I don't care that my season preview is technically late. (I mean, the Europe games don't even count in my fantasy league or the HBSL so...) The pre-season is over and I have no questions about the Flames that I did not have on July 1. I'll recap these critical questions – the factors that will determine whether the Flames can finally get over the hump this year, and explain the rather precarious position the Flames find themselves in if they don't. So it's a cliché, what are you asking for with these things? Warning: this post is extremely long. I tried my best but this sucker still clocks in at a good 2000+ words.
Without further ado, here's an arbitrary number of questions and factors that will determine how the Flames do this year, in order of importance:
1. Will scoring-by-committee work?
The most notable thing the Flames did in the offseason was replace Kristian Huselius and Alex Tanguay with the Mike Cammalleri and Rene Bourque. I could not find a single Flames fan who wanted the Flames to re-sign Huselius, and the amount of people who wanted them to keep Tanguay was similarly low. Huselius was maddeningly inconsistent and could not produce when it counted, whereas Tanguay simply did not fit into Mike Keenan's system and had requested a trade. Regardless of one's opinion on these moves, one can't ignore the fact that Huselius WAS the Flames' second-highest scorer, and that Tanguay put up 81 points in Calgary before Keenan came to town.
Providing he stays relatively consistent and healthy (bigger questions than some may think), Cammalleri will be an effective replacement for either Tanguay or Huselius. The real question lies in the wingers underneath him on the depth chart. Rene Bourque seems to perfectly fit in Calgary's system, and I do like him as a player. But I'm still wondering whether a player with a career high of 34 points in 77 games is a viable second line solution. There's also Curtis Glencross, who the Flames signed after a great year in Columbus and Edmonton. I have talked to Oilers fans who think they should have re-signed him, and Flames fans who think he will have an even better year, significantly topping his 15 goals and 25 points. While the Glencross signing was my favorite move, I honestly don't see him being that much better than last year. Though he is projected to be the left wing on my current second favorite line – the 3rd line – I can't see him as higher than that.
Of just as much concern to me is the depth at center. The aging of Craig Conroy means that Matthew Lombardi should be penciled in at line two. Lombardi must prove he is capable in this role, or else he will get traded (especially with Dustin Boyd coming up, and Mikael Backlund probably making the team next year). Lombardi has been a source of frustration for me for a long time. A common criticism of Lombardi is that though he has all the speed in the world, he simply does not know what to do with it. Defenders of Lombardi point out that he has never has had great linemates up to this point, mostly playing on the third and fourth lines. If that is the reason Lombardi struggles to put up consistent numbers, it will be proven or disproven this season. The first line is flexible at this point, so Keenan may try giving Lombardi the best linemates possible in Cammalleri and Bourque (which balances out the top six by giving each line at least one proven player – two on line one with Langkow and Iginla). Put simply, I don't think Lombardi will get a better opportunity to prove himself as a capable top six forward than he will this year. And if he can't, it's time for Darryl Sutter to see if other teams still believe in him on the trade market, and perhaps put Dustin Boyd in his spot if he's ready. (At the same time, the situation with Lombardi eerily reminds me of the last struggling young forward Flames fans and Sutter gave up on: Chuck Kobasew. Look what that got the Flames: Wayne Primeau. Still, unless Sutter ends up trading Lombardi for another player like Primeau, I am not changing my position).
I almost forgot to comment on the controversial signing of Todd Bertuzzi. I supported the Bertuzzi signing from the start. However, I don't think he's due for a revival of his career just because he's playing with Jarome Iginla. I think he will be an adequate replacement for Owen Nolan, no more, no less. I honestly think he can work reasonably well on the top six, maybe even first line, but I can't see him scoring more points than Nolan or significantly surpassing last season's total of 40 points.
Now that I'm done exploring the forwards, it's time for the next critical factor...
2. Can Miikka Kiprusoff rebound? And is his relationship with Keenan really fixed?
Roll out whatever excuse you can come up with – you can't blame the goalie totally for the Flames, the mediocre season was the result of the Flames too heavily leaning on Kipper for too long, he was still third in the NHL in wins – the indisputable fact remains that Miikka Kiprusoff had a mediocre, maybe even terrible, season last year. He started out horribly, looked relatively back in form by midseason, but then had the worst performance of his career in the playoffs. I still blame Mike Keenan at least partially for Kipper's struggles, because I believe he threw him under the bus far too often. However, Kipper did let in an exceptionally high number of softies last year, and many essentially cost them games. Whether the Flames surprise, or are the same team as the last two seasons, you can't dispute that Kipper has to be on top of his game all year for them to compete. With the possible exception of Detroit, every winning team simply needs a goalie who can dominate when they need him to. No matter what the reason for it is, if Kipper struggles again this year, in the first year of a virtually untradeable six-year extension, it creates problems for the future I don't even want to think about.
