Calgarypuck Season Wrap Up
Gravity Check!

D'Arcy McGrath
June 16th, 2004

Gravity check!

Surely something must be amiss with old Newton's Law when we at run smack dab into a scheduling problem with the end of season wrap up and the Entry Draft.

Where's that 60-day gap between events in Calgary Flames hockey that we've grown to depend on?

Hopefully ... a thing of the past.

As I say nothing appears to be quite in focus in Calgary Flame land these days. Gone is the record for longest serving playoff bystander. So too is the ugly run of falling flat on one's collective face even when they do make the playoffs.

In their place is a newly minted franchise, one that may lack the recent glory of a Stanley Cup to their credit, but also one that has rid itself of the woeful loser tag, ready to take that next positive step into the unknown.

A whole new chapter in Calgary.

What went right / What went wrong

A runner up finish in the Stanley Cup Final ... that should mean everything, and I mean everything must have gone the Calgary Flames way this season, right?

Well not exactly on closer inspection, in fact ... despite the great finish to the 2003-04 season nothing went particularly smooth this past campaign.

This season the script got off to a very dramatic start.

  • Roman Turek hurt early in the season - the team having to get by with an exhausted backup goalie in Jamie McLennan, a stopper that didn't stop a thing in training camp.
  • A frosty start from superstar Jarome Iginla, apparently chafing at the weight of a huge contract to the tune of a 26 goal pace through the first third of the season.
  • A training camp shoulder injury to defacto new number one center Steve Reinprecht.
  • The failure of any one talented rookie to seize the day and chip in offensively in October.
It was a horror novel being written to the calendar, a season that couldn't possibly result in a feel good story.

Yet that was the way of the 2004 Calgary Flames. The more things went wrong, the more things ended up right.

The infirmary wasn't the M.A.S.H. Unit of the Los Angeles Kings, at least in body count, but the Flames did suffer through a surreal run of the injury bug - a bout that lasted all season.

They lost their staring goalie, acquired a new one in Miikka Kiprusoff and then lost him too. Heck even their backup, McLennan, was playing hurt.

Up front the team went through a stretch where every one of their four centers to start the season; Craig Conroy, Stephane Yelle, Steve Reinprecht and Blair Betts were on the sidelines, leaving the likes of Dean McAmmond and rookie Matthew Lombardi to pick up the pieces.

Guess what? They did.

In the end that was the moral to the Calgary Flames season. No excuses, no letting up ... soldier on regardless of the circumstances.

When the dust settled on a regular season campaign, Darryl Sutter's first full season in Calgary, it was the commitment to defence that made the difference, something many of us pointed to as their way out of the wilderness.

Better coverage in their own zone lead to better goaltending which lead to great confidence in said goaltending which lead to better play on the ice by the full squad. Through the guidance of Sutter's system, the Flames began to play as one, making up for the injuries and their general lack of offensive talent.

They essentially played playoff hockey from October or maybe early November through to June.

To summarize ...

The Good

  • A return to defence first winning hockey
  • A huge boon in team chemistry - a close knit group that went to war together
  • A complete remake on the Flames image league wide
  • One of the best five on five clubs in hockey
  • Franchise goalie falling into their laps in November
  • Emergence of young defenders Jordan Leopold and Robyn Regehr
  • Improved penalty killing
  • Fan base back on side
The Bad

  • Offence improved, but still too much onus on Jarome Iginla
  • A brutal powerplay that puts too much pressure on even strength play
  • Paper thin depth exposed by a season long run of injuries
  • Many key players up for contract negotiation heading in to labour uncertainty.
Staying & Going

With any off-season comes change, be it a NHL weak sister looking to re-tool, or a Cup wealthy dynasty tinkering with the periphery.

Most of the recent off-seasons in Calgary have come with a smile towards change; why get all misty about ripping up a team that didn't accomplish a thing through the regular season?

This summer will be different however. Different for the players that would like nothing better than to stay together and give it another shot, and different for the fans that grew an attachment to each and every player wearing the crest.

In fact, given the nature of this summer and upcoming CBA negotiation, change may be a boisterous new visitor in every hockey city over the next three to six months.

Like every team, the Flames have a mix of restricted and unrestricted free agents to make decisions on. Some will be re-signed, others won't and so will begin the making of the next edition of the club.

Dave Lowry will surely retire.

Craig Conroy, Dean McAmmond, Chris Simon and Kzys Oliwa will all make a decision if presented with an offer to stay.

