Yes, indeed, despite the promise of impending labor Armageddon and a prolonged work-stoppage, your friends at Puck Daddy are previewing the 2012-13 NHL season (whenever the heck it starts). Why? Because this is the most important election in the history of all-time ever, and you need to know the candidates — starting with the Calgary Flames.
The Flames 2011-12 was a lot like their 2010-11. In contention right up until the final week of the season, they just couldn't get over the hump, and found themselves outside looking in. In 2010-11, when the playoffs began, they were three points back of 8th-place Chicago. In 2011-12, they finished five points behind the 8th-place LA Kings. Fans renewed their calls for a rebuild.
But hey man, the Kings went on to win the Stanley Cup. Why would you rebuild when you were only five points behind them? Why not just hire a coach whose last period of success was pre-lockout and let the championships roll in like they did?
Thus, GM Jay Feaster entered year two of his stubborn refusal to burn it down. Instead, he put some new vinyl siding on it. That's expensive, of course. The Flames continue to boast one of the league's highest payrolls.
Rather than planning for the future, Feaster reached into the past, bringing Michael Cammalleri back from Montreal. Then, in the summer, he brought 2001 Stanley Cup-winning coach Bob Hartley back from Zurich.
Fans are getting restless for some high draft picks that would help Calgary load up for the future, but that restlessness can be cured by instant winning. At this point, it has to be. Will the Flames' insistence on winning now garner the immediate payoff it needs?
Gone is Olli Jokinen, whose second stint in Calgary was better than his first, and resulted in a friendly deal with the Winnipeg Jets. Also departing are forwards Tom Kostopoulos, David Moss, who took a deal with the Phoenix Coyotes, and enforcers Raitis Ivanans and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond (who spent the bulk of the season in the AHL anyway).
Blueliner Scott Hannan was allowed to walk as well.
But you don't want to hear about who left. Far more interesting is who the Flames brought in, and how much they paid do so. In comes Dennis Wideman, for five years at $5.25 per, to help a Flames' powerplay that was middle of the pack last year. Anton Babchuk will probably help with that as well, and at $2.5 million with a no-trade clause, he'd better.
Up front, Feaster grabbed Jiri Hudler for $16 million over four years, as well as centre Roman Cervenka, the KHL's 2010-11 leading scorer.
The Flames' real issue will be at centre, where their top two guys come packaged with some serious questions. Michael Cammalleri has spent most of his NHL career as a winger, but he finished last season at centre, and will likely begin this season as Iginla's pivot. Behind Cammalleri, the Flames are counting on Roman Cervenka centring line two. As mentioned, he was the KHL's leading scorer two years ago, but he was converted to center that year for the first to play with Jaromir Jagr.
In effect, unless Michael Backlund takes the step forward everyone's been waiting for, it's a converted winger and an NHL rookie who's also a converted winger playing the middle on the top two lines. Granted, they'll have some help, as Alex Tanguay will do most of the passing on line 1 and Jiri Hudler should be able to help Cervenka transition to the National on line 2, but still -- that's a tenuous situation, and there is no room for error.
Curtis Glencross and rookie Sven Baertschi will likely compete for that final wing spot in the top six.
On defense … Jay Bouwmeester continues to get paid like the guy without truly being the guy. He's an excellent shutdown defenceman, and if he weren't being paid like a 50-point player, people might notice, but he'll continue to get criticized for not being the player Flames fans thought they were getting.
Luckily, he won't be relied on to provide as much offense from the back end this year. He'll likely continue to anchor a shutdown pairing with Chris Butler.
The scoring will come from the second pairing of Mark Giordano and Dennis Wideman, or at least, considering they're being paid just over $9 million combined, it had better. Both have had a 40-point season in the last two years. If they can both have another, the Flames will be doing cartwheels.
The big concern the Flames have on their back end: it's not very tough. Bouwmeester and Anton Babchuk are big, but they don't play big. Neither do Wideman and Giordano. The only real sandpaper on that blueline might come from Cory Sarich, and he'll only be on the ice about 16 minutes a game.
Prospect T.J. Brodie is a wild card back there as well.
In goal … Miikka Kiprusoff. And only Miikka Kiprusoff. This guy has played over 70 games for 7 straight seasons, and it looks like the only thing that might save him another one is a lockout-shortened season. He might be the only guy totally down with missing a few months.
Behind him, Henrik Karlsson and Leland Irving will battle it out for the job, and Irving will most likely win. He won the job halfway through the season last year, but the Flames didn't want to lose Karlsson to waivers in case Kiprusoff got hurt, so they shuttled a waiver-exempt Irving up and down for his spot-starts. This year, he's waiver-eligible and Calgary already has two goalies in Abbotsford, so unless Irving fizzles in training camp, expect the Flames to find a way to shed Karlsson's contract in Europe.
Nothing says living in the past like "Those Red Hot Flames", which comes complete with 80s synth, brass, moustaches and white polo shirts tucked into jeans.
Perhaps the biggest change of all is behind the bench, where Bob Hartley returns to the NHL after spending some time abroad in the Swiss league. He's had his successes, most notably as the coach of the Colorado Avalanche at the beginning of the last decade, but he's also had his flops, such as the four-year stint in Atlanta that chased him from the NHL. He's perfect for a team insistent in coasting on the glory days of the early oughts. But can he adjust for the modern NHL?
Up in the box, Jay Feaster continues to be large and in charge.
Michael Cammalleri is the key.
Yes, yes, Jarome Iginla is the star on this team. He's the captain, he's a consistent 30-goal guy, and he'll give the Flames the same thing he always gives them: leadership, scoring, toughness, et cetera, et cetera. But that hasn't been enough to get them into the playoffs for two years now, and he's not driving play like he used to. Unless Michael Cammalleri can settle in as Iginla's running mate and push the top line and the powerplay to the next level, it likely won't be again.
Either Cammalleri returns to something near point a game, game-breaker status or the Flames don't have the success they're hoping for.
Called up on an emergency basis during the Flames' rash of injuries late last season, 19-year-old winger Sven Baertschi won hearts with three goals in five games during a crucial stretch drive. Sure, it's a tiny sample size, but he's the best forward prospect the Flames have had since Iginla in the mid-90s, and his brief showing was enough for Flames fans and management to get excited about having the CHL's top points per game guy in their lineup full-time. That should happen this year, and a big rookie campaign is expected.
Dennis Wideman is paid a whole lot of money and if he doesn't do well out of the gate, people will start to remember that, but I'd be more concerned about Jiri Hudler. He'll be expected to produce at least 50 points, like he did twice in Detroit (and also once in the KHL in between), but he's not playing with the same calibre of centres in Calgary. There is no Henrik Zetterberg on this team. There may not even be a Valteri Filppula.
Even more concerning, Hudler might wind up the only NHL veteran on a line with Cervenka and Baertschi. Can he carry a line for the first time in his NHL career?
Jarome Iginla *says* he was born in Canada. But have you ever seen his birth certificate? Why not? What's he hiding?
The Flames are a much different team last year, and if everything goes well, they could be better too. But I'd wager that, despite spending heavily in the summer, they find themselves in about the same position in the spring: fighting for a playoff spot as the schedule winds down.