October 28th, 2002


Charlton's NHL

Flames, Iginla Getting By, But for How Long?

by Rick Charlton

AP Photo

Iggy Where Are You?: Last season's scoring star still fighting to find his game.

There's a marginal difference between winning and losing these days and somehow, someway, the Calgary Flames have managed to find a way to straddle the line.

Calgary is one goal better than they were during their epic swoon at mid-season last year, but that one goal improvement on the offensive side of the equation has turned what might have been a fatal start to this season into at least a fighting chance at redemption.

Collecting points in six of their last seven games - but only two victories - is clouding the fact the Flames are yet again posting one of the more horrid defensive records in the NHL, the same porous numbers they allowed during their epic two and a half month diversion as the worst team in the league at mid-season last year.

As a consequence, a team that probably doesn't deserve it is still miraculously in a playoff spot thanks to additions like Chris Drury, Stephane Yelle and Martin Gelinas who have collectively helped give Calgary that one extra goal it's needed to turn certain defeat into . . . . . . well, at least a sister kisser for effort.

It might also be considered good news that Calgary has also been collecting points without its superstar, Jarome Iginla, playing a key role.

Or maybe that's the bad news.

The best that can be said of Iginla, aside from his stirring battle with Bill Guerin a few nights ago is that he's getting his points. But few would characterize his overall game as anything close to the domination we saw in the pre-season where he seemed to be allaying any fears he might be taking a step back this year. His play along the boards, the quickness of his shot, the overall speed of his game seemed to have advanced upwards a notch if nothing else.

But something funny happened when the real games started.

Iginla's speed game has been stuck in neutral and it should strike one as no coincidence that the centre he enjoyed so much success with seems to be playing better without him in recent games.

Both head coach Greg Gilbert and Iginla last year credited Craig Conroy for the advancement of Iginla's game but most observers considered that simply polite talk, that it was instead Conroy who had found the sugar train to career highs in goals and points with an MVP finalist on his right side.

Well, some revisionist thinking might be in order as Conroy clearly benefits from having skill and speed on his wing and its the speed part that Iginla has lacked this year, the quickness in his game having gone AWOL.

Meanwhile, Conroy, Gelinas and Drury - the de facto first line and all with speed to burn - have been flourishing in the last few games.

Iginla in turn has been saddled with two of the three worst plus/minus characters from last season, Rob Niedermayer and Marc Savard.

We'll give Savard credit this year for at least acknowledging that the defensive side of his game needed to improve vastly if he were to continue to receive reasonable quantities of ice time on a Gilbert-coached team. But there are still games where he struggles with that facet of the game even though his offensive potential is vast.

Niedermayer was re-qualified this summer because Savard's continued status was unknown and the Derek Morris trade was still a wishful hope in the mind of GM Craig Button. As stated in this column before, as soon as the Drury deal went down Niedermayer's days in Calgary became numbered for money reasons if nothing else, certainly by next summer when an Iginla raise kicks in and the Flames have to re-up Drury as well.

In the meantime, Niedermayer, 6'2" 210 lbs, is one of the few guys with size Gilbert can insert on the top two lines which, aside from Iginla, is a rather smallish bunch.

Neither Niedermayer nor Savard seem likely as the final solutions on the second or first line, both in the muscle department or that of a second line centre.

As we wind our way through this season it may become inevitable that Button and Gilbert will want to move Drury to the middle of a second scoring line, switch Iginla back up to the first line and find a scoring winger with muscle to replace Niedermayer on the left side. They need to trade for some top six size who can play with some skill and determination.

And throw in a veteran defenceman while you're at it.

Yes, this remains a work in progress, the lateness of the Derek Morris trade and the early injury of Jordan Leopold leaving chemistry issues still to work out.

On the plus side, Yelle in particular seems to have found a home between a resurgent Chris Clark and Jamie Wright, creating a credible third line the likes of which the Flames haven't had in a number of years, a depth which could be a very important factor as the hurry-up NHL grinds its way through 82 games.

