I will only make one “bold” prediction before the Flames open their season – they will lose their opening game Thursday night at home against the Canucks. Why? Simply because I can’t remember the last time the Flames won their opening game, and they have had a great deal of frustration the past few years with the Canucks, who have taken the mantle of true #1 rival from the Oilers. But beyond tomorrow night, the season is a mystery to me; I expect the Flames to be improved generally, and be at least second in their division, but beyond that I just don’t know. As I detailed in my previous blog
, 2010 is a bit of an enigma for the Flames: on the surface it appears to be a “go for it” year, but looking at the roster it doesn’t seem to fit, and Darryl Sutter may be thinking more long term than people think. Nevertheless, here’s my obligatory general look ahead at the Flames, for the year ahead. As it is opening day, I’ll simply look ahead to the coming year, and deal with the long term when it’s appropriate.
The Flames’ two major offseason moves – the long overdue complete revamp of the coaching staff and the coup of signing Jay Bouwmeester – plug the Flames’ two biggest holes from last season – coaching and defense. However, in my mind there are two major questions that will determine the Flames’ fate this season. These are probably obvious to anyone who has followed this team even a little but I’ll analyze them anyway. The two questions are whether the offense will be good enough, and whether Miikka Kiprusoff will be good enough.
The first, most obvious question is whether the offense will be good enough. I may have to edit this by the time the puck drops, but this appears to be the opening night lines:
Moss – Jokinen –Iginla
Dawes - Langkow – Bourque
Glencross – Conroy – Boyd
Sjostrom – Nystrom – Prust
*based on Wednesday’s practice lines
This offense may not look like much to a relative outsider, but what has been forgotten or overlooked in every prediction writing off the Flames because of their questionable offense is that the questions really are quite similar, if not basically the same, as the questions which faced the Flames last year. In fact, I might even go so far as to argue that the offense looked worse on paper last year. Go back and read my season preview blog from last season.
The questions facing the offense then were whether Mike Cammalleri would be an adequate replacement for one of Alex Tanguay or Kristian Huselius (he did; leading the club in goals meant he accomplished more than either player ever did in Calgary), whether Rene Bourque would be an adequate top six winger (he was, enjoying an excellent breakout season before an effectively season-ending ankle injury in late February) whether Matthew Lombardi could be an effective top-six center (he wasn’t, leading to him being traded for Olli Jokinen), and whether Todd Bertuzzi would have enough gas left in the tank to be a decent enough top six winger (as it turned out, he didn’t; after a hot start his bad back eventually flared up during the stretch drive making him useless, and his complete lack of a defensive game never helped the Flames at any point). The main questions this year are how well Olli Jokinen can replace Cammalleri (shouldn’t be much of a question), whether Rene Bourque can pick up where he left off last February and stay healthy, whether David Moss can continue to make strides to the point he’s a legitimate top six winger (perhaps my biggest question in the offense), and whether Nigel Dawes can stay consistent (I have heard from Rangers fans he is a streaky player.) It should also be noted that the addition of Jay Bouwmeester, in addition to solidifying the defense, also should at least replace Bertuzzi’s point output (Bertuzzi had 43 points in 66 games last year, Bouwmeester 42 in 82). What the Flames offense essentially comes down to is Nigel Dawes and David Moss basically replacing Rene Bourque and Matthew Lombardi as the two biggest question marks on the top six. (Here are some more statistics worth considering regarding this situation. Prior to 2009, Lombardi and Bourque were primarily bottom six forwards, just as Moss and Dawes have been prior to their opening night slotting in the Flames’ lines. Prior to 2009, Lombardi had 137 points in 297 games for a 0.461 PPG, and Bourque had 75 points in 183 games for a 0.410 PPG. Moss has 68 points in 163 games for a 0.417 PPG, and Dawes has 51 points in 133 games for a 0.383 PPG.) However, even if my optimistic predictions of these players are off the mark, the second hope is that the defense will be improved enough that the Flames will need less goals a night to win.
The hope with the defense is also that they are improved enough to take heat off Miikka Kiprusoff. In my mind, the Flames still live and die with Kipper. It is an absolutely critical year for Kipper. I have given him the benefit of the doubt; as Mike Keenan criminally overworked him the past two years and it became clear he could no longer handle a workload over, say, 65 games. But if he once again cannot be a $5.8 million goaltender in crunch time, the Flames will not achieve anything substantial. (And it would raise a critical problem: the Flames would then have a goalie contract arguably just as bad, if not worse, than Cristobal Huet’s in Chicago.)
Some general thoughts on this year. I fully expect the Northwest Division to be won by either the Flames or Canucks. I must admit I think the Canucks are better overall on paper. I think the time is ripe, though, for another Flames-Canucks first round playoff series (reminder: the last three times this happened, it went to Game 7 overtime and the winner went on to the Stanley Cup Finals.) Though the Oilers might still be a bubble team, and the Canucks have taken their spot as the Flames’ true bona fide number one rivals, I dread facing them now that Nikolai Khabibulin is their goalie – he owns the Flames and has beaten them in two playoff series. Back to goaltending, I am still doubting the decision to bring back Curtis McElhinney as Kipper’s backup. He did not get enough starts last year to truly judge him, and the defense has a bizarre tendency to leave him out to dry every time he starts, but in the few times I saw him in truly pressure situations I saw him let in truly momentum killing goals. In his preseason start at Vancouver, he looked very shaky. I am quite puzzled as to why they gambled on bringing him back when there were many cheap backup options – such as Alex Auld, Ty Conklin, Scott Clemmensen, etc – out there. Both Brent and Darryl Sutter have said that McElhinney will get 10-15 starts this season, but I wonder whether he won’t be replaced at some point during the season. I was surprised at Staffan Kronwall winning the 7th defenseman spot over Anton Stralman (who was traded to Columbus for a 3rd rounder, rendering the Flames’ original trade of a 2nd rounder for Stralman a waste.) I would have thought Stralman had better puck moving capabilities, which would be convienent as the Flames only have three puck moving d-men. Take my opinions in this paragraph with a grain of salt, though – I never did have the opportunity to watch any of the pre-season games in full.
The slate is clean, my hope in this team is higher than it’s been in awhile, and the puck is mere hours away from dropping. Maybe the Flames can even win their opening game for once!
(Addendum: some may say the powerplay should also be a major question. However, I am confident that replacing the clueless Rich Preston with Dave Lowry to run the powerplay, as well as having a coach in Brent Sutter who’s actually coached this century and knows that the powerplay is something that should actually be practiced should improve it tenfold. I believe the Flames had one of the most efficient powerplays in the pre-season.)