Calgary Flames season preview
Key arrivals: D Mark Giordano, F Todd Bertuzzi, F Rene Bourque, F Mike Cammalleri, F Curtis Glencross
Key departures: G Curtis Joseph, F Kristian Huselius, F Marcus Nilson, F Owen Nolan, F Alex Tanguay, F Stephane Yelle
Offence: If there's reason to be excited about Calgary's chances of making a big jump in the West, it is in the changes up front, where they got younger and grittier to help out Jarome Iginla, Daymond Langkow, et al. Rene Bourque, Curtis Glencross and Mike Cammalleri are all under 27, while Todd Bertuzzi is a few years younger than Owen Nolan.
Bourque excelled on the penalty kill in Chicago, while Cammalleri is just a season removed from notching 80 points in L.A. They're not as naturally creative as Huselius and Tanguay, but they don't play as soft, either. It's unreasonable to expect the injury-wracked Bertuzzi to play more than 65 games at this point, and you probably wouldn't want him to anyway. It's a crucial season for second-line centre Matthew Lombardi, who needs to resemble the player he was late in the 2006-07 campaign or it's not unreasonable to suggest he'll be playing in a different uniform within a year. Even by third- and fourth-line standards, Calgary got few goals last year from the bottom two lines, so whether it's David Moss, Eric Nystrom or Dustin Boyd, that needs to improve. Prediction: Iginla will notch consecutive 50-goal seasons for the first time in his career.
Defence: The unit was less than the sum of its parts last year. The Flames finished 15th in goals allowed and 20th in penalty killing, and a so-so Kiprusoff can't take all the blame for that. It is important that GM Darryl Sutter buried the hatchet with Mark Giordano, bringing the player back from Russia. He is affordable and more importantly, provides a median skill and mobility level on defence that the Flames lacked last year. Cory Sarich and Jim Vandermeer bring grit, while Adrian Aucoin was injury-free for the first time in three seasons, providing offence with his big shot. In the end, though, it's mostly about Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr. Phaneuf made big strides in defensive coverage last year and will need to be even better for Calgary to go very far, while Regehr has been remarkably durable considering how intensely he plays.
Goaltending: The pressure is on Miikka Kiprusoff. He is the highest-paid goaltender in the NHL this season (due to a front-loaded contract) and he didn't play up to his typical standard in 2007-08. Curtis McElhinney started last season as backup as well, but after languishing with just five appearances by January, he was sent back to the AHL when the club signed Curtis Joseph. The Flames will need to give McElhinney more looks and if he's not ready, find a capable backup for Kiprusoff, who played 76 games last season. Of the six teams whose goalies played more than 70 games, none made it past the second round of the post-season, and two didn't make the playoffs at all.
Coaching: Mike Keenan's first NHL coaching gig in four seasons had its ups and downs. What to like? A six-game road winning streak in December, and the spirit with which the team battled the San Jose Sharks in the first round. Keenan also curbed his previous tendency of pulling the goalie; the Flames weren't among the leaders in that dubious category. But despite all the talk of how he had no problem with Huselius (with whom he had clashed in Florida), the player's production dropped. He still clearly has his favourites. As well, Calgary has a lot of room for improvement on special teams, where they finished 19th and 20th. Keenan is not on the hot seat per se, but is under pressure as his teams have not so much as finished second in their division since 1994-95.
Outlook: With the talented core quartet of Jarome Iginla, Robyn Regehr, Dion Phaneuf and Miikka Kiprusoff, buttressed by new blood, it's reasonable to suggest Calgary is the favourite to win the Northwest, which would mean at least (and probably) third in the conference. It's a tough division, but it could be argued that each of the other four teams have bigger question marks. But the Flames need to treat the first quartet of the season seriously, as it's been part of the reason they've found themselves with tough first-round playoff foes Detroit and San Jose in the last two years. Calgary started 6-11 last season and 3-9 the year before. The Flames begin with five games against Northwest foes, so there's no excuse for starting cavalierly.