The Flames are coming off a desultory season where they converted high expectations into a 10th place finish in the Western Conference, scoring a league-low 204 goals in the process. Along the way they significantly turned over their roster, trading away Dion Phaneuf and Olli Jokinen among others before the trade deadline, receiving Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman, Ian White and Ales Kotalik as the primary players coming back. Part and parcel with the roster turnover were contract extensions given to Rene Bourque and Matt Stajan, and the Flames also took on a decent-sized contract with Kotalik for the next two seasons.
The result of the roster churn is that the Flames are currently over the salary cap by about $3 million and need to find a way to pare down before the start of the season. This cap situation handcuffed their ability to address their offensive woes this offseason – all they were able to do was shop in the bargain bins, bringing back Jokinen (to the howls of derision of nearly every commentator on the first day of free agency this summer) and Alex Tanguay. They’ll open the season with Jokinen and Tanguay as Jarome Iginla’s linemates, but chances are they won’t end up with those plum spots. Unlike with the Blackhawks and Cristobal Huet, the Flames aren’t likely to find an angel investor from Europe to take on one of their bad contracts, so look for a pricy veteran like Cory Sarich or Steve Staios to shockingly not make the final roster, unless they can find a way to offload Kotalik on another sucker.
The really sad part about the Flames’ situation is that they have two of the elite players in the game in Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff, and their respective talents are seemingly going to waste. If enough of their disappointments from last year (Jay Bouwmeester and Jokinen, to name two) bounce back, they should be a playoff team, but it’s hard to envision them keeping up with the elite teams in the Western Conference. Instead, their upside seems to be as a fifth or sixth seed, and a second year in a row of missing the playoffs is a distinct possibility.
THE BIG GUNS
Jarome Iginla (RW): Iginla is coming off of his worst season since 2005-06, and probably his most disappointing season altogether, given what was at stake for the Flames. He ended up with a team-high 69 points (32 G, 37 A), with 10 of his goals coming with the man advantage. How much of Iginla's decline is on him, and how much can be blamed on his teammates? The Flames were last in the NHL in goals scored with 204, and traded his most frequent center (Olli Jokinen) just before the trade deadline. Only one other teammate had more than 15 goals or more than 30 assists - Rene Bourque. Iginla shot at a reasonable if not great 12.5%, so it seems like most of his problems stemmed from not having much talent around him. Therein lies the rub - the team did very little in the offseason to raise the hope that he'd get more help. They're getting the band back together by signing both Jokinen and Alex Tanguay - the latter's signing might help more than the former's. Daymond Langkow's neck injury hasn't improved, and in fact was the inspiration for re-signing Jokinen as the "best available center" out on the free-agent market that the Flames could afford. Iginla went through some withering goal droughts last season, and chances are there could be more of the same in 2010-11.
Miikka Kiprusoff (G): Kiprusoff endured an incredibly frustrating season, earning just 35 wins despite posting a .920 save percentage and a 2.31 GAA, his best numbers in both categories since 2005-06. He remains a workhorse, either by hook (his own ability) or crook (the lack of a decent backup). The Flames traded for Henrik Karlsson from the Sharks in July, adding a talented but untested backup who will almost certainly stick with the team due to his contract situation. Look for more of the same from Kippy - 70-plus games, excellent percentages, and perhaps more frustration from a lack of scoring support from his skaters.
Rene Bourque (LW): Bourque has thrived with the full opportunities that Calgary has given him since acquiring him from the Blackhawks before the 2008-09 season, and he exploded for 58 points (including 27 goals) last season. The Flames demonstrated that they are committed to him by inking him to a six-year, $20 million extension before the trade deadline last season. The only negative is that Bourque isn't terribly effective on the power play, tallying just six power-play goals last year and none the season before that. Moreover, he won't spend much time on Jarome Iginla's line, assuming that Alex Tanguay skates with Iginla after the Flames re-signed him during the summer.
Jay Bouwmeester (D): Bouwmeester was among the biggest disappointments in all of hockey last season, posting just 29 points (and only three goals) in his first year with the Flames. As with other disappointing players on the Flames, the defense-first system has a lot to blame. Bouwmeester shot the puck on net only 130 times after averaging nearly 180 shots the last three seasons. Once it got on net, good things didn't follow, as Bouwmeester's shooting percentage was an unbelievably low 2.3%. Though he'll have to hold off the improving Mark Giordano to be the Flames' top point-man on the power play, Bouwmeester is probably as good of a turnaround candidate as anyone in the game, even if he doesn't achieve the 50-point upside many thought he once had.
ON THE RISE
Ian White (D): White is coming off of a career year in which he scored 38 points (13-25) from the blueline, with nine of those points coming on the power play. He averaged over two minutes per game on the power play, both with Toronto and with Calgary. He was the one player in the trade that sent Dion Phaneuf to Toronto that didn't drop off upon arriving in Calgary. The Flames made re-signing him a priority, and they inked him to a one-year, $3M deal moments before going to a potentially contentious arbitration hearing. He'll work on the first team power play with Jay Bouwmeester more often than not.