It says here that half of that foursome will be gone, with the likely players to remain being Oliwa and Simon.

With Craig Conroy spouting names like Sergei Fedorov and Dean McAmmond becoming a risk with his health they will likely both move on to new NHL pastures.

The play of Steve Montador (and to a much lesser extent Mike Commodore) and the inevitable emergence of number one pick Dion Phaneuf should mean a veteran blueliner will soon be shown the door. Given the team's plan to build around Jordan Leopold and Robyn Regehr, and the fact that the club's pulse can be found in Rhett Warrener, a betting man lands on Denis Gauthier and Toni Lydman as the likely parts to jettison.

My guess? Denis Gauthier has played his last game in a Calgary uniform.

Why? His style of play is more closely linked with Montador and a dominant facet of Phaneuf's game, plus his contract is up this summer. Look for the Flames to deal him as soon as the draft, next weekend.

In goal, Darryl Sutter would love to find a new home for Roman Turek, but with the big goaltender's even bigger ticket that simply won't be possible in the next few months. If a season is lost due to the CBA however, look for Sutter to buy out the million-dollar option on Turek's final year and go a new route in net.

The five year Robyn Regehr contract of last summer set the tempo for what Sutter likely wants to get done this summer. With Jarome Iginla, Miikka Kiprusoff and Jordan Leopold all up for renewal, the general manager will be looking to add more of his core pieces to the long-term vista and avoid going to the well each off season.

Should that be accomplished and a new sanity in NHL finances be ushered in, perhaps the Flames could be on the hunt for a talented veteran wandering listlessly on the outside of the big money musical chairs game looking for a new home. Names like Mark Recchi and Brendan Shanahan may become an attractive and affordable addition to a young team such as the Flames.

Finally, the coaching reigns may see a new set of hands if the league opens for business this fall. Will Darryl Sutter move upstairs to focus on the GM side of his job and turn the team over to one of Jim Playfair or Rich Preston? Sutter wanted to instill a new image in Calgary, something that he was wildly successful at this season with the Cup birth. If they had missed the playoffs he would have been behind the bench another season, but now that the team is back on track I would guess he's ready to pass the torch.

The Anaheim Syndrome

The only downside of unexpected success ... proving it wasn't a fluke.

The Calgary Flames, whenever the NHL hits the ice again, will be out to prove that they are not the 2002 Carolina Hurricanes or the 2003 Anaheim Mighty Ducks - two teams with one ride to the final and then little else their next season.

Lets face it, the chances of back to back cup appearances aren't all that sound, but the Flames had better find a way to make the playoffs again or they'll be lumped in with that moribund crowd.

The big issue next season will be work ethic, and by that I see a two-headed snake.

One, the Flames will have to match their own work ethic and not sit on their laurels. They made it through last season by a dogged determination rarely seen in pro sports. If that dries up, so too will they.

Two, opposition work ethic. The Flames will no longer catch teams by surprise by playing the "poor little team without talent" role in regular season contests. It might be more difficult to out work the opposition on a nightly basis, which as a result returns the outcome to skill, a battle they would often lose.

Therefore, the team simply needs to see a boost in on ice talent in order to avoid the second season Pratt fall.

Said talent can come from within, be it strides made by younger players that have learned on the job through the playoffs, or through additions to the roster via free agency or player transactions.

Can Chuck Kobasew translate his rugged energy line exploits into some solid upper roster contributions? Will the cup final Oleg Saprykin make a season long appearance in Calgary silks? Can Matthew Lombardi get back on track after a concussion and chip in with regular contributions?

No matter how the improvement comes, the Calgary Flames simply have to get better. Don't let the romp to the Cup Final fool you, the Flames are a work in progress in the early stages of Sutter's master plan of likely five years. They can't stagnate. The key is to learn from the playoff success and use it to accelerate the plan. It isn't a call to abandon the plan and call the team arrived.

Looking Forward

Pride and passion are back in Calgary.

When the Flames came to Calgary in 1980 they had a captive market, they could do no wrong - or so they thought.

A botched Saddledome renovation, too many losing seasons, and chaos in the board room leading to rebuild after rebuild stretched the line on fan apathy.

The Flames found that second chance, and it appears they haven't forgotten the lessons learned through the tough times.

With some freshly minted brownie points locked in their satchel the Flames are now poised to move forward for the first time in over a decade.

Calgary fans can breath easy, their nightmare is over.

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