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Times They Are A Changin'

BY RICK CHARLTON

May 16, 2001

What was the rush?

With a snowy April fading to a windy May, Flames fans have been lolling sleepless into the wee hours of the morning, spinning dozens of machinations and scenarios through their heads, hoping to find the one winning combination that would finally, after five non-playoff years, turn rhubarb into filet mignon.

The more cerebral hockey fanatic, however, may well have reserved those same five weeks for pensive meditation while the favoured 16 beat themselves into the frenetic four. The advantage of taking some time off has been the spectre of another dozen teams joining those already on the sidelines in pondering seasons falling far short of expectations.

With only the Pens, Blues, Av's and Devils remaining in the race for the Cup, we can begin applying certain judgements about the possibilities in front of Flames GM Craig Button for the coming summer.

Probably the most important development the Flames have seen in the five weeks since the season ended is the overwhelming number of teams - as compared to last summer - with a legitimate desire to make changes to their rosters.

The Flames should have no shortage of opportunities to shuffle their lineup and accommodate the needs of new head coach Greg Gilbert. It takes two to tango and the second party was noticeably lacking through much of last year. That shouldn't be a problem this summer judging by comments from around the league.

After all, when April closed out another disastrous campaign for Calgary, would we really have supposed that teams like Detroit and Dallas, well north of 100 points during the regular season, would be looking only weeks later to revitalize their rosters dramatically. Would we have imagined Ottawa getting stuffed so badly by Toronto that the potential exists for the Flames to exchange their legions of flat-nosed pluggers for the ample skill the Senators can provide?

In the weeks since the Flames faded to black, Chicago surprised many by naming Brian Sutter as its coach, thus presenting the Flames with three Viking brothers having the same high regard for Val Bure. That in turn is what you call a "market" should the Flames decide not to rehabilitate the recalcitrant but highly talented winger.

It will be a full year since Mike Peca entered limboland. Peca is an intriguing situation, saying he will never play in Buffalo again. Yet a combination of potential retirement of Doug Gilmour and lower salary/retirement of Dominic Hasek plus the likely expulsion of Dave Andreychuk frees up a minimum of $10 million in salary space for the Sabres. Will money talk when it comes to the Buffalo centre? If not, the one player the Flames desperately want to add to their roster also happens to be number one on the list of about 15 other teams as well, including highly public pronouncements from Ottawa, Phoenix and Atlanta.

How far does Button go to add Peca? Jarome Iginla? That would be a joke. But Bure alone wouldn't be enough. Not with the Coyotes dangling Micheal Renberg or Ottawa tossing names out names like Alexei Yashin or Daniel Alfredsson. Atlanta might be willing to forego their number one pick in the draft for Peca and one of Buffalo's excellent goaltending prospects.

When it comes to the Peca war, the Flames look distinctly unarmed when you consider the competition.

Along with the weighty matter of Eric Lindros, Jaromir Jagr is probably on the move as well.

The interesting thing about guys like Lindros and Jagr is the very high dollar cost they command means the team acquiring them will probably have to slash payroll elsewhere, which allows the desperate like Calgary to be waiting with open arms for whatever happens to fall out of the tree.

That principle also applies to the glut of unrestricted free agents about to enter the marketplace. It sounds simple to pick up Rob Blake, Joe Sakic and John LeClair but the three alone might cost some $30 million as a package. Any team attempting it - or even two-thirds - would have to drop payroll in other areas.

And while that would suggest flotsam and jetsam might be what eventually floats to the bottom of the pool that may not necessarily be the case. After all, it is far easier to eject a couple of $3 million players than six guys making $1 million.

And what of Washington, a team which lost an amazing $20 million last year? Owner Ted Leonisis wants to follow the Tom Hicks model in Dallas, sustaining losses to build a contender then benefiting from the increased popularity and value of the franchise later on. But a $20 million hit seems excessive and might suggest Washington and teams in the same boat might be looking to dump payroll at some point.

Although Colorado moved to the next round they did so in marginal fashion, suggesting they too might be making some off season moves to reacquire the kind of sandpaper they lost with the trading of Adam Deadmarsh and Aaron Miller. In any event, it is far from certain they will be able to retain Sakic, Blake and Patrick Roy let alone withstand the retirement of Ray Bourque.

Toronto isn't kidding itself with a feel good playoff run that left it with one more win and an otherwise identical result from the previous year. Changes will happen there as well.

