Friday, August 19, 2005

Team Preview: Calgary Flames

Key additions: Tony Amonte, LW/RW (FA - PHI); Roman Hamrlik, D (FA - NYI); Darren McCarty, RW (FA - DET); Daymond Langkow, C (T - PHX); Phillipe Sauve, G (FA - COL); Jason Wiemer, LW/C (FA - MIN); Craig MacDonald, C (FA - BOS); Zenith Komarniski, D (FA - CGY); Dion Phaneuf, D (D - 2003, 1/9); Eric Nystrom, LW (D - 2002, 1/10)

Key losses: Dean McAmmond
, LW (FA - STL); Martin Gelinas, LW (FA - FLA); Mike Comodore, D (T- CRL); Craig Conroy, C (FA - LA); Chris Clark, RW (T - WSH); Ville Nieminen, RW/LW (FA - NYR); Oleg Saprykin, LW (T - PHX); Dennis Gauthier, D (T - PHX); Roman Turek, G (FA - Europe); Toni Lydman, D (T - BUF)

Key players unsigned:

For a team that just went to the Stanley Cup Finals, there has been a fair amount of turnover and most of it has been up front. Gone are more than 70 goals from a team that only scored 200 in 2003-04. To make up for some of that lost production, the Flames brought in perennial 20-goal scorers Amonte and Langkow and will rely heavily on the theory that a chimp could rack up 50 points playing on a line with Jarome Iginla (no, that's not a dig at Chris Simon). In addition, right wing Chuck Kobasew must build on his success last year in the AHL this year in the NHL. Still, this team will struggle to score goals. But what the Flames lack in offensive production, they more than make up for in hustle and nastiness. With McCarty, Simon, Wiemer et. al., ventures into the corners to retrieve loose pucks will not be fun for opposing teams. At some point, however, the Flames will need to find more offense.

Or will they? Calgary gave up the third fewest goals in 2003-04 (New Jersey and Dallas finished 1-2), and is stacked on the blueline, especially after adding another legitimate big-minutes defenseman in Hamrlik. One-to-six, this is one of the NHL's deepest defenses, if not the deepest. Jordan Leopold and Robyn Regehr are only getting better, Toni Lydman is solid, Rhett Warrener and Andrew Ference are nasty, and Phaneuf is another physical blueliner with a big shot who will get a chance this year in Calgary. The depth at defense is the Flames greatest team asset, and it would surprise no one to see one or more of the defensemen (Lydman?) moved for offensive help.

Miikka Kiprusoff is coming off a Vezina-caliber half-season in 2003-04 (38 games, 24-10-4, 1.69 GAA, .933 SV%) and stayed active in 2004-05, playing in Sweden. The challenge for Kiprusoff will be showing that he can perform at such a high level for an entire regular season. With the defense in front of him, that should be possible, but few goalies in the League have a slimmer margin of error with which to work, and that may eventually wear on Kiprusoff. Our bet is that it won't. Kiprusoff will be backed up by Sauve, who is coming off a disappointing year in the ECHL (yes, the ECHL).

Bottom line:
Great goaltending plus great defense plus great work ethic, grit and leadership equals a trip to the Finals. The Flames are sticking with that winning formula for 2005-06. Strange as it may sound, though, Calgary could have a tougher time getting back to the playoffs than making it to the Finals once there. The wide open style the League promises will emerge as a result of the new rule changes does not necessarily favor the Flames, a team that is better suited for the inevitable lower-scoring, tighter-checking playoffs. Look for the Flames to finish anywhere from fourth through ninth in the Western Conference, and then who knows?

Update (8/25): The Flames shipped Lydman to Buffalo for a third-round pick in next year's draft. The big upside to this deal from Calgary's perspective is that it frees up $1.9 million in salary.

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