Flames Positional Analysis: Defence
Calgarypuck.com takes a look at the blueline.
Training camp varies in intrigue from season to season.
Some camps feature numerous individual battles for spots, and a roster largely up in the air until late September. In other years the team appears to be pretty much set, with camp more an exercise in finding a team's rhythm.
Camp for the Flames in 2001 will be a meet and greet with as many as six new faces expected to be in the lineup on opening night against the Oilers.
With training camp around the corner, Calgarypuck takes a look at the Calgary Flames, position by position.
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Let's get the easy decision out of the way: Derek Morris is the #1 defenseman in Calgary. Beyond that, everything else is still up for grabs.
The good news for the Flames is that the blueline has changed very little since last season; only Bob Boughner, who will replace Tommy Albelin, is new.
The bad news is that every other defenseman will need to step up their play in order for the Flames to have a realistic shot at the playoffs this season.
The Flames have a young, physical blueline, but lack a real offensive threat. Phil Housley's role has diminished over the last few years, so the Flames will look to Derek Morris, Toni Lydman and Igor Kravchuk to supply some punch. Bob Boughner, Denis Gauthier, and Robyn Regehr will primarily be concerned with flattening their opponents, but each will also need to chip every now and then.
Spots one and two on the depth chart belong to Derek Morris and Toni Lydman. Morris, who struggled at times after a fall holdout last year, will be counted on to carry much of the load on a defense corps that features four players who are 25 or younger. The 23 year-old Morris must prove himself as a true #1 defenseman in his fifth professional season. Lydman will be expected to continue his solid two-way play this season, and will probably see as much as 25 minutes of ice time per game.
The third and fourth depth charts spots go to a pair of big hitters. Veteran Bob Boughner was signed by Calgary to provide leadership and a big physical presence. He should see a lot of icetime in penalty-killing and late-game situations this season. Denis Gauthier, affectionately referred to as 'Splatman' by the Calgary fans, will be expected to continue his hard-hitting, in your face style of hockey. Gauthier must play smarter this season, however, and not take himself out of the play in order to punish an opponent.
The fifth and six spots belong to Robyn Regehr and Igor Kravchuk. The 21-year-old Regehr needs to become more involved offensively this year and improve upon his the 4 points he put up last season. Kravchuk was a bit of a disappointment after being picked up on waivers before Christmas, but he has been a consistent performer in the past.
Phil Housley will be expected to fill-in and provide leadership on the power play and strong puck-handling skills, although he won't see near the ice time as he's seen in the past. Brad Werenka also provides another depth defenseman, but his status is unknown after suffering a severe concussion last year.
The farm won't provide much help if the Flames have injury troubles. Mike Martin, Burke Henry, and Rick Mrozik are all career minor leaguers, although Martin did spend a few days on the Flames' roster last season. Micki Dupont had an excellent rookie season, but will probably need another year or two before he sees any NHL action. Kurtis Foster and David Huntzicker will both make their professional debuts this season, and are unlikely to figure into Calgary's current plans.
Jordon Leopold, arguably the Flames #1 prospect, will remain in the NCAA this season, but will be expected to compete for a spot in 2002. Roman Rozakov and Dimitri Kokorev will remain in Europe and may or may not play North American hockey in the future.
Organizational Grade: C+. A strong, hard-nosed group of defenders, the Flames' blueline needs to improve their consistency, poise, and offensive play. If each player can take a step forward from last year's performance, the defense should be good enough to compete for a playoff spot.
(Jordon Leopold, Roman Rozakov, and Dimitri Kokorev have been excluded as they will not be playing North American professional hockey this season).
When a NHL general manager sets out to build a hockey team, often a core group of young guys are targeted as the foundation.
With the Calgary Flames four of the team's pillars can be found on the blueline.
A return to the playoffs for the Flames will depend largely on the short-term and long-term development of Derek Morris, Denis Gauthier, Robyn Regehr and Toni Lydman.
The Big Club
The team has an intriguing mix of bruising defencemen and slick puck movers, in various stages of development.
Derek Morris - A very pivotal season for the fifth year defenceman. At age 23 he's accomplished a lot, but has failed to take that next step in each of the past couple of seasons. A break out year from Derek Morris would be a boost to the team's offensive woes up front.
Robyn Regehr - Expect some big things from the huge third year blueliner. Regehr struggled to start the season last year, suffering to some extent with the sophomore jinx. By the end of the season he appeared to have found his niche again, competing hard on the Flames blueline. The young player has Scott Stevens upside, a potential that might get a boost from the presence of free agent signing Bob Boughner.
Denis Gauthier - The hard hitting defenceman played 62 games last year, the most he's managed in any season, though 70 to 75 games would likely suite the Flames. His lack of games played might suggest his hitting game is too much for his frame, but in actuality his most recent set backs have been due more to fluke than flamboyant hits. Gauthier will also benefit from the presence of Bob Boughner.
Toni Lydman - Toni Lydman will be entering his second NHL after making the Flames after coming over from Finland last October. A concussion and benchings from outgoing coach Don Hay limited the rookie to 62 games last year, but his game and ice time came on under the tutelage of Greg Gilbert. Lydman picked up nine of his 19 points in the final third of the 2000-01 season possibly suggesting bigger things for this season.
