again, non-existant.
Andre Roy was signed to fill the role of enforcer after Godard exited. That’s about all the noise that was made, though. It appears several players will have to switch from their natural positions in order to fill vacancies.
Miikka Kiprusoff is the starter. He nearly won 40 games while compiling a 2.69 GAA and .906 SV%. He was one win away from three straight 40 win seasons, and has become the backbone of the Flames since joining the organization (along with Iginla).
His backup will be Curtis McElhinney, who played in only five games last season. This places a lot of responsibility on Kiprusoff. He had a capable backup in Curtis Joseph last season. McElhinney had a 2.00 GAA in his five outings, but that is not enough time to be confident in his production.
The Flames lost too much offense. There are still a few names on the market, but I doubt any one player will make the difference that Huslieus and Tanguay provided.
Defensively, the team will be stronger. Calgary has a ton of quality, reliable defensemen back. In addition to the returnees, free agent signings served the Flames well. Their fans need to hope that puck control can play a huge role next season. If not, things are going to get ugly real quick.
Don’t expect a playoff run from these guys this season. In fact, don’t expect a playoff spot either.