Calgary Flames: Camp preview

The off-season signing of bedrock blue-liner Jay Bouwmeester signals Calgary's desire to restore pride in its defensive play.
Jay Bouwmeester, left, received a big contract to help Flames GM Darryl Sutter fortify Calgary's defence. ((Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press))

2008-09 record: 46-30-6, Western Conference quarter-finals.

New faces: Jay Bouwmeester (D), Nigel Dawes (F), Staffan Kronwall (D), Brian McGrattan (F), Anton Stralman (D).

Camp slogan: Getting defensive.

When most people think of the Sutter brothers, it's hard-nosed, salt-of-the-earth, responsible hockey that comes to mind, echoing the values of their rural Alberta roots. So how in the name of Viking did GM Darryl Sutter's Flames go from being the NHL's top defensive team in the first season post-lockout to one of the most porous in 2008-09?

No one knows for sure, but Sutter took steps this summer to make sure it doesn't happen again. First he boldly traded for the negotiating rights to Florida's Jay Bouwmeester, then signed the stalwart defenceman to a five-year, $33-million US deal. Sutter also brought in his younger brother Brent to coach the team after Brent left the defensive-minded New Jersey Devils.

Bouwmeester is ultra-durable — he hasn't missed a game since the lockout — and capable of shouldering a punishing workload. Combine him with hard-hitting Dion Phaneuf and solid vet Robyn Regehr, and the Flames go into camp with a blue-line top three as solid as any in the league. The hope is that can offset the loss of 39-goal scorer Mike Cammalleri via free agency.

Calgary has four home games in the pre-season and also plays in Saskatoon on Sept. 19.

Young blood: Mikael Backlund

Salary cap constraints kept Sutter from improving his forwards, but he may consider a low-cost option in the 20-year-old Backlund. The 2007 first-rounder from Sweden was a point-a-game junior player last season with the Kelowna Rockets.

Time to make a move: Curtis McElhinney

Want a theory for Calgary's defensive decline? No. 1 goalie Miikka Kiprusoff's save percentage has declined four years running, from a career-high .933 in 2003-04 down to .903 last season. Meanwhile, he's averaged a back-breaking 75 games played over that time. Problem is, it's tough to give Kipper a rest when his backup (McElhinney) has a 1-8-1 record over the last two seasons.

X-factor: Nigel Dawes

Never a good sign when you're waived by Phoenix, but the speedy, soft-handed Dawes could find a home on a more attack-minded Flames roster after beginning his career with the punchless Rangers. Dawes will have to prove he's worthy of a regular forward spot in camp.

On the spot: Brent Sutter

Four consecutive first-round playoff exits were painful, but the Flames players must have at least enjoyed the freewheeling style permitted over the last few years by coaches Darryl Sutter, Jim Playfair and Mike Keenan. The new sheriff insists that puck possession is part of his strategy to prevent goals, but he'll have to get his charges to buy into the idea that better defensive play can translate into more wins.