It was also easy to predict as early as mid-summer the Flames would probably be fortunate to escape the first thirteen games of the year barely scratching .500 given the quality of opponents they would have to face.

Every game in the NHL is a tough one these days but Calgary will have opened against 10 teams which played .500 or better last year plus a vastly improved Dallas squad, the surprise of the league in Minnesota and only Buffalo, their next opponent, classified as remotely "easy."

Calgary is indeed fortunate all the teams it needs to see floundering out of the gate are doing just that, Minnesota being the only exception among the squads currently ahead of the Flames in the standings.

In spite of those edgy scraps of good news, the processes that go into winning which coach's persistently harp on are clearly in trouble in Calgary which is why we shouldn't paint this start as anything more than it really is - a continuation of many of the same problems that plagued this team for much of last season.

The Flames are hovering near the bottom of the league in the number of power plays offered to opponents, a vast improvement over previous seasons when they were among the league leaders in minutes played short-handed. In spite of that advantage, however, Calgary's penalty killing percentage continues to lounge in the bottom third of the NHL in spite of the addition of specialists like Yelle, Blake Sloan and Mattias Johansson.

And while the team is managing to find that one extra goal it didn't have last year to dredge points out of thin air, the power play has not been the source of significant help, again in the bottom third of the NHL percentage wise.

And when those two areas of your game are in the bottom third of the league, along with a goals against average ranked 24th, it won't be long before that's where you'll find yourself in the standings as well.

Sooner or later, giving up three and four goals per game will catch up to them and a plunge in the standings will become inevitable.

Its true the schedule hasn't been kind, a factor that will eventually even out, but there's no doubt Calgary has gotten a bit lucky so far, lucky the teams they have to beat for a playoff spot are still beneath them, fortunate they're finding a way to scrape together points in spite of themselves.

As the season ebbs and flows, even the poorest teams in the league will enjoy a hot streak and we will soon find out if the Flames can correct their early season defensive issues sufficiently to maintain their position in the standings or improve upon it.

Or perish.

"The one thing I talk about is, being an efficient team," said Dallas coach Dave Tippett on the weekend, probably mirroring exactly what coach Gilbert would like to see in Calgary. "Because then you can be down some goals and you still have the capabilities to win. Your goaltender can win you games; your special teams' can win you games. Championship teams are efficient teams. You can win anyway you want to play. That's our goal - to be an efficient team."

"Great teams, good teams, solid teams, accountable teams, veteran teams are able to play their best when they absolutely need to, and we are," says St. Louis centre Doug Weight.

Those mantra's from Calgary's last two opponents, teams they gained two of a possible four points from, are relevant to a Flames squad which hasn't quite found a way to win and is barely avoiding losing.

The line is a thin one and they're in danger of falling over the wrong side of the fence.

For that reason, Thursday's tilt with Buffalo should now be classified as the first must-win game of the season.

And there will be many more before it's all said and done in April.

"TODAY, YOU'VE GOT MUCH MORE AGGRESSIVE PENALTY KILLING than when I first broke in. Back then there was a box-type style. Today, when you watch penalty killers, they're very aggressive, not only when they're dumping it down, icing it, but in their own end. You can't be caught flat-footed any more. The talent in the game is so good that if you give a guy a second to make a play, he'll make it. On the power play, you've got to have shots from the point. That part hasn't changed. But when you're penalty killing, as soon as there's a mis-handling of the puck, that's your chance. You have to attack." - Kirk Muller of the Dallas Stars, taken second overall behind Mario Lemieux 19 years ago, on the art of penalty killing. One of the great mysteries in the last few years has been Calgary's atrocious penalty killing, ranked near the bottom of the league consistently under four different coaches and myriad assistant coaches. Even the personnel has largely changed. But the percentage remains mediocre.

