March 14th, 2003

Season Wrap Up

D'Arcy McGrath

It's that magic time of year again.

The Playoffs.

Hockey writers and sports editors are laying out the design content of their playoff coverage. Dolling out assignments, handicapping their own club's series, breaking down every morsel of information for rabid Canadian hockey fans.

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Rick Charlton
D'Arcy McGrath
Marc Ciampa

That is ... unless you happen to write for

At there are no such plans for a playoff series. No design teams working on statistical packages and story board formats for the upcoming playoff games.

Nope, here at we look back on a failed season and look to the future on April 5th.

Alas ... we soldier on.

What Went Wrong?

The margin between winning and losing in the National Hockey League is finer line than ever in league history. And because of this fact, a team can il afford to have a major section of their game fall by the wayside. Things are compounded when the team literally takes a month off, as the club did in November.

In Calgary too many things fell by the wayside.

Special Teams - The Calgary Flames have the NHL's worst powerplay. There's very little else that needs to be said on that topic. With only 16 of 30 teams making the playoffs, your goose is pretty much cooked if you can't take advantage of opposition fouls because of an anemic man advantage team. For years special teams have been hung on coaching, but considering the number of coaches with less than stellar powerplays in Calgary perhaps it's time to look at the players. The club needs a puck moving quarterback defenceman to make it work. Jordan Leopold may be that guy some day, but he likely won't be ready next season. The penalty kill brigade were considerably better, cracking the top 15, but need to be top ten or better to make up for the powerplay short comings.

Depth - The Flames just don't have the depth to survive injuries or slumps to key players. Really, with a bottom 1/3 budget that's understandable, but that doesn't make it any less true. The club literally fell off the map when Jarome Iginla had his well run dry do to injuries in the first half. It's high time the young'uns step up and relieve some scoring pressure.

Chemistry - Between the Greg Gilbert/Marc Savard fiasco and a penchant for season killing losing skids, the Calgary Flames don't appear to have the inner command ability to right wrongs and put themselves back on track. That may change with a personality laden coach now behind the bench, but players like Iginla, Craig Conroy and others need to start tossing some garbage cans and suggest it unacceptable to go through the skids that literally derail seasons.

What Went Right?

A hockey team is measured by the standings, to look for a silver lining in a nonplayoff season is likely a futile mandate, but we'll give it a shot anyways.

The youth.

Oleg Saprkin returned from career purgatory and seems to have found his way in the National Hockey League. The winger is a scoring talent, but must work on his positioning, defensive play and body size to take that next step. The Flames have been waiting a long time to see a young player with scoring skills step up. 

The young defence. Darryl Sutter's best move in his 4 months behind the Flames bench was to unite the Flames two pillars of defence just after Christmas. With the playoffs a pipe dream what better time to give Robyn Regehr and Jordan Leopold on the job training in the hopes of building a future all star defence pairing. The duo likely hold the key in turning this down trodden franchise into a perennial playoff team. Will it happen next season?

Jarome Iginla. Iginla's second half made a lot of nay Sayers eat a good deal of crow. Many a scribe were all to ready to jump on last season's trophy room filler when he slid out of the gates rather slowly, but Iginla had the last laugh in literally lighting it up through the final 50 games, showing last season was anything but a fluke.

Identity 101. When Sutter took the helm of this club he pointed out the fact that the team hadn't an on ice identity, a feel, a look to call their own. He pointed to the fact that they needed to work on their home record as a starting point. By the time the dust settled on the season Sutter had led the club to a 10-7-6 record at home, a fact that suggests he may be on his way to hanging a monicker on his team.

How to Fix this Mess

The Flames played out the stretch with a .666 record in March and April.

What does that mean?

That all depends on how positive a person you happen to be. At the very least it would be hard to argue that it does suggest this hockey team is likely somewhat better than a 22nd place finish would indicate. The real question is how much better.

With that we take a look at five keys to making the Flames a playoff team next season.

1. Roman Turek

The Calgary Flames have committed considerable resources to the huge Czech stopper, he's their man ... he isn't going anywhere. Darryl Sutter, Wendel Young, the team's goaltender coach, and the big man himself have to find a way to get Turek on top of his game for at least 50 of his 60 starts next season. No one player is "on" each and every night, but he has to have his bad games better, and his good games more frequent or the Flames are a non start before they start next season.

2. Special Teams

The Flames will have a tough time finding a veteran puck moving powerplay quarter back. The good ones are expensive and nobody is looking to do this club any favours. Given that fact, the Flames may have to improve from with, a tall order considering that improvement will likely have to come from a sophomore defenceman in Jordan Leopold. A move of the PK unit into the top ten coupled by a powerplay move into the top 20 may be enough to push the club ahead. If Craig Button and Darryl Sutter don't feel Leopold is ready they may want to knock on the owner's box door for some budget space that will allow the acquisition of a defenceman like Oleg Tverdovsky.

3. Nixing Skids

The club's leadership group and Darryl Sutter need to find a way to lessen the lows next season to avoid shooting themselves in the collective foot and destroying any chance at a playoff spot. They will lose their share of games, that's a given, but they need to avoid months like November 2002 to take that next step forward. The Flames went 3-9-0-1 in that month this season meaning they were only one game under .500 the rest of the season. A 5-5-2-1 record over that same time period would have meant an 81 point season and a team in the hunt for the whole year.

4. Improving the Bottom Lines

The Flames had four twenty plus goal scorers this season, a result usually seen on teams much higher up the standings. The real issue lied in the third and fourth lines where the sagging pop gun offence literally went dry leaving too much onus on too few players. With a handful of games remaining for other clubs, the Flames sit 21st in the league in forward scoring with 166 goals scored. A boastful 101 of those markers came from the sticks of just four player meaning the rest of the forward roster combined for 65 goals. That simply has to improve, but how? Can the youth coming up through the system in the likes of Chuck Kobasew, Oleg Saprykin and Blair Betts? Likely to some degree. Time will tell.

5. O from the D

The Flames finished 24 in offence from the blueline making the club's forward ranks look like the late 60's Canadiens. Toni Lydman led the club with six, a fact that speaks volumes of how much this group needs to improve. Not a single team below Calgary in offence from their defence has made the playoffs this season. Toni Lydman is an excellent skater, but hasn't shown that flair that will be needed to bulge the twice 10 or more times in a season. Jordan Leopold scored four times in only 58 games and is likely the clubs best bet to jump up, but that puts a huge amount of pressure on a player still learning the ropes. 

The Calgary Flames didn't come through this season. They didn't make the playoffs. They didn't put up a good fight until the final buzzer ... they were essentially out of it by Christmas. With that said, there does seem to be some hope on the horizon, on and off the ice. The team finished strong, and for inexplicable reasons they appear to have the crowd behind them with a 96% attendance rate this season. That rings of opportunity, that is, if they don't find a way to derail this operation once again. They club is looking at the future of Craig Button with the organization. It says here that a move at the top once again will likely unsurp any gains made by Sutter down the wire, and put the club back two more years. Stay the course and continue to make baby steps, I say, just make sure those steps are forward.


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