The more things change, the more they stay the same. Over the past half dozen years, the Calgary Flames have switched up their front office personnel, their bench personnel and their on-ice personnel. No matter what they try, the result remains the same: They're on the outside looking in come playoff time.
As with every preseason however, there is optimism at the Saddledome this year as the Flames begin to pare down their roster, preparing for opening night. The task at hand for second-year Head Coach and newly annointed General Manager Darryl Sutter is simple: make the playoffs. A noble task, since the Pierre Page-led 1995–96 squad bowed out in the first round to the Chicago Blackhawks was the last Flames team to see playoff action.
It's a long road to April and the post-season, but ever since Sutter took the reigns as gm on April 11, he's had a plan. It starts on defense, it emphasizes grit, and it's based in Western Canada.
Starting with re-signing Chris Clark and Shean Donovan, continuing through the 2003 nhl Entry Draft, and culminating in training camp, Sutter is shaping the team in his own image. American-born center Chris Drury is gone in favor of a pair of Western Canadian kids in center Steven Reinprecht and hulking defenceman Rhett Warrener, fellow western kids Josh Green and Jesse Wallin were added via free agency while enforcer Craig Berube has made way for Polish national Krzysztof Oliwa.
But success is determined on the ice, not in the boardroom, so a position by position breakdown is in order.
Between the pipes
According to many, Craig Button's biggest mistake as gm was the contract he gave the consistently inconsistent Roman Turek. The netminder, known as "Large" to his teammates, had a subpar season last year, but due to his $4.25-million price tag he'll be in town for a while. As a result, he needs to step up his play and earn his keep if the Flames want to crack the top eight in a very competitive Western Conference.
Jamie McLennan will likely be backing him up, although youngsters Dany Sabourin and Brent Krahn will be pushing him at camp.
On the blueline
This is where the Flames organization shines. They have arguably the best young defense corps in the nhl and under Sutter's guidance it has gotten deeper and more talented. Led by hard-nosed defenders like Robyn Regehr, Denis Gauthier and Warrener, and balanced out by offensively gifted rearguards like Jordan Leopold and Toni Lydman, the present is bright and the future blinding. The only question this year is who will occupy the sixth and seventh spots.
A quartet of blueliners are realistically in the hunt: Andrew Ference, Steve Montador, Mike Commodore and Jesse Wallin. The early bets on are on the versatile Wallin and on Ference, a player who has shown flashes of offensive brilliance in his short career.
Don't discount either Commodore or Montador however, as both players had stints with the big club last season. Youngsters Roman Rozakov and Dion Phaneuf could push some out of the top nine, however it is very unlikely they'll be able to crack the pro lineup.
The departure of co-captain Bob Boughner (via trade to Carolina) will leave a hole, mostly when it comes to leadership, and players like Warrener, Regehr and Gauthier will have to step up.
This is where the "ifs" come into play. If Jarome Iginla can return to his 2001–02 form; if Chuck Kobasew can earn a spot on the team; if Oleg Saprykin plays consisently enough to contribute; if Dean McAmmond can match his success of two years ago; if the bottom six can keep pucks out of the net while chipping in from time to time, then the Flames will be fine.
Well, scoring has been a problem in years past, and this year won't be a cakewalk. Sutter has acknowledged this with his emphasis defense and on hard-working players up front, but you still need to score more than the other team to win. As in years past, Craig Conroy and Iginla will be the focal points, but a lot is expected of the youngsters Saprykin and Kobasew while newcomer Reinprecht has the second line center spot as his to lose.
As with every year, there's a lot of optimism surrounding Flames camp, quite possibly for good reason. In an nhl increasingly emphasizing solid defensive play and timely offense, the Flames are built to compete. If their young blueliners minimize their mistakes, if Roman Turek plays up to his ability and if someone other than Iginla and Conroy scores, all things will be rosy in Cowtown.
If not, well, it's nothing we're not used to by now…