January 8th, 2003


Calgarypuck.com Season Review

Half Way Point

by D'Arcy McGrath

Question for ya ...

Is it better to have won then lost then to have fallen hard early but then began a long climb back into things?

That's the issue facing both the Calgary sports fan and the Calgary hockey team.

Last year, at the half way point, the Flames were completing a free fall that saw them obliterate a seemingly free and clear playoff spot, and find a brand new way to rip the heart from the chests of each faithful hockey fan.

This year? Just the opposite.

The team basically shut their own coffin in November, posting the futile record of 3-9-1-1 including seven losses in a row, and getting their coach fired.

Since then Al MacNiel was brought in to stop the skid, then Darryl Sutter arrived to start a run that has some hope forming in the Stampede City once again.

Five games won't do the trick, the team will need something closer to ten to correct the sins of the early season, but for the first time since October, the Flames appear to be that team many saw on paper.

Goaltending B-

For the most part, goaltending hasn't been the team's problem. 

Roman Turek has been great in the last 10 games, and a great deal of the reason why the Flames are winning under Darryl Sutter, but he also had his share of stinkers earlier in the season.

The man has only lost one clear game on his own however, a set back to Carolina, and has likely been the reason the club has won in a clear half dozen.

Jamie McLennan has proved to be the backup the Flames have always needed. His play with Roman Turek down with a broken traffic signal was inspired despite the fact the team couldn't buy a goal with him in the nets.

This duo should be all the club needs as they start their crucial second half on Thursday night.

Defence - C

There doesn't seem to be any middle ground with this group.

They are always very good, or very, very bad. 

Save for a few games, the club's top four, including; Toni Lydman, Robyn Regehr, Bob Boughner and Denis Gauthier, have all stepped up their play this season in the absence of last season's #1 defenceman Derek Morris.

Earlier in the season Lydman and Regehr were receiving rave reviews for keeping the opposition at bay, and logging copious amounts of ice time. The tandem slipped when the team slipped however, a slip that hit rock bottom when Lydman was a -5 in one game in St. Louis.

Since Darryl Sutter took the helm the club relies much more on the second pairing of Boughner and Gauthier, and plays the third group (two of Petr Buzek, Steve Montador or Jordan Leopold) very sparingly.

As a group the Flames blueliners seem to be keeping things simple under Sutter, something that they'll need to continue if the club wishes to climb back into the playoff race.

A recent defensive run has the club sitting 14th in the NHL, allowing 2.68 goals per game, and within striking distance of the top ten (2.54), brand new territory for a club used to sunburned necks from their own goal line blazing.

The compilation's biggest black eye is the current lack of powerplay quarterback, a fact that has Chris Drury manning the point and the powerplay stuck at the bottom of the standings. An extra goal a game with the man advantage would go a long way.

Forwards - D

Like most components of the hockey team, the forward group has a rating on paper and on the ice, with the latter much lower, and sadly much more important.

As a roster, the Flames forward ranks look about as strong as they have in any of the recent sad sack seasons in Calgary.

The preseason plan of Chuck Kobasew on the second line went the way of the Do Do bird, but was seamlessly plugged with the addition of former malcontent Oleg Saprykin. Saprykin, and his linemates Chris Drury, and Chris Clark have given the Flames some pop beyond the Conroy-Iginla pairing on the first line.

But don't misinterpret the above as praise. What might look good now, has looked very, very bad for much of the season. After 41 games the Flames have only managed 2.17 goals per game, a number that puts them tied for 29th in the NHL with the Nashville Predators.

Jarome Iginla won't come close to his totals of last year ... in fact at one point, he was threatening to come up more than 50% short. 

Craig Conroy has seen his production dip as well.

Chris Drury hasn't been the offensive plug that many felt he would be when he arrived.

They are scoring lately, and will need to continue their recent pace for the Flames to have a snowball's chance in heck of making the post season.


Progress ... a simple word, but a foreign concept in Calgary.

As much as the post season promised land seems to be the barometer and buzz word for success or failure in this and most cities, it's not really the cure needed for the Calgary hockey fan.

Show us something ... show us some progress.

The Flames, despite their recent winning ways, likely cooked their goose in November and won't make the playoffs. But how they handle the rest of the season will have a huge effect on the feeling going into next season, and the number of butts in the seats to watch that campaign unfold.

Every season the media points to a team that made a great charge but came up an ounce short ... the Flames should aim to be that team. "If only they didn't have that bad spell in November ..." could be a huge rallying cry for brighter and better things.

The key is consistency, and that foreign word, "progress".

Rick Charlton

The opening and closing of the latest 20 game segment has been a study in contrasts for the Calgary Flames.

Calgary swept into Boston, Washington, St. Louis and Detroit to open the quarter, riding a momentous losing streak that, unbelievably, would only got worse with the Flames outscored 23-6 and emerging without a coach after beleaguered mentor Greg Gilbert was finally fired.

