Two steps back, one step forward.
In a season that could only be characterized as a disaster for the ever rebuilding Calgary Flames, there was also the odd sight of a team seeming to find its legs and building some hope for next season.
The first month of this campaign saw the Flames continually scoring their way out of trouble, a team floundering defensively but still ninth overall in goalscoring and fifth overall in the NHL after a road victory in New Jersey in early November.
But the goalscoring surge which had covered up a surplus of problems early on proved itself a lie, the Flames losing ten of the next 11, shutout four times in the process, falling from near the top of the Western Conference to the bottom in stunning fashion, a submarine ride to the lowest rung of the standings in only a few weeks.
It was a hole from which they would never emerge.
This on a team where veterans such as Denis Gauthier, Bob Boughner and Craig Conroy had confessed entering the season they wanted to nip any lengthy losing streaks in the bud.
HIGHLIGHTS - Without question the revival of Jarome Iginla at mid-season, 20 goals in 21 games, surely gladdened the hearts of miffed fans and management alike. The victim of several debilitating injuries through the first 30 games, many wondering if he wasn't the one-year wonder his critics had claimed, Iginla spent much of the second half of the season proving his critics wrong.
The Flames finally came up with the cash to hire themselves a bonafide, genuine experienced and successful NHL coach in Darryl Sutter and his impact is likely to be felt long-term. Finishing his half-season tenure at 19-18-8-1, including a 10-5-3 run down the stretch when the games are the toughest, Sutter has given this team a focal point, a heart, from which it can focus and perhaps given fans some hope that the corner on this franchise may have been turned.
Some of the younger players this team desperately needs to come to the forefront began to make an impression, Jordan Leopold, Robyn Regehr, Oleg Saprykin and late in the season, Blair Betts. Since the budget figures to be squeezed in perpetuity, it will be the maturing young players who will need to give this team a leg over the post-season hump.
LOWLIGHTS - As the team sank further and further into December and even deeper into a rotten hole in the standings, the continued over-use of the word "unacceptable" by despondent Flames in post-game interviews should have been enough to convince fans to cancel ducats en masse.
"Unacceptable" was certainly a description that fit the play of Roman Turek, his .902 save percentage the second lowest among 21 NHL netminders starting 50 or more games this season. The average save percentage among those netminders was .913, a small difference you might say except it amounts to an extra 18 goals against. For Sutter, his complaint with Turek wasn't the occasional belly flop but rather the timing, the opposition frequently scoring shortly after the Flames had tied or taken a lead, the goals Turek would surrender late in a game or at the start of a game, the lack of a big save at a critical moment. To his credit, aside from one epic horrible start against Columbus, Turek was generally very good through Calgary's strong finish in March and April, a trend he will have to continue into next season.
A team record low offence of 186 goals, highlighted by a club record 10 shutouts, was characterized by long stretches of inconsistency, vast swaths of games where key players would disappear from the scoresheet when the Flames desperately needed offence. But inconsistency has always been part of Martin Gelinas game and that of Chris Drury too.
The anemic offence wasn't helped by the virtual lack of assistance from the blueline where Flames defenders scored only 19 times last year, a great contributor to Calgary finishing 30th in a 30 team league on the power play.
FIVE THINGS THAT WILL MAKE THE FLAMES A PLAYOFF TEAM NEXT YEAR
Like it or not goaltending is a critical component in today's NHL. The Flames aren't going to be outscoring the effects of below average goaltending as they did in the first month of the season. Turek has to be at least "average" among netminders starting 50 or more games for this team to have any hope of making the playoffs.
The smurfs have to go. Gutty kids like Steve Begin, Scott Nichol and Blake Sloan may have the mental mustard to show up every night but the physical gifts of destructive power, size and weight, simply aren't there. This is a small team across four lines. Adding a Scott Thornton type winger to the second line wouldn't hurt either.
Pray for the miracle of experience. A young defence core keeps adding years and years of experience and gradually the Flames should start to see the results they need from the likes of Robyn Regehr and Jordan Leopold. It goes without saying the Flames also need to see some impact from the likes of forwards Oleg Saprykin, Chuck Kobasew and Blair Betts.
The Flames need to be tougher in front of their own net. As much as I've slagged Turek in this column it would be equally fair to point out opposing forwards find it far too easy to camp en masse in locations that make his job more difficult than it should be. Brian Gionta's goal for New Jersey a month ago, with monstrous Robyn Regehr hovering right over the diminutive Devils forward to little effect, was a microcosm of the problems still plaguing Calgary's defence.
The Sutter Factor - He's been successful everywhere he has gone and has stayed in those places far longer than the average two years of most coaches, the latter indicating a mentor able to keep the attention of his charges through smarts, fairness and results. In terms of impact, he could be turn out to be the best thing to happen to this franchise since 1989.