Bob Boughner - Bob Boughner represents the largest free agent splash ever made by the Calgary Flames. Boughner is a solid, take no prisoners, crease clearing defenceman that loves to lower the boom in the neutral zone. His style, experience, and work ethic will likely do a lot to help develop the Flames four young defencemen.
Igor Kravchuk - Igor Kravchuk will likely line up as the sixth defenceman this season, mainly because a clause in his contract makes him impossible to move. The talented Russian veteran is going into a contract year, so he could move his game up dramatically in the hunt for another payday.
Phil Housley - Many, including Phil Housley himself, can see the writing on the wall for Phil in Calgary. A crowded blueline, and a coaching staff that has a penchant for playing the youth should result in Phil Housley being moved, perhaps before the season begins.
Brad Werenka - Sadly Brad Werenka may never play a National Hockey League game again. The useful defensive defenceman suffered a concussion last year, an injury he has yet to be cleared from. Look for Werenka to retire at camp this fall.
It's anyone's guess as to who will line up with whom this season. If the stretch drive last season was any indication however, look for Morris and Regehr, Lydman and Gauthier, leaving Boughner to line up with Kravchuk.
On the Farm
Like many aspects of the Saint John Flames, the blueline is very much up in the air.
With Darrel Scoville moving on to Columbus, it isn't inherently clear whom the first recall from the farm would be this season.
Look for Mike Martin and possibly Derrick Walser (if he's resigned) to have the most frequent flyer miles this season, though impressive Micki Dupont could surprise should his development continue.
Two new faces on the farm this season would include Burke Henry, who was acquired in a deal for Chris St. Croix, and David Hunzicker, a free agent signing.
Organization Grade: C+ Youth keeps the grade under the "B" mark, though development could push the group in the "B" range as early as this season.
Time To Grow Up
Call it a reason or call it an excuse, but a team that has no other option but to play a sound defensive game with a youthful core of blueliners can no longer afford to have a former nemesis like "inexperience" holding it back.
Having traded away two of its key offensive components in the last few months, the Calgary Flames have only one option left to them if they hope to break their string of five consecutive years outside the playoffs.
Flames coach Greg Gilbert believes a return to the days of regularly finishing among the top seven in league defence is absolutely imperative if the Flames are to have any hope of qualifying for the post-season. That in turn puts a tremendous amount of pressure on Calgary's young core of defencemen, which management believes is the real strength of this team.
The last time the Flames made the playoffs, the veteran grouping of James Patrick, Zarley Zalapski, Steve Chiasson and Phil Housley formed their defence core and managed to finish eighth in overall league defence in 1995-96.
The next season, Patrick played only a handful of games while Chiasson, Tommy Albelin, Todd Simpson, Joel Bouchard and Cale Hulse tried to hold back the hordes, dropping the team to 15th overall and out of the post-season, the first of five consecutive early golf dates.
Since then, Calgary has gone 22nd, 22nd, 25th and finally 20th last season in team defence, being no where near the playoffs in any of those years while filling their blueline corps with a combination of wannabe's and used-to-be's.
But time should be healing a few of those wounds as the inexperience reason/excuse begins to fade into the sunset. Key components like Derek Morris and Denis Gauthier are entering their fifth seasons, supplemented by the third season of Robyn Regehr. Only Toni Lydman, older at 24 but with only one pro season to his credit, might still be expected to make some of the mistakes of yesteryear. If you believe that younger players move from a level of inexperience to mature status through the first five or so years of their career then this should be the season Morris and Gauthier in particular step forward in their respective roles.
This grouping will be supplemented by the veteran presence of Bob Boughner, Igor Kravchuk and Phil Housley as well as, although unlikely, still wobbly Brad Werenka.
It is hard to evaluate this team without admitting that, as with Nashville, the Flames defence core may be only as good as the forwards holding up opposition attackers and equally, only as good as the work of the goaltending behind them.
In 1992-93, the Flames had Al MacInnis and Gary Suter in their prime and a bunch of nobody's backing them up. But the forwards were littered with all-stars and superb role players while Mike Vernon was a rock in net. Strengths elsewhere offset deficiencies on the blueline, with MacInnis and Suter, like MacInnis and Pronger today, getting most of the ice time anyway.
In 2001-2002, there will be no stellar offensive machine offsetting any deficiencies. This team will be all about defence. Or it will die.
Aside from shaking the inexperience excuse, the biggest worry facing Flames GM Craig Button may be a lack of experienced depth in St. John. Names like Micki Dupont, Steve Montador, Mike Martin, Burke Henry and David Huntzicker have virtually no NHL games among them and are capable of no more than spot duty in Calgary. With Werenka still on the limp a run of injuries might present a significant problem for the Flames and may even prevent the immediate but still expected dispatch of Housley to another destination.
Further down the depth chart Jordan Leopold sticks out as a gem on the way up but the rest of Calgary's defence prospects look decidedly average. The best of the young players are already here.
Organizational Grade: C Defence has to be a strength in Calgary this year if the team is to get anywhere close to a playoff spot. The collective names in this group should merit an automatic grade of B but a team that hasn't cracked the top 10 defensively in five years has earned a "show me" grade of C.