The 2005-06 season essentially kicks off today in 30 NHL centers with the first round of cuts done and veterans hitting the ice for the first time in NHL silks since the Flames and Lightening finished things up in Tampa Bay roughly 16 months ago.
And never, I mean it … never has there been more change for the idle hockey fan to digest with an impending season around the corner.
For kicks, Calgarypuck.com takes a look at how the 2005-06 Calgary Flames look when compared to the team that took to the ice for training camp almost exactly 24 months ago (have a look at the Camp Guide from 2003).
Then and Now
A quick gaze at the 2003-04 roster prior to the exhibition season makes the fact that this organization finished up as the 2nd best team standing almost surreal. Missing are all the acquisitions picked up during the season, including Miikka Kiprusoff, Chris Simon, Marcus Nilson, and Ville Nieminen.
The big off season signings included the likes of Jesse Wallin and Josh Green, and the club's most interesting battle was Jamie McLennan holding on to his backup job against goaltending giant Dany Sabourin.
The port side going into the season included the resurrected Dean McAmmond, the speedy Martin Gelinas, an enforcer in Kzys Oliwa and an enigmatic young winger in Oleg Saprykin.
Nobody in that group could be counted on to score 20 goals, and only Martin Gelinas could be counted on for a complete consistent season (and did he ever deliver as everyone found out).
Further down the depth chart one could find Dave Lowry trying to get untracked and finish his last season up injury free.
Fast forward to today and you'll find a guy with 8 straight 20 goal seasons in Tony Amonte at the top of the pile, followed by a menacing Chris Simon, a steady jack of all trades in Marcus Nilson and then another menacing figure in Jason Wiemer. A huge step forward.
If rookie Eric Nystrom makes the team, Jason Wiemer would be moved over to the center spot giving the team more depth up the middle.
2003-04 Grade: C+
2004-05 Grade: B
The club's pivot crew featured the likeable Craig Conroy, the soon to be injured all season Steve Reinprecht, the ever steady Stephane Yelle and Blair Betts kicking off his NHL career as the team's fourth center.
By the end of camp Matthew Lombardi had stepped in to pick up the slack for the shoulder mangled Reinprecht as a big camp surprise.
If Reinprecht was healthy all season this group would have been a pretty fair collection of centers – a group missing that clear cut number one guy, but blessed with some pretty versatile and steady contributors.
The September 2005 group has upgraded it's top center – Daymond Langkow taking over for the departed Craig Conroy, but still faces some of the same concerns. The club is still without an obvious number one pivot and the 2nd guy on the list is still the aforementioned Steve Reinprecht and his injury problems.
This time around Reinprecht's replacement, Lombardi, has his own injury demons to slay, leaving only Stephane Yelle and Langkow as money in the bank going forward.
The fourth line options include Byron Ritchie, a former linemate of Marcus Nilson in Florida, and possibly Jason Wiemer.
Overall, a step forward but still a potential concern.
2003-04 Grade: C+
2004-05 Grade: B-
The team's right side will show very little change compared to 24 months ago, with three of the expected four right wingers returning to duty; Jarome Iginla, Shean Donovan and Chuck Kobasew.
The big swap in this position is Chris Clark for Darren McCarty, a move that may do little to the offensive side of the game but should benefit greatly in terms of experience, grit and physical play.
The key to the right side isn't so much in changes to the names on the jersey but changes to the players inside them. Will Donovan prove his 2003/04 season wasn't a fluke, but a step forward to a productive NHL career in Calgary? Will Chuck Kobasew combine the ingredients of a 2004 Cup run with a productive AHL season in Lowell to make the grade offensively at the NHL level?
To affirmative answers and the team is deep on the right side. Two negatives and they could be a sore spot.
2003-04 Grade: C
2004-05 Grade: C+
The fact that the 2005-06 blueline is an improvement of the 2003-04 edition really says something given the excitement that edition created two years ago.
Rhett Warrener was added to a group that included a good blend of upside and realized potential, and was a real strength for the Flames.
The core included Toni Lydman, Robyn Regehr, Warrener, Jordan Leopold, Denis Gauthier, Andrew Ference, and the two 'dores to fill out the depth.
By the end of the season Robyn Regehr would go on to realize a lot of his potential in anchoring the team's defence with Jordan Leopold, and Andrew Ference would move up the depth chart supplanting Denis Gauthier as the club's #5 guy.
This camp you have the strength of that group returned in Regehr, Leopold, and Warrener, the addition of Roman Hamrlik and the promise supplied by the strides taken by Ference in the 2004 playoffs, plus the unbridled potential of a Dion Phaneuf.
Quite simply the engine that should drive the Flames.
2003-04 Grade: B+
2004-05 Grade: A
Of all the positions, goaltending is the most interesting to compare between the two additions.
A combination of Miikka Kiprusoff and anybody beats the Roman Turek / Jamie McLennan duo of 24 months ago yet comes up short to the season ending tandem of Kiprusoff and Turek.
Can Miikka Kiprusoff have another season similar to his outstanding 2003/04 campaign? If he comes up well short the Flames could be in some deep stuff.
And even if he does, can either Phillipe Sauve or Brent Krahn fill in and be a suitable NHL level backup for 15 to 25 games through the season?
Like before, the team needs a very sharp yes to these burning questions in order to make the playoffs, and then go on to further post season exploits.
2003-04 Grade: C
2004-05 Grade: B
SUMMING IT UP
At the end of the day numbers don't lie and these numbers show the Flames improve in all five positions heading into the new season.
Hockey starved fans that haven't seen their club play in over a year will see more depth, more talent and with it more expectations come October 5th, a fact that will be a unique and refreshing change in Calgary.
No team is bullet proof, however, and this team does have weaknesses that could be exploited depending on the performance of four or five individuals. Yet there isn't a team in this parity driven NHL that can say much different making the locals a 2006 cup contender no matter how you slice it, joining a list of six or seven teams from both conferences.
No guarantees, no promises, but then when have any teams ever been able to offer those.
So buckle your seat belts, a good ride is about to begin.