WHEN JORDAN LEOPOLD PINCHED IN FROM THE POINT to deposit a Jarome Iginla pass behind Fred Brathwaite the other night, we were reminded of another college defenceman collecting his first NHL goal at the Saddledome in 1996. Chris O'Sullivan, a Boston University alumini, also found himself with a wide open net from a pass in back of the net. O'Sullivan's career downfall after such a promising beginning was a near total absence of physical play that eventually saw him bouncing around the minors before he ended up last year with Kloten in the Swiss National League. O'Sullivan is with Cincinnati of the AHL this year. His last hope might be that the obstruction crackdown may eventually open the NHL up to pure skill guys like O'Sullivan. Some observers are already remarking that hitting is down throughout the league this year as skating and skills begin to take over.

GIVE SOME CREDIT TO OLEG SAPRYKIN, used as a punching bag throughout Calgary sports pages and this space most of last week, for showing up in Saint John with his work belt fastened tight. Given the embarrassing nature of his boomerang back to the AHL - after finding out he couldn't bolt to the Russian Elite League even if he wanted to - Saprykin seems to have come to the realization that NHL employment is a gift and not a right. But four quality games, two before he took off and two after he returned, won't erase the last few years when he looked to be falling through the cracks. He may still end up being the sweetener in a Niedermayer or Savard deal before this season is done.

"THERE ARE GOING TO BE MORE ADJUSTMENTS BEING MADE. The pace is going to pick up another notch or two pretty soon. I think, in the regular season, there are three or four times when the pace picks up, and right now, there's still lots of kids in the league. Pretty soon, the veterans will pick it up another notch, and I think that's going to make it even better." - Colorado coach Bob Hartley. His words speak to the effort that will be needed from rookies like Jordan Leopold and Chuck Kobasew in Calgary, two players the Flames are going to need for the final stretch run. But the question will be if the early experience they are gaining from playing in the NHL can be translated fast enough, as Hartley says, to an accelerating pace as the season progresses.

ITS EARLY, IN MORE WAYS THAN ONE, but the early reviews from the obstruction crackdown reveal a league undergoing a dramatic transformation. Scoring is blipping upwards but only marginally but there's little doubt the number of opportunities to score has improved significantly. Some are saying the flow of the game has opened up dramatically just as others complain you can hardly tell given the number of power plays being rewarded. "I think it's a better game to watch," said Dallas centre Mike Modano. "I think it's good for the game to have more skating and less clutching and grabbing." But Brett Hull disagrees. "I don't know what to say. I don't think the refs understand the rules. The rules were meant to stop the obstruction between the blue lines, and they don't even call that. It's terrible. It's meant to make the game better, and it's making it worse by the way they're calling them. One game there's two penalties on each team, and then two games in a row there are 15 each. It's ridiculous." The most profound change coming from the hurry-up "change" rule, as the league prefers to call it, is a dramatic downward trend in fighting. Purists have long held that fighting is a necessary part of the game but some of the harshest critics of pugilism are claiming that the end of fighting is now near at hand. "It's weird, eh?" said Toronto's Tie Domi, already with three goals this young campaign. "Believe me, it's (fighting) still in the back of your mind before every game. It has only been a few games and it will happen. But those days of doing it just to make the fans happy are long gone. It's kind of nice to actually play hockey out there."

"IT'S EARLY IN THE SEASON, THERE'S A LOT OF HOCKEY LEFT TO PLAY. But the way we're playing right now, we'll be out of it shortly. Losing a game like that at the end - that's unacceptable." - Toronto's Alex Mogilny after the Leafs blow a third period lead to New York, leaving them with a 2-6-2 start. Pat Quinn was quoted in the pre-season - and which GM wasn't saying the same thing - that his team would be among those which would benefit early from the obstruction crackdown but speed seems to be a problem in some key areas of the Leaf lineup. Quinn tends to have a longer shelf life than most coaches but he's nearing the end of his average stay in one place.

"I CAN'T EVEN GET A REFEREE TO TALK TO ME during a game. I'm nobody."- Anaheim rookie coach Mike Babcock.

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