Flames look to rise higher: preview
The Calgary Flames will hope that a new defenceman will help extinguish the fires that too frequently have sprung up in their own end, while keeping it all in the family behind the bench.
What to like
Calgary can score. With captain Jarome Iginla leading the way (as usual) with 89 points last season, the Flames potted 3.05 goals per game, tied with San Jose for seventh-highest in the NHL. A nice portion of those came at even strength, as Calgary ranked third in 5-on-5 scoring. The additions of rock-solid defenceman Jay Bouwmeester and no-nonsense coach Brent Sutter should shore up a shaky defence that last year bore the blame for the Flames' fourth consecutive first-round exit.
At a Glance
Hello: Jay Bouwmeester (D), Nigel Dawes (F), Brian McGrattan (F), Fredrik Sjostrom (F), Anton Stralman (D), Brent Sutter (head coach).
Goodbye: Adrian Aucoin (D), Todd Bertuzzi (F), Mike Cammalleri (F), Anders Eriksson (D), Jordan Leopold (D), Wayne Primeau (F), Andre Roy (F), Jim Vandermeer (D), Rhett Warrener (D).
No. of Olympians: 5 (Bouwmeester, Jarome Iginla, Olli Jokinen, Miikka Kiprusoff, Dion Phaneuf).
"The coaching staff we've put in place has done a good job through training camp with putting a very strong focus and system into place, with lots of work on the defensive side of the game," says Flames director of player personnel Duane Sutter, brother of Brent and GM Darryl Sutter. "Twenty-third in the league last year [in goals allowed] was not acceptable, and that eventually led to our exit in the playoffs."
The Flames are looking for Dustin Boyd to take another step and improve on his 11 goals last season. The Winnipegger saw steady penalty-killing action in his first full NHL season, logging the fourth-most shorthanded time among Flames forwards. The defensive role hurt his plus/minus rating but that should improve if coach Sutter is able to get the entire team to commit to being responsible.
What to sweat
Mike Cammalleri, the Flames leading sniper with 38 goals, left for a rich contract with Montreal. The hope is that his production can be replaced by Olli Jokinen, who's in for a full season after arriving at the trade deadline. A bigger concern is Calgary's porous defensive play: the Flames coughed up the fourth-most goals in their conference in 2008-09. Bouwmeester should help in that department, but the new coaching staff must also reduce goalie Miikka Kiprusoff's workload. The league leader in wins has averaged 75 games played over the last four seasons, and his goals-against average and save percentage have gotten worse every year. Problem is there's no reliable backup. Curtis McElhinney has one win in 19 NHL appearances.
"[McElhinney] was thrust into some very difficult situations last year," says Duane Sutter. "Kipper is one heck of a goaltender, but his workload has to be reduced to a certain degree and the coaches will monitor him very closely."
Under pressure: Dion Phaneuf
The big-hitting, big-shooting blue-liner took the heat for last season's defensive woes as he posted a minus-11 rating: his first time in the red in four NHL campaigns. While Phaneuf's go-for-broke style can cause him to get burned from time to time, he's still one of the game's most feared bodycheckers and dangerous shooters. After scoring a career-low 11 times during a snakebitten 2008-09, expect a healthy Phaneuf to make a run at rejoining the 20-goal club as his shooting percentage makes a natural rebound.
"What people didn't see last year is he was banged up a lot and it affected his play," Duane Sutter says. "We have very little concern for Dion Phaneuf to get back to where he should be in his career."
Fresh face: Jay Bouwmeester
With precious little breathing room under the cap, Darryl Sutter had to make a choice: sign a high-scoring forward to replace Cammalleri or fortify the blue-line. The Flames GM chose the latter, then landed the biggest fish in the pond. The six-foot-4, 212-pound Bouwmeester led the league in ice time in each of the last two seasons with Florida and hasn't missed a game since the lockout. At only 25 years old and with the tools to dominate at both ends of the rink, Bouwmeester is a good bet to live up to his five-year, $33-million US contract.
"We're awful excited to have him," says Duane Sutter, who was in the Florida front office when the Panthers drafted Bouwmeester third overall in 2002. "His skating ability is right up there with the best in the league, if not the best in the league."
Calgary has a healthy but not overwhelming number of Olympians on tap to skate in Vancouver. While other teams have players spread over many countries, the Flames will mainly stock Canada and Finland.
The club may get a blessing in disguise in that Kiprusoff may have missed his window to be carrying the No. 1 load for Finland. He missed the 2006 Olympics due to a hip injury, and since then, the likes of Niklas Backstrom and Pekka Rinne have emerged.
The Flames need to treat the first quarter of the season seriously," was our pre-season advice for a team eyeing a division title in 2008-09. Calgary went 6-3-1 in October, but faded down the stretch, dropping 11 of its last 18 and coughing up the Northwest title to Vancouver. The emphasis this year should be on a strong finish, something Brent Sutter can help ensure by monitoring Kiprusoff's workload.
A division title is within reach, but the Northwest could be tougher this season if the Wild bounce back and the Canucks get a full season from star goalie Roberto Luongo. Regardless, the Flames should battle for home-ice advantage in the first round.