Interestingly, with interim boss Al MacNeil at the wheel, followed by new coach Darryl Sutter, the Flames were 7-6-3 in the remaining 16 games.

Unfortunately, they'll have to do a lot better than that to entertain hopes for a post-season berth for the first time in seven seasons.

DEFENCE - Team defence isn't all about defencemen, the Flames blueliners early in the quarter all but abandoned by their forwards and the results decidedly negative. Toni Lydman was minus nine in the initial four games of the road trip which opened the quarter and Petr Buzek minus eight, as only two examples. In the other games played this year, both players are on the plus side of the equation. In spite of all their problems in the win column this year, Calgary has actually improved dramatically from prior seasons when the team would routinely finish in the bottom third of the league defensively. Sutter has already taken a different tack than his predecessors, relying heavily on the tandem of Denis Gauthier and Bob Boughner who have seen their ice time rise by one-third to match that of Toni Lydman and Robyn Regehr. The Flames are now 15th overall defensively and climbing thanks to the recent heroics of starter Roman Turek. Take out those four terrible games to open the quarter, replace them with 2.64 goals per game which is Calgary's average, and the Flames would fit in right behind Toronto for ninth overall defensively. Look for that trend to continue under Sutter, a maniac for taking care of the defensive side of the puck. Give them a B.

FORWARDS - They withered badly, ranked ninth overall offensively after beating New Jersey on November 5 and now 30th overall in spite of scoring 16 in their last five. This team should not be dead last in scoring in the NHL but the persistent ailments afflicting superstar Jarome Iginla for much of the first half as well as the power dive in the standings which saddled the team with a lame duck coach left many in the lineup too uninspired to show up. Chris Drury for one has been rejuvenated under Sutter while Iginla and Craig Conroy have finally been able to put their health ailments behind them. The resurgence of Oleg Saprykin has been also been a welcome surprise. We can only mark these guys on the full 20 games, however, and not the last five and that qualifies for a D.

GOALTENDER - The success or failure of Roman Turek will be one of the more interesting storylines as the Darryl Sutter regime plays itself out. Like most NHL goalies, Turek will be consistently only as good as the team defence being played in front of him. Sutter said his first priority was cutting down on odd-man rushes and other surprises goaltenders typically have to contend with. The Flames in turn, through Sutter's initial five games, have done exactly that. Consequently, Turek's numbers have been correcting themselves to the positive, his GAA dropping as his Save percentage rockets higher, a far cry from the opening days of the quarter when Flames netminders surrendered 23 goals in only four games. GRADE C

COACHES - The bottom line on Greg Gilbert was he couldn't convince his players to employ the processes that go into winning. His critics will argue he never knew the processes to begin with, another in a long line of "work harder" coaches. Others would lay the blame at the feet of the players for tuning him out. Sutter started his reign by making adjustments to the Gilbert mode of play, employing personnel such as Gauthier and Boughner differently, asking his centres to play higher in the attacking zone to prevent odd man rushes, etc. He made suggestions for an improved power play - verbally without practice time - and the team responded with three goals with the man advantage the very next game. Right now, after being undefeated through five, Sutter could walk on water, but the hard times will come again at some point. How Sutter drags them back to the win column from the inevitable spiral will separate him from Gilbert who plainly wasn't strong enough to pull the nose of the plane out of a power dive until it was too late. How do you grade three coaches? Gilbert - F, MacNeil A, Sutter A.

MANAGEMENT - The unsettled issues at the top have quieted down a bit since the hiring of Sutter. As the dust settled a week and a half ago we could glean certain things from comments made at the time. Craig Button wanted Sutter as his coach and also made it clear he wants to stay as GM of the Flames, an observation which shouldn't be dismissed as obvious since resigning over upper management interference in his duties couldn't have been ruled out. Lastly, the image of the franchise took another pasting from the peculiar behaviour exhibited by those over Button's head, so much so that perhaps the public relations disaster surrounding this recent episode caused those responsible to re-acquaint themselves with their prior duties. Maybe. On the hockey front, it would figure that Sutter likes his team speed and depth down centre (Conroy, Drury and Yelle) but would probably want better size with skill on the wings and likely wouldn't mind a power play shooter on the blueline. That's Button's job. In a quarter just passed, however, only an F would do here.

OWNERSHIP - Flames owner Murray Edwards stated flatly the ownership group had made an internal commitment to stick things out until the CBA negotiations in 2004. And, it should be noted, Sutter was not cheap, the most expensive coach in Flames history.

THE FANS - Still averaging about 15,500 for a team six years removed from a playoff spot and 13 years in arrears of its last playoff win. That's a miracle and leaves one to wonder what things might be like if they actually had a winner here. Will the fans return next season? If the team can generate a decent second half and finish at .500 or better for the year the fans will probably return. More losing, losing, losing and that might be doubtful.



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