Matt Stajan (C): Though Stajan is coming off of his best statistical season, potting a career-high 57 points, his productivity declined (16 points in 27 games) after the trade from Toronto to Calgary midseason. In fairness, the Flames scored less than any other team in the NHL, so some of Stajan's decline has to do with falling down to the team's level. What's worrisome though is that he had just two power-play points after the trade to the Flames. That the team re-signed Olli Jokinen, presumably to center Jarome Iginla's line, is also troubling. Stajan instead will center the team’s second line to begin the year, getting flanked by Rene Bourque and Niklas Hagman. If the Jokinen reunion fails as most expect, however, he could land back with Iginla where more points are available.
Mark Giordano (D): Giordano was a pleasant surprise for a Flames team full of disappointments, potting 11 goals and tallying 19 assists, including five-and-10 on the power play respectively. Unfortunately, he was like a number of his teammates in that he faltered down the stretch, going without a goal in his final 17 games of the season, and failing to score with the man advantage in his final 23 games. Jay Bouwmeester will be the Flames' primary blueliner on the power play, but look for Giordano to get significant ice time in that capacity as well, perhaps third in line behind Ian White.
THREE TO AVOID
Niklas Hagman (RW): As was the case with Matt Stajan, Hagman's production went down after getting traded to the Flames by the Leafs. He had 20 goals and 13 assists in 55 games at the time of the deal, and then had just 11 points (5 G, 6 A) in 27 games, including no power-play goals. This occurred despite Hagman frequently skating with Jarome Iginla and getting time on the Flames' top power-play unit. The question to ask with Hagman (and Stajan, and even Olli Jokinen) is whether the Flames' personnel or their system to blame for the steep offensive declines for their incoming forwards? We tend to think it's more a case of the former, though we acknowledge that there's also an adjustment period for most forwards when they join a new team. Hagman probably doesn't have a scoring spike in him, but a best-case scenario where he tallies 25 goals and 50 points does exist, though that's the top-end of what you could possibly hope for from him.
Olli Jokinen (C): Get up, get down, Olli is a joke in this town. Again. The Flames are going back to the well for the third time with Jokinen in what was probably the most surprising free agent signing of the summer. The last experience didn't end so well - Jokinen failed to produce, posting 35 points in 56 games before getting traded to the Rangers at the deadline. Moreover, he didn't click with star winger Jarome Iginla, and was rumored to be a destructive force in the locker room to boot. What could possibly go wrong by trying it again? In fairness, the Flames were desperate to sign another center in the wake of Daymond Langkow's lack of progress recovering from his neck injury and had to take a chance on some discounted properties in the free-agent market due to their cap situation. Jokinen is almost certainly a good bet to improve somewhat - his 6.4% shooting percentage jumps out as an anomaly. But expecting him to recover all the way back to his peak form as a member of the Panthers is expecting too much.
Daymond Langkow (C): Langkow was struck in the back of the neck by a puck during a game in March and lied motionless on the ice for 10 minutes. Afterwards, he downplayed the injury, but he didn't return to the ice for the remainder of the season. Fast forward to July, and Langkow still was feeling complications from the injury some 100 days later. It was Langkow's injury that prompted the Flames to go out and sign Olli Jokinen and install him as their first-line center. But with Matt Stajan onboard, it's also possible that even if fully healthy, Langkow won't be anything more than a third-line center on a two-line team. We're two full seasons removed from when Langkow was a 60+ points player, and he doesn't appear to be close to returning to his former glory.
Mikael Backlund (C): Backlund more than held his own in a 23-game trial with the Flames last year, notching one goal and nine assists while playing on multiple lines. Whenever you look at a young player's numbers with the Flames, you have to take the system into account - this was a system that depressed offense, so Backlund's output is better than it looks. Backlund also fared well at the team's developmental camp this summer, and has a good chance to surpass Daymond Langkow in the Flames' pecking order and stick with the team all season long. Watch how the Flames use Backlund – he might be relegated to fourth-line center duty initially, as they are deep at center even with Langkow out. But talent should eventually will out, putting Backlund into a more advantageous situation. The Flames’ brass has said, however, that moving Backlund to a wing position is not an option.
Henrik Karlsson (G): Karlsson was traded to the Flames after a superb campaign in Sweden. He'll be the odds-on favorite to win the backup job behind Miikaa Kiprusoff, if for no other reason than he would have to pass through waivers if the Flames were to try to send him down, and that they lack a veteran backstopper otherwise behind Kippy. However, being the backup behind Kiprusoff is a bit like being the Maytag Repairman - he could get as few as 10-12 starts.
Greg Nemisz (C): Nemisz was the Flames’ first-round pick in 2008 (25th overall) and has quietly progressed at the junior level, posting 248 points in 246 games there. He’ll begin the year at Abbotsford of the AHL and might spend the entire season there. The 6’3”, 205-pound center projects to be a prototypical power forward – which means that his development will come slowly, not in lightning bursts. In the long run he could end up being a 25-30-goal scorer.
Matt Pelech (D): Pelech faces an uphill battle to contribute much for the Flames this season, as the top four blueliners are pretty well set and the team has eight defensemen in camp with a legitimate shot to make the team. But the former 2005 first-rounder stands a pretty good chance of making the final cuts for the roster at least, because he’d have to clear waivers to get sent back down. Pelech made his NHL debut in the 2008-09 season, but last year was lost to a potentially life-threatening blood clot near the base of his right shoulder. He ultimately missed 37 games at Abbotsford of the AHL due to the condition. In the long run Pelech could be a force on the power play, as he has good size and a big shot, but that won’t likely happen in 2010-11.