Expect Mike Milbury to be seriously in the sweepstakes for Jagr with his number one pick and a guy like Brad Isbister to dangle in front of Mario Lemieux. Oh and did I tell you? Milbury likes Peca as well as would his potential new coach, a fellow named Ted Nolan, Peca's favourite person in the world.

The Rangers need to bite the bullet on some bad contracts and shuffle pieces to have any hope of getting better. Should the Rangers land Sakic and Jagr does that make Mark Messier a third line centre? Or does Petr Nedved get the gate instead?

Florida, a 98 point team the year before, fell badly last season and GM Bill Torrey says he needs to add the kind of gritty fellows the Flames have in abundance. Bure would seem to be a prime candidate to move to Florida unless the Panthers think his brother is a handful already.

But there are a number of teams lacking motivation to do much of anything. Boston will want to add defencemen but would they sacrifice Jason Allison to do it? Not likely. Vancouver looks to be a team that will stand pat and the Oilers would like to do very little but may be forced to deal Doug Weight. LA looks fairly set until you realize they could lose Mathieu Schneider, Luc Robitaille and Glen Murray.

With the playing field now more clearly defined it goes without saying this NHL summer should be an extraordinary one in terms of player movement, leaving Button with no shortage of rocks to overturn in search of help for his struggling team.

The cascade effect will begin with the opening of the unrestricted free agent market on July 1, still six weeks away, where teams will attempt to plug holes both major and minor, often at exorbitant cost. This in turn will lead to a paring of payrolls of other players via trades. Don't be surprised if teams are willing to accept draft picks - of which the Flames have plenty - for some pretty good players, simply to get rid of costs without adding more in return. And Calgary will be in there with both feet trying to dump people like Igor Kravchuk and Phil Housley as well.

Where do the Flames fit into all of this? Are they going to be kicking or receiving? Going offensive or picking up the scraps? I can see some great potential for deals involving three teams - as an example, Peca freed out of Buffalo by Atlanta then moved to Calgary for a package of bodies more enticing to the Thrashers than the Sabres.

Flames fans were less than impressed with the work of Button through much of last year and in fairness most GM's around the league appeared to be hog-tied as well. Button though has a great opportunity this summer to get creative and put a firm imprint on his struggling Flames in time for next season.

Sign Glen Murray, make a big charge for Martin LaPointe like everyone else, overpay to land Mike Peca, swap down in the draft? Whatever happens, Button, in the interests of self-preservation, will probably focus on one thing.

A winning team next season.

Nothing less will be tolerated.

FLORIDA'S BILL TORREY GAVE A BACK-HANDED SLAP to the efforts of Fred Brathwaite at the recently concluded World Championships in Germany. Torrey wondered aloud in The Sporting News if the Canadian outcome would have been better if Roberto Luongo hadn't been injured. Ouch.

PHIL HOUSLEY, CONSUMMATE FAMILY MAN, has moved the wife and kids to Minnesota - permanently he says. That should tell you all you need to know about the probability of him returning to the Flames next year.

I'VE EXPENDED A BIT OF INK SLAPPING AROUND THE TANDEM OF RON MACLEAN AND DON CHERRY - and deservedly so - but fair is fair and its time to hand MacLean a compliment. Kudos to MacLean a few nights ago, with the Leafs just tossed by the Devils, for pointing out Toronto actually had a crappy season and went only one game further in the playoffs than the year before. "Is this progress?" wondered Maclean. Good point. Cherry, Leaf fan to the end, wouldn't even get into the discussion.

I TOOK A LOT OF MOCKING - NOT THAT I CAN'T TAKE IT - FOR THE SUGGESTION the Flames consider the eventual outcome of the 2004 labour dispute and surmise that draft picks having value now might be better used in trading for quality players while the time is ripe. That drew a lot of guffaws and wild as the suggestion was - thrown for provoking thought than anything else - I couldn't help but notice the anonymous comments of an agent in a recent Calgary Herald article which essentially backed me up. The assertion from the agent was the NHLPA would be looking at 2004 as an opportunity to reduce the age of unrestricted free agency from 31 to somewhere in the low to mid-20's. Further, he also suggested rosters would be limited to 26 players with everyone else free to shop their services. Player development, it would seem, would go the way of the dodo. The agent believes the NHLPA would only agree to a salary cap/revenue sharing arrangement if the carrot for the players was a greater ability to shop their services in an unfettered manner.