The collected memory of the 2010-11 Calgary Flames season underwent a major change starting Dec. 23, with Alex Tanguay's third-period blocker-side shelf job and subsequent shootout winner. The game itself was a mere two points. However, throughout the summer Flames fans clung to this memory as a stubborn insistence of a team that defied odds and made last season exciting at best, heart-wrenching at worst. The post Dec. 23 Flames bore little resemblance to the defensively incapable and offensively constipated squad who skated on Saddledome ice for the first 35 games or so. Perhaps it is out of some bizarre desire for self-preservation that it is often forgotten the Flames were actually in fifth place in the West on March 5 following a 4-3 victory over Columbus. Never mind -- forget I even mentioned it. Still too fresh.
The meteoric assent and ultimate disappointment of the second half of last season has created a schism among the Flames faithful. There are the triumphalists who cling to the belief that the second half represented a veteran-laden team capable of winning at an elite clip thanks to solid defence, top-end leadership and stellar goaltending.
There are those less rose-spectacled who point to the Flames's record against elite teams as proof they could not defeat bona fide playoff teams. Even during the stretch after Dec. 23, the Flames only managed to win 9 per cent of games against the Western Conference's top four. This is compared to winning 87 per cent of games against non-playoff opponents. This could convince fans the Flames were never destined to make the playoffs and deserved the fate that befell them.
All the stats and musings about the second half are rapidly becoming completely irrelevant with the start of a new season just weeks away. The off-season saw Flames's general manager Jay Feaster begin to leave his stamp on the team, trading veteran shut down defenseman Robyn Regher, a second round draft pick in 2012, and veteran contractual boat anchor forward Alex Kotalik to the rapidly rebuilding Buffalo Sabres in exchange for forward Paul Byron and defenseman Chris Butler, with the latter signed to an extension with the Flames. In keeping with the theme of dealing veterans, Feaster traded greybeard forward Daymond Langkow for 28-year-old forward Lee Stempniak, and in doing so moved his $4.5 million cap hit. The Flames have also signed rugged defenseman Scott Hannan and drafted slick forward Sven Baertschi in the first round from the Portland Winter Hawks of the WHL. Feaster also re-signed Forwards Curtis Glencross and Alex Tanguay, complimenting the re-signing of Ukrainian defenseman Anton Babchuk.
So far, training camp has brought few surprises. Baertschi impressed many with his offensive prowess but was promptly sent back to juniors with the second round of cuts.
Defensemen TJ Brodie and Chris Breen, thought to be vying for two defensive spots currently vacant due to injuries sustained by Cory Sarich and Brett Carson, were assigned to Abbotsford, leaving Jordan Henry and Derek Smith to battle for the remaining spots. After a lacklustre 2011 pre-season, Brodie did little to avoid a westbound plane ticket and will have to start from scratch again next season.
There were whispers that Baertschi may earn himself a few games in the NHL before his all but certain return to Portland. Barring some sort of locust plague -- and even then I am not so sure -- Baertschi will not play the season with the Flames. As an 18-year-old rookie last season in the Canadian Hockey League Baertschi is not physically ready to deal with the Chris Prongers and Shea Webers of the NHL. Regardless, for an organization that isn't exactly swimming in talent, Baertschi is a breath of fresh air and reason for fans to believe that the cupboards aren't as bare as they may seem.
Perhaps most impressive so far has been the play of Byron, who has succeeded in making himself difficult to cut. The 20-year-old forward Roman Horak, acquired in the afore mentioned deal involving Erixon, remains with the team and looked comfortable and offensively dangerous throughout the pre-season. Horak could be a pleasant surprise if he were legitimate challenge for a fourth line spot, making forward Matt Stajan's place even more precarious.
All things considered, the training camp battles are largely insignificant in terms of substantive roster changes -- this training camp has maybe two spots available without occupation due to incumbency. Feaster has stated that a merit-based evaluation will be used, but most consider the sentiment to be rhetoric. It is unlikely that he would be willing to sit three or four veterans -- with veteran contracts -- in favour of a few prospects.
All in all, when one examines the upcoming season, it is seductive to think of the possibilities on the team: If Rene Bourque has a bounce-back, if Niklas Hagman could find his scoring touch again, if Mikael Backlund emerges as a top-flight centreman or if Matt Stajan can earn a third of his paycheck. The banter goes on throughout the line-up. Yes, it is true that if all Flames live up to their projected potential, Calgary should have a playoff team once again. This is reason to be optimistic enough -- some of last year's successes occurred without many contributions from underachievers. Enthusiasm, however, is tempered with skepticism for those concerned the Flames are merely treading water inside a Western Conference that is leaving them behind talent-wise.
Anyone who states they can predict this season with any degree of certainty is misleading. The optimist in me believes the Flames will compete this season in the same eighth to 11th seed range we saw last season. That being said, it is conceivable that the Flames could finish in 14th or fourth. The only certain thing is that Iginla and Kiprusoff are not getting any younger and it would be a disgrace to see them waste any more seasons in the swampy mediocrity that the Flames currently reside in. The Jay Feaster era begins in earnest on Oct. 8th and I am not sure how much longer I can stand watching locker room clean outs in April.