The Flames proved to their fans, and themselves, that it's possible to be successful in the NHL without a large payroll and without four lines full of talent. Much of the credit for this goes to Daryl Sutter, who both stabilized the Flames' coaching position and brought in the key players (at the right price) that allowed the Flames to advance in the playoffs.
Obviously, the Flames received excellent individual efforts all season long from the likes of Kiprusoff & Iginla, but it was the countless number of unexpected heroes that made the Flames season. Who can forget Matthew Lombardi's scoring touch in the Fall? Shean Donovan's breakout in the Winter? Martin Gelinas' late-game heroics in the Spring? Jamie McLennan and Roman Turek playing exceptionally well in goal when called upon.
2003-04 should be remembered as the season the that the Calgary Flames played like a team, rather than a collection of individuals. And the results speak for themselves.
What went wrong
It's hard to find fault in a team that came within one goal of winning the Stanley Cup. However, let's not forget about the recent plight of Cup finalists in the NHL, where only one team in the last eight seasons had made it to the 2nd round in the season following their cup run. There are three main areas of concern for the Flames heading into 2004-05:
Special Teams – It may have cost the team a Stanley Cup… the Flames penalty kill and power play were very average throughout the season and playoffs. Perhaps the most obvious weakness was on the point in power play situations. Toni Lydman & Jordon Leopold are decent young defensemen, but simply aren't capable of quarterbacking a winning power play. This is one area where the Flames may have to seek outside help in the off-season.
Roster Depth – With the exception of having to dress Brennen Evans for two games, the Flames avoided any major injury crises during the playoff run. But there's still an important message – the Flames minor league cupboards are bare, and need to be restocked not only with prospects, but with serviceable journeymen as well. It's a small thing, but if overlooked, it can have chaotic results.
Leadership – While I think Jarome Iginla proved himself to be a very worthy NHL captain, I also think the Flames could use an additional experienced leader in the dressing room, the kind that draws instant respect because of his accomplishments. Dave Lowry will likely be gone; why not replace him with a veteran who has a Stanley Cup ring, perhaps even a former Calgary great. No… I'm not talking about Theo Fleury, but rather about Joe Nieuwendyk, who won't resign with the Leafs because he wants to play for a cup contender. Honestly, is there an free-agent that would be a better fit for the Flames? Something to think about…
Next Season – Who Stays/Goes
There's no need for a major roster shakeup, but a few line-up changes are good for every team. Here's how I classify the current roster in terms of importance for next season.
Untouchables:Iginla, Leopold, Regehr, Kiprusoff. These four young players are the heart & soul of the franchise. However, both Iginla & Kiprusoff are in need of new contracts, something, which the Flames will need to provide. I'd suggest a long-term deal in the $7 to $8 million per season range for Iginla and in the $3 to $3.5 million per season range for Kiprusoff. Both are costly deals, but well worth with.
Core Players:Conroy, Gelinas, Donovan, Lombardi, Saprykin, Reinprecht, Nilson, Lydman, Warrener, Ference, Yelle. Few surprises here, as all of these players (except Reinprecht) played a crucial role in the playoff run. However, I would like to emphasize the importance of keeping Craig Conroy, who is an unrestricted free agent in two weeks. No one has played a bigger part in Jarome Iginla's success, and Conroy is the epitome of a Daryl Sutter forward. The Flames are a weaker team without him.
Replaceable:McAmmond, Simon, Clark, Gauthier, Oliwa, Montador, Commodore, Turek. There's always room for improvement, and players from this group may have to be sacrificed for the betterment of the team. Denis Gauthier should have some value on the trade market and he's clearly the odd-man out if the Flames want to open a roster spot for a younger defensemen or perhaps a power play quarterback.
Gone:Nieminen, Lowry. I'll likely take some heat for this, but Ville Nieminen's discipline is a major cause for concern. Good teams need agitators, but good agitators know when to quit. Nieminen has proven otherwise. I think his role should be filled by someone that won't hurt the team as much.