Entering the season, Calgary Flames fans had perhaps their highest expectations in almost a decade as for the first time, the club was supposed to realistically challenge for a playoff spot in the Western Conference. Unfortunately, the season fell apart before it ever really began and as a result the team was so far out of the race that they weren't even playing catch-up when Darryl Sutter was hired on as head coach in late December.
The season went wrong because everyone – from the players right down to the coaching staff and management – thought that this team was better than it was. You could include the fans in that list as well. Perhaps the worst thing was a solid start that saw the team at 5-3-3-2 out of the gate. Contrary to the Flames' press clippings they did not have a good month of October and were lucky to win several of their games in the early going.
The exact point where the season went wrong was a game where they earned a point. It was a 1-0 loss to the New York Rangers. Calgary didn't even bother to show up for this game and sleepwalked through it against a lackadaisical Rangers squad. When New York won the game a minute into the overtime period, the Flames players had smiles on their faces. "I just think in overtime we're playing like we're happy with the point," said head coach Greg Gilbert at the time.
From there, the season was toast. That loss was the first of seven in a row, and 11 in 12 games. It ultimately cost Gilbert his job and, at 6-13-3-3 the rest of the season was an uphill battle. To add to the embarrassment, the Flames only scored three goals throughout the seven-game losing streak.
It's tempting to call Jarome Iginla's emergence in the second half of the season a highlight but the reality is that it was too little, too late. If he can recover this summer from his nagging injuries then pick up where he left off next October I would be more likely to consider his play at the end of this season a highlight.
One highlight has been the improvement in several Flames prospects throughout the course of the season. Granted, none of Jordan Leopold, Oleg Saprykin and Chuck Kobasew stepped in and made an impact this season but all of them showed signs of a positive outlook for the future.
Leopold started off on fire in the pre-season but after suffering an injury in the final exhibition game he struggled to adjust to the tempo of the NHL. He regained his confidence after a short but successful stint in Saint John and came back to Calgary a much better player. He'll need to continue improving next season but is definitely on the right track.
Kobasew finished with 21 goals in 46 games in the AHL, which is incredibly impressive. At that pace, he would have reached 37 goals over a full 80-game schedule. The top two leading scorers in the AHL were former Flames farmhands Eric Healey (41 goals) and Jason Botterill (36 goals) to give an idea of where Kobasew stands. Fans stress patience in the development of Flames prospect Matthew Lombardi, who had 25 goals with the Baby Flames, but few realize that Kobasew is actually younger than Lombardi. Kobasew is going to break out as a bona fide impact NHLer sooner rather than later.
Other highlights included the play of Stephane Yelle, the return of Dave Lowry and the re-acquisition of Dean McAmmond despite the fact he couldn't play the rest of the season.
Certainly November ranks as one of the lowlights for not only this season but also throughout franchise history. In today's NHL there is very little room for error and any sort of prolonged stretch of ineptitude almost certainly will do in a club's season. If the Oilers had won their final game of the season, it would have taken the Flames at least 94 points to make the playoffs and as it stood, the team's 75-point output was 17 points short of the post-season.
In that November stretch the Flames were 1-10-0-1. Considering the team needed 92 points to make the playoffs, they needed 89 points in the other 70 games or a .636 winning percentage. The Northwest Division Champion Colorado Avalanche only played to a .634 clip to put that into perspective.
Other lowlights included being shut out a franchise record ten times. I drove seven hours last week to see the Flames play the Wild in Minneapolis and all I was hoping for was to see Calgary score one goal. Of course, I didn't get my wish and instead saw history in the making.
Five things that will make the Flames a playoff team next year
To many it seems like the Flames are as far away from the playoffs as they have been since the seven-year stretch started way back in 1997. But every new season comes with renewed hope, and rightfully so. Last year Tampa Bay and Anaheim both had 69 points, Minnesota had 73 and the year before the Islanders made the playoffs they had 52 points. Every year several teams rise out of the ashes to make it into the playoffs but in order for Calgary to do so, they need to accomplish five objectives:
Have a young player step up –
Just once, it would be nice for the Flames to have a rookie step into their lineup and be a contributor to the club's top two lines. Teams around the league consistently have a player come up through their system and make an impact every year: St. Louis (Eric Boguniecki), Florida (Olli Jokinen), Detroit (Henrik Zetterberg) and Chicago (Tyler Arnason) to name a few. The Flames haven't had such a thing since Derek Morris in 1997-98. The pressure is on Chuck Kobasew to produce next season. It would also be a nice bonus if Eric Nystrom could step in and make an impact on the third line.
– Say what you will about the Flames being a one line, or one player team but in order for them to be successful they need that one player dominating the game. When Iginla is playing hurt this team has no chance over the long haul, period. The almost comical lack of offence earlier this season confirmed it – no Iginla equals no playoff hope. When Iginla's on his game, however, the Flames are a tough team to beat. He creates room for everybody which results in inflated point totals for both his linemates (McAmmond, Conroy, Lowry) as well as other lines (Gelinas, Drury).
Find more offensive balance
– If Iginla can score 50 goals, the rest of the lineup needs to take care of itself. St. Louis made the playoffs despite having a defensive record very similar to Calgary's. The reason why they did is because they have six 20-goal scorers (Demitra, Tkachuk, Mellanby, Stillman, Boguniecki and Drake) and a defenceman who netted 68 points. Calgary by comparison had only four players with more points than St. Louis' 12th-ranked point-getter (Martin Ruckinsky, 30pts). On the top end, the Flames do have three 20-goal scorers in Conroy, Drury and Gelinas along with Iginla's 35 goals. McAmmond will need to step up and score 20 goals again and as mentioned already Kobasew will need to score 20 with support players like Saprykin, Yelle and Lowry getting 10 to 15.
More offence from the defence
– Continuing on the theme of offence, the Flames need more than 25 points from their top offensive defenceman. Derek Morris wasn't exactly the answer himself, as he only had 34 points in his final season as a Flame. Toni Lydman is a solid blueliner but he has likely topped out as a 30-point defenceman. What the Flames need to do this summer is take a risk on a player like Oleg Tverdovsky who at age 27 is still young and capable of bouncing back from a pair of disappointing seasons. With a glut of offensive defencemen in New Jersey plus a rash of injuries throughout the season he got lost on the Devils. However, he wouldn't cost much in the way of assets to acquire. Certainly, his $3.6 million salary is a concern but if he stepped in and contributed to the team's overall success it wouldn't be a problem. In 2001-02, Mike Vernon, Igor Kravchuk and Rob Niedermayer made a combined $7.2 million. Tverdovsky could certainly contribute more than those three and the Flames desperately need to bridge the gap until Leopold is ready.
– Very simply, Roman Turek is capable of having a better season than he had in 2002-03. Statistically it was his worst season since joining the league in 1996. In 1999-2000 with St. Louis, Turek had a 1.95 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage. Clearly, if he can remain focused he's capable of achieving those numbers again. At $4-million-plus in salary, Turek is the man and it is solely up to him to solidify the goaltending position. As a back up, Jamie McLennan didn't do his job, either. At the start of the season people laughed and joked how it wouldn't be too hard for McLennan to top Vernon's two wins the previous year. Well, McLennan won on back-to-back nights in early November and didn't win again the rest of the way. Of course, the Flames averaged only 1.65 goals per game for him.