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GM Sutter Pulls Flames From out of Fire in Western Conference Playoff Race

North of the border, there has been much Toronto-centric coverage on the Maple Leafs and their recent roster shake-up, and yet that other Canadian team that has undergone a radical transformation over the past few days, the Calgary Flames, has probably improved so much more.

The Flames traded away disappointing defenseman Dion Phaneuf, defenseive prospect Keith Aulie, and checking forward Fredrik Sjostrom to the Leafs in exchange for defenseman Ian White and forwards Matt Stajan, Nicklas Hagman, and Jamal Mayers.

Then, they mixed things up that much more by shipping off former superstar (how else to describe him?) Olli Jokinen and enforcer Brandon Prust to the New York Rangers for second-tier forwards Ales Kotalik and Chris Higgins.

While the naysayers (and some delusional Leafs fans looking to justify the deal that sent away a third of their offense) will probably be saying that Phaneuf represents the future of any organization he has played for, the truth of the matter is that was the Dion of two years ago.

This season and last, there have been rumblings that he was not willing to be taught to play proper defense (kind of a requirement if you're a defenseman by trade) and was generally hard to coach. For a coach of Brent Sutter's pedigree and hard-nosed style, it seems plentifully logical that the Flames would try and squeeze out that stone for as much water as they could get to safeguard themselves against his stock falling any lower.

That being said, it is very clear that they got full value for him, at least in my opinion, even taking into consideration the fact that Stajan will be an unrestricted free agent at season's end (Hagman has two more years left on his contract and Mayers, who is more of an afterthought to this deal than anything else will be a UFA this post-season as well).

With the Flames in ninth place in the Western conference at 27-21-8 (and having just recovered from a nine-game losing streak and forwards Craig Conroy, Nigel Dawes, and David Moss lost to injury), the injection of offense will no doubt do them some good.

Meanwhile, White, who has arguably been the best-kept secret on the Maple Leafs's blue line playing behind Tomas Kaberle, will be a restricted free agent come July 1st. Barring a trade, he will stay a Flame for the foreseeable future. His 26 points (nine goals) are actually better than Phaneuf's 22 (10 goals). So, at least with regards to this year, the Flames got more back than they gave up.

The same can be said for the Jokinen deal. Despite a strong initial scoring binge upon first joining the Flames at last year's trade deadline, Jokinen has been a shadow of the player who once scored 89 and 91 points in back-to-back seasons with the generally offensively challenged Florida Panthers. Because he's only 31, should be in his prime, and is on pace for only 49 points, he has been more of a statistical disappointment than Phaneuf.

Going the other way are Higgins and Kotalik, who combine for 36 points this year, which is one more than Jokinen's 35 (forgive me for not including Prust's five points in this in-depth analysis; he was not traded for to score points).

While Kotalik has more points than Higgins does (22 to 14), Higgins actually represents the key to this deal in my humble opinion. He is the more versatile forward and has at least three dimensions to Kotalik's one, which would be his only being able to score points when placed on a line with a superstar. Higgins can certainly score, as his career-high 52-point season with the Montreal Canadiens in 2007-2008 will show, but he can be put in a checking role and can also kill penalties to perfection. Should he be given a chance on a top line with the Flames, he will contribute in more ways than just scoring goals and picking up assists.

Bottom line, when you look at Calgary's roster right now, they look like a better team than they did last Saturday. Taking prospect Mikael Backlund's call up into account, the team boasts eight legitimate top-six forwards, who are healthy right now: Backlund, Rene Bourque, Niklas Hagman, Higgins, Jarome Iginla, Kotalik, Daymond Lankow, and Stajan. Considering Curtis Glencross and Jamie Lundmark can be pushed into such a role and play it competently if need be, offensive depth is not an issue in Cowtown.

If we call the move at defense a short-term wash (as well as the move in keeping the status quo in goal), there is little doubt that general manager Darryl Sutter improved his club this past week. He did give up two marquee names in the process, but think about it this way: If those marquee names weren't performing, what did they really lose? Nothing. They did get a better chance to win, though.

The sensible thing for the Flames to do right now would be to see how well this latest incarnation of the team performs together over the next few games. There's every reason to believe that they can make the playoffs as is, without having to give up any part of their present or future for a certain Atlanta Thrasher. Rumours that Sutter is interested in acquiring Ilya Kovalchuk are probably true, because, usually in these instances, where there's smoke there's fire, but Flames fans can at least thank Sutter that their playoff hopes have started again to burn bright after flickering dimmer earlier in this new year. They may not make it, but at least they can. That's more that can be said for that other Canadian team.