Porous Flames re-commit to defense

Ross McKeon
Yahoo! Sports

A second straight first-round playoff exit signaled the end of the Mike Keenan era with the Calgary Flames. Some wondered why it lasted even into a second season since there were murmurs of infighting and the inevitable firing could have easily taken place after Iron Mike's first campaign with the Flames.

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Brent Sutter jumps from behind New Jersey's bench to coach Calgary under brother and Flames' GM Darryl Sutter.

(Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Keenan became the easy scapegoat for a team that has a reputation of being somewhat of a challenge to lead. The Flames have had three coaches in four seasons.

Darryl Sutter himself stopped wearing two hats to concentrate solely on the time-consuming tasks of a general manager, leaving the Flames' bench duties in 2006-07 to Jim Playfair. That arrangement lasted only one season as Playfair's team lost in the conference quarterfinals, the second of a current streak of four straight first-round flameouts.

Sutter tapped into a long-standing relationship and mutual respect to hire Keenan, who as the head coach in Chicago years earlier gave the Calgary GM his coaching break by naming Sutter an associate coach with the Blackhawks.

Keenan was signed to a three-year deal with the eighth different team he's coached, but he never made it to the end of the contract. Keenan wasn't nearly as heavy-handed in Calgary as he'd been in other cities, but considering the team fell from first in the league defensively (fewest goals allowed) in 2005-06 to 23rd last year, Sutter felt the change had to be made.

Speculation centered on Sutter returning behind the bench. It turns out that assumption was wrong but not too far off. Instead, Darryl Sutter hired younger brother Brent, who stepped away from New Jersey a short time earlier citing the need to get closer to his family in Red Deer, Alberta.

It's hard to imagine coach and GM won't be on the same page. It's pretty safe to assume playing well defensively will be the top priority, followed closely by turning the Calgary Saddledome into a difficult barn to skate away with two points from and that Sutter hard-work ethic will come shining through, too.

Last season: 46-30-6 (98 points), second by two points in the Northwest Division, fifth in the Western Conference and 10th in the overall standings. Going just 4-6 in their final 10 games while the surging Canucks went 6-3-1 cost the Flames a shot at their first division crown since '05-06 and a more appealing first-round playoff match up. In the postseason, Calgary battled back to even the best-of-seven against Chicago at 2-2 after losing the first two games, but proceeded to get blown out in Games 5 and 6 to exit in the opening round for the second straight spring.

Imports: Coach Brent Sutter (New Jersey), LW Nigel Dawes(notes), RW Brian McGrattan(notes) (Phoenix), RW Fredrik Sjostrom(notes) (N.Y. Rangers), C Garth Murray(notes) (Phoenix), C Brandon Prust(notes) (Phoenix), LW Colin Stuart(notes) (Atlanta), D Anton Stralman(notes) (Toronto).

Exports: Coach Mike Keenan (fired), RW Todd Bertuzzi(notes) (Detroit), D Jordan Leopold(notes) (Florida), D Adrian Aucoin(notes) (Phoenix), LW Mike Cammalleri (Montreal), C Wayne Primeau(notes) (Toronto), D Jim Vandermeer(notes) (Phoenix), LW Warren Peters(notes) (Dallas).

Re-signings: D Jay Bouwmeester(notes), D Adam Pardy(notes), C Dustin Boyd(notes), LW David Moss(notes).

Salary cap: No room at the inn. Well, virtually no room, that is. Darryl Sutter has walked the salary-cap tightrope throughout his GM tenure, so close to the ceiling last season he couldn't fill the lineup for a couple of late-season games due to injuries and no room to add players in terms of payroll. The Flames' payroll is at approximately $54.4 million at the outset of camp, which leaves maybe $2.4 million to play with.

Three keys: Which Miikka Kiprusoff(notes) will turn up at camp this season? The one who gets a late start on his personal conditioning, which translates into a slow start? Or the one who has dedicated himself in the offseason and is ready to take the reigns from the very outset and lead by example?

Brent Sutter knows how to handle an elite goalie who thrives on a heavy workload since he had one the last two seasons in Martin Brodeur(notes), but like Keenan he is demanding in terms of fitness and attitude so it's imperative Kiprusoff and the new coach see eye-to-eye.

Kiprusoff is coming off of a so-so season – 2.84 goals-against average and .903 save percentage – numbers that aren't bad, but troubling since it continues a trend of getting worse in each category for a third straight season. At age 32, Kiprusoff is in his prime as he enters his ninth NHL campaign, and considering he's signed for four more seasons he's not in a position of having to worry about anything but performance.

Secondly, the gradually deteriorating blue line should rebound nicely if the players perform on ice the way they look on paper. The addition of Bouwmeester gives the Flames all kinds of options in terms of pairings and how to dole out minutes. Bouwmeester's big body and the fact he's now surrounded by quality defenders should lead to the 25-year-old becoming a household name.

Dion Phaneuf(notes), Robyn Regehr(notes), Cory Sarich(notes) and Bouwmeester round out a formidable top four. Add Mark Giordano(notes), 26, and Adam Pardy, 25, in addition to a pair of youngsters – Anton Stralman, 23, and Staffan Kronwall(notes), 26 (the brother of Detroit's Niklas Kronwall(notes)) – and the Flames shouldn't plunge in the goals-against department any more.

Third, there has to be some concern over losing 39-goal scorer Michael Cammalleri(notes). The Flames concentrated on shoring up the defense and basically didn't have cap space to fill the hole left by Cammalleri. Theoretically, if Calgary isn't surrendering as many goals, then it won't be looking for as many as Cammalleri supplied. Just the same, if someone wants to stand out and pick up the slack – a full season from Olli Jokinen(notes) is a good start – then that will solve the potential shortfall.

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Defenseman Jay Bouwmeester figures to spread his wings in Calgary after leaving Florida.

(Dale Zanine/US Presswire)

On the hot seat: Darryl Sutter could take some flak for hiring his brother if the Flames don't return to their staunch, defense-first, take-no-prisoners style of play. He's gone in a number of different directions with coaches the last several seasons so the team is counting on some stability now.

Poised to blossom: Jarome Iginla(notes). What, you say? How can a 12-year veteran superstar with 851 points in 942 career games get any better? Well, playing alongside a legitimate top-line center for maybe the first time in his career, that's how. Iginla scored seven goals and 15 points after Jokinen came aboard from Phoenix late last season.

Jokinen isn't known for his passing skills, he's a shooter first. But his big-body presence will give opposing defenders something to think about instead of keying only on Iginla, and the Flames' top right wing will probably get an opportunity to score more in front now because of Jokinen's shooting prowess.

Time has passed: Craig Conroy(notes) has always been the go-to super sub replacement if there's an injury to a top-six forward, usually someone in the middle, but hopefully the Flames have enough depth so the 37-year-old isn't asked to play more than the solid 15 minutes a game he can give the team.

And this isn't a knock on Conroy, an underrated heart-and-soul player much like Kris Draper(notes) in Detroit, but the Flames are going to have a lot more success if he's plugged into that third- or fourth-line role and just asked to check, win faceoffs and chip in the odd goal here and there.

Prediction: The Flames look like they've addressed their most pressing needs and the idea of having a top-line center along for the ride for the first time in what seems like forever makes Calgary division favorites and Cup contenders.