But as I mentioned, Keenan isn't totally blameless. No matter what role he played in Kipper's struggles, but we all saw what happened in Game 7 against San Jose. You really can't make apologies for the goals Kipper let in, but we saw how he stormed to the dressing room upon being pulled. It was mostly media hype, but I at least partially believe it. Flames fans can be eternally grateful Keenan's powers are only behind the bench, but everyone in the NHL also remembers the last elite goaltender Keenan had on his team before Kiprusoff. Keenan has already driven one great player out of Calgary (Tanguay). If, at any point, it looks like his relationship with Kiprusoff is reaching a breaking point, he must be canned immediately.
Which brings me to my last factor...
3. Will Mike Keenan last the whole season behind the bench? If so, will he be able to improve the team?
The most shocking move of the 2007 offseason did not have the instant apocalyptic effect in Calgary that some expected, but Keenan's first season in Calgary was no better than that of his predecessor, Jim Playfair. His most notable achievements of 2008 seemed to be driving an 80-point player out of town and possibly alienating his franchise goaltender. With the thinning of talent this offseason, Keenan has to prove he can still be a capable coach more than ever. Considering everything, I think that if Keenan can't get anything significant out of the Flames by Christmas, he – as well as the entire coaching staff – should be canned. I explained in my last blogpost about the departure of assistant Wayne Fleming how none of the Flames' staff seems they would be a capable replacement if Keenan was fired. Playfair lost the team's confidence his first try, Rich Preston inexplicably still has a job after managing one of the worst power plays in the league for years, and I don't know enough about Rob Cookson to judge. Sure, such a move would, depending on when it happened, probably cost the Flames a playoff spot, but if Keenan is ineffective they won't be getting anywhere anyway.
Conclusions and the Flames' disappointment dilemma
My conclusions about this team are that while I still can't argue that the team looks better on paper, I'm not ruling out the possibility that the 2nd and 3rd line players Sutter brought in for the 1st and 2nd lines can be serviceable there. After all, from 2004 to 2007, this stuff used to happen all the time. I have less confidence in Mike Keenan, however, and many things have to go right for the Flames to have a decent year this year. Attempting to balance optimism and reason, I would say that the highest I see the Flames finishing in the regular season is 3rd in the West. They still have the potential to win the Northwest Division. The lowest I can see them is missing the playoffs or scraping in on a 7th or 8th seed (a task made tougher by the improvements of Chicago and Phoenix, among others). No matter where they finish, it is inexcusable for the Flames, with one of the highest payrolls in the league and one of the best cores, to not get past the first round. I won't even say that I'd consider getting to the 2nd round a successful season.
So if they do disappoint again, it's time for some serious accountability to happen. Which means that some serious heat should be put on Darryl Sutter. I consider Keenan's firing inevitable if the Flames disappoint, but the real question is whether Sutter would keep his job. Since the lockout, he has signed his core but consistently failed to surround them with a good enough supporting cast. And if he can't do that this year with such a high payroll, how is he not to blame? The good news is, assuming the cap rises at the same rate as it has before, the Flames will have in excess of $20 million in cap space to sign a defenceman to replace Adrian Aucoin, re-sign Dustin Boyd and David Moss, and most significantly, sign two top six forwards. One of these may be Mike Cammalleri but he shouldn't take up THAT much of the budget if they try to re-sign him, depending on when they do it. Essentially, if the Flames don't improve this year, they have a better chance to do so next year. But if that doesn't work, it may be time to start considering starting from scratch – yes, I am subtly referring to a significant rebuild.
But enough doom-and-gloom speculation. The fact is, a new season is upon us, and despite all my skepticism, I couldn't be more excited for it to start. I sincerely hope more than anything that I'm wrong about everything pessimistic I just said.
(Addendum: Some other notes I couldn't quite find room for under the other headings: the powerplay looks as dismal as usual, and it will stay this way until they get a competent coach to manage it; a definite improvement for the Flames lies on defence, where the (presumed) departure of Anders Eriksson alone could give the Flames 10-12 more points in the standings, and the addition of some youth in Mark Giordano and Adam Pardy should be an improvement; Kipper let in a few bad goals in the preseason, all I can say is better now than later; Mikael Backlund was a disappointment but I am sure he will be ready next year; and I have a gut feeling Dustin Boyd is poised for a breakout year.)