We're a week away from Training Camp, and I'm getting giddy. Giddy in the sense that I will finally have something to watch on TV besides The Office reruns and baseball teams I don't care about. While the NFL season is fun for me (mostly because I gamble on it), nothing compares to the start of the NHL season; when every team believes they have a legitimate shot at winning the Stanley Cup (except the Leafs, who will never win again).
We are moving on to a team that has had high aspirations but not lived up to them the past few years. We head north into Alberta for today's preview.
Arrivals: Alex Tanguay; Olli Jokinen; Tim Jackman
Departures: Eric Nystrom; Christopher Higgins; David Van Der Gulik
The Flames were a team expected to really contend in the Western Conference last year, but after hanging around in the playoff race for most of the season, they fell apart late in the year and finished a disappointing 9th, tied with the Blues 5 points out of a playoff spot. The Flames went through an interesting transition last year, trading away Dion Phaneuf in the middle of the season, but overall they really struggled under new coach Brent Sutter. The Flames are hoping that some old faces will be able to re-energize a moribund offense from last year.
Offense: This is the area the Flames really struggled with last year, finishing second last in the NHL in total offense. The team is led by former Rocket Richard Trophy-winner Jarome Iginla, their captain and team leader, but once again the Flames are hoping that they can find a center that can properly maximize Iginla's talents. I've always liked Iginla, minus the series in 2007 against the Wings when he went super-stupid a la Shane Doan. The Flames are hoping they found that center in Olli Jokinen, a stud in Florida who has failed to live up to expectations in both his first go-round with Calgary and a stint in New York with the Rangers. The Flames are hoping that Jokinen will not have as much pressure on him this season, and that he and Iginla can form some sort of dynamic duo. The Flames also brought in another re-tread, Alex Tanguay, who had an awful season last year in Tampa. He will be united with Matt Stajan, a former Toronto prospect (get ready for this theme throughout this preview) who never lived up to his potential and was included in the Phaneuf deal last year. The Flames are hoping that the bad years these guys have had are in the past, and that they will finally get to where they are capable of in terms of scoring. A pleasant surprise for the Flames last year was Rene Bourque, who put up career highs in goals (27) and points last year (58), and the hope is that he will team up with Jokinen and Iginla to form a very dangerous first line. Outside of that top line, the Flames will be leaning on Daymond Langkow, Craig Conroy and Alex Kotalik to chip in with scoring. On the blueline, Ian White (another former Leaf) came over and immediately became a contributor, but the Flames will be looking for Jay Bouwmeester to justify the trade and sign deal they made with him last year. It was hoped that once Bouwmeester was surrounded by some real talent, he would shine, but he really disappointed a lot of people, including Steve Yzerman, who left him off the Team Canada Olympic Team. Ultimately, if the Flames are going to do anything in the Western Conference, their offense needs to get immensely better.
Defense: Despite the loss of Dion Phaneuf, the Flames still have one of the better, albeit underrated, defensive corps in the conference. They are led by Bouwmeester, one of the best skaters in the NHL and a big body back there. He's more like Lidstrom in that he is not a very physical defenseman, but he's smart and rarely makes killer mistakes. If his offense picks up, he could be an All-Star this year. Also contributing is Ian White, who is more of an offensive defenseman and will be looked to pick up and improve the power play. Mark Giordano is a physical defenseman with good puck skills, and he has steadily gained playing time and an increased role on the team. Cory Sarich and Steve Staios are the veterans on the blue line, and while neither contributes much offensively, they are both steady defensemen who can play against the other team's 3rd and 4th lines. The Flames currently have Robyn Regehr as well, but I've heard rumours that he may be on his way out. If he does stay on the team, he immediately makes the second pairing better, as he is a very physical guy who plays with an edge.
Goaltending: The Flames live and die with Mikka Kiprusoff. All Kipper did last year was play in his customary 70+ games, in which he put up a 2.31 GAA and a .920 SV% while winning 35 games. Whatever problems the Flames have, it's not in goal, as Kiprusoff has always been among the best goalies in the NHL. If he ever sustains a serious injury, the Flames are going to be in some serious trouble. You'll notice that I am not mentioning their backup goalie; 1, I don't know exactly who it is, and 2, it doesn't matter because he's going to play less than 10 games anyway.
Coaching: Brent Sutter, brother to GM Darryl Sutter, is in his second season with the Flames after he had walked away from the Devils. Sutter coaches the way he played: tough, hard, and with little finesse. He has been successful at all levels, especially in junior where he won a Memorial Cup (just as hard to win as a Stanley Cup given that there is a very small window and far more teams) and 2 World Junior Championship Gold medals for Canada. Last year was an aberration for him in terms of his team's success, and with an influx of talent coming to camp this year, Sutter should have more to work with.
Player to Watch: Jarome Iginla has been one of the premier power forwards in the NHL, capable of scoring 50 goals or pounding the crap out of just about anyone in the league. However, he has not had a consistent center that can feed him the puck, so his goal totals have been up and down for the past couple of seasons. With Olli Jokinen back in town, the potential is there that Iginla could get back to the 40-50 goal range, and again establish himself as one of the pre-eminent right wingers in the league. If he gets back to where he was 3-4 years ago, it will go a long way to getting the Flames back to contender status in the West.
Player With Something to Prove: Jay Bouwmeester was always known as a guy who was a great player on a bad Panthers team. It was long thought that once he was surrounded by talent, his skills would really be showcased and he would become one of the top teams in the league. The Flames traded for his rights before last season and signed him to a big deal, and he promptly went out and had probably his worst season as a pro. With Dion Phaneuf gone and Bouwmeester entering his prime, it's time for him to step up and show the league that his hype was deserved. He's got the physical abilities necessary to be a top defenseman; now it's about showing it on the ice.
Why They Can Win the Division: They've got the goaltending to go toe-to-toe with anyone in that division (Luongo definitely included). Their defensive corps is solid if unspectacular, and the Flames have traditionally been one of the more physical teams. If they can turn around that awful offense and score some goals, they could easily contend for the division with the Canucks.
Why They Won't Win the Division: My brain keeps telling me that at some point Kiprusoff's body is going to rebel against the team for playing him over 70 times per year, and this could be that year. If he gets hurt, forget about it; they're done. I also am not sold on the fact that Jokinen and Tanguay are somehow going to resurrect their careers in Calgary after having terrible seasons last year. If the offense doesn't improve, the Flames will once again be looking up at everyone else in the conference.
My Prediction: I think the Flames really underachieved last year, as they should have been a playoff team given the talent they had. However, they removed a big locker room distraction when Dion Phaneuf was traded to the Leafs, and this year the theme of the Flames is going to be "Fresh Starts". I don't believe the Flames are Stanley Cup contenders, but I also don't believe they are as bad as they showed last year. I see them as a playoff team this year, and with Kipper leading the way, they could make some noise in the early rounds. However, I don't see a huge future for this team the way they are currently constituted, and it seems like they are floundering. I will say this: the Sea of Red is one of the coolest things I have ever seen. I just hope I don't have to see it because the Wings are playing them in the playoffs: I hate the late games.