Entering the season, Calgary Flames fans had perhaps their highest expectations in almost a decade as for the first time, the
Last season when calgarypuck.com did their season wrap-up, the writers were reflecting on a season that was all but done by the middle of December—the result of a lengthy losing streak in November. Certainly, in the second half the team picked up its play after new head coach Darryl Sutter came on board but Flames fans had seen that same song and dance before, where the team would improve its play just enough in the second half before reverting back to their old ways the following season.
There was the usual reason for optimism at the end of last season but even so, very few fans thought that they would see their team one goal away from a Stanley Cup this season. Considering it was only the first season of Darryl Sutter's five-year plan what does he plan on doing for an encore?
Where the season went right
A lot certainly went right for the Flames this year. The feeling among many experts at the start of the season was, "If Turek plays well, Iginla returns to 2001-02 form, several key rookies make a big step up and the team stays healthy then Calgary will probably still miss the playoffs but they might come close."
The reality was the team was never 100% healthy at any point in the season and especially throughout the playoffs. Up until the final month of the season their defence core was healthy, though, which helped the team avoid any sort of lengthy losing streak. Darryl Sutter remarked before the Stanley Cup Finals that simply making the playoffs was the hardest thing this team had experienced to that point and he's correct when you consider (a) the team had several lengthy winning stretches, particularly in the key month of December when most fast starters begin to taper off; (b) there were very few losing streaks as the team always found a way to bounce back after a tough defeat; (c) the Flames finished with 94 points and still didn't clinch a playoff berth until Game 80.
So, in two words, what went right in 2003-04? Depth and resiliency. When Jarome Iginla and Craig Conroy had slow starts, it didn't put Calgary's season in the tank right off the start. Other players such as Shean Donovan and Martin Gelinas stepped up their play to keep the team competitive. Similarly, when the team saw a number of players go down to injury—in particular projected starting netminder Roman Turek after the first week of the season—it didn't affect their overall performance. Another thing that went right was the General Manager Sutter making the right acquisition at the right time. Nilson, Simon, Nieminen and of course Kiprusoff all played key roles through the season and down the stretch.
With no Stanley Cup to hold above their heads, obviously there does leave some room for improvement. This is still a team that will have to fight tooth and nail to get into the playoffs. A more legitimate second-line scoring threat—possibly coming from within as the likes of Lombardi, Saprykin and Kobasew improve—would be a good start.
Sutter has said it himself, not everyone who was a part of this Cup run will be back next season. That's a given when you consider the regular roster changes that occur in professional sports this day and age coupled with the impending work stoppage and the fallout that may result from it.
Like most teams, the Flames have a number of key free agents this summer. Of the restricted variety: Iginla, Kiprusoff, Leopold, Nilson and Gauthier. Unrestricted free agents include Conroy, McAmmond, Simon, Oliwa and Lowry.
With possibly nine NHL-ready defencemen next season in Regehr, Leopold, Lydman, Ference, Gauthier, Warrener, Commodore, Montador and Phaneuf at least one and possibly two will have to go. Leopold and Gauthier are the obvious candidates as they could fetch the most on the open trade market but don't discount the possibility of Ference, Montador or Commodore being on the block considering their heightened value.
Of the unrestricted free agents, Lowry will likely retire. Oliwa and Simon are the likeliest possibilities to return with Conroy and McAmmond on the outside looking in.
Five things that will make the help the Flames avoid the Anaheim syndrome:
What is it that separates the Carolinas, Washingtons, Anaheims and Buffalos from teams that had legitimate breakthrough years like New Jersey, Colorado, Dallas and Ottawa? There's no set formula for maintaining a winning team but here's five things that would help the Flames continue building on this season's success.
Repeat performance from Kiprusoff –
Kiprusoff's numbers (24-10-4, 1.70 GAA, .933 PCT) are all the more amazing when you consider that the other three goaltenders, behind the same team, were collectively five games below .500. If Kiprusoff could play 60 games next season with the same winning percentage (.684) and his back-up manages to play .500 the Flames would finish the season with over 100 points.
Hold on to key players
– With Iginla's contract up, it's important that Calgary can sign their captain at a reasonable rate
Cash in when value is high
– The value of some players on the Flames roster, such as Commodore, Montador and maybe even someone like Chris Clark will never be higher than it is right now. Particularly in the case of Commodore and Montador the Flames have a glut of defencemen and if one of them is not dealt they will risk losing a player in the waiver draft. This could be a good opportunity for Calgary to improve itself now or in the future.
More from the youngsters
– At some point in the near future, perhaps next season, Dion Phaneuf will be called upon to play a key role on the Flames' blueline. Saprykin and Kobasew played well in the playoffs but need to take more of an offensive role next season. They need more than 12 goals from Saprykin, much more than six goals (and a team-worst -12) from Chuck Kobasew and a similar 16-goal performance from Matt Lombardi.
The return of Sutter
– It would be a difficult task for any coach to step in and try to pick up where Sutter left off this past spring. In fact, it will be hard enough for Sutter to do it himself.