It seems like Calgary Flames general manager Darryl Sutter has been trying to assemble all the puzzle pieces the last couple of years, and it hasn't always been a perfect fit.
Where it seemed at every turn he was being told it would be impossible to keep his talented young core together, Sutter has managed to secure Jarome Iginla, Miikka Kiprusoff, Dion Phaneuf, Robyn Regehr and Daymond Langkow with multiyear deals.
Now comes the hard part, deciding and locating the complementary pieces that fit into the budget and work on the ice.
The Flames went to the last week of the regular season before falling out of the race for the Northwest Division title. They slipped to seventh in the conference and faced an unenviable task of playing San Jose in the first round but pushed the Sharks to seven tough games before losing. Still, Sutter felt the mix wasn't right.
And in the mold of Sutter and coach Mike Keenan, each newcomer has a non-timid streak in his play, whether he's thought of a skill or role player. That's important for the Flames because they lost a bit of their tenacity in their one season under coach Jim Playfair.
Last season: 42-30-10, 94 points, third place Northwest Division, seventh in the Western Conference. Despite finishing just four points off the pace in the division, Calgary slid into the playoffs as the seventh seed. The Flames took San Jose to a seventh game in the opening round but lost 5-3 to make it three straight first-round ousters since reaching Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals in 2004.
Imports: C Michael Cammalleri (2007-08 team: Los Angeles Kings), LW Rene Bourque (Chicago Blackhawks), RW Todd Bertuzzi (Anaheim Ducks), LW Pete Vandermeer (Phoenix Coyotes), D Mark Giordano (Russia), LW Curtis Glencross (Edmonton Oilers), C Jamie Lundmark (minors), LW Andre Roy (Tampa Bay Lightning), LW Kyle Greentree (Philadelphia Flyers).
Exports: LW Alex Tanguay (Montreal Canadiens), LW Kristian Huselius (Columbus Blue Jackets), RW Owen Nolan (Minnesota Wild), C Stephane Yelle (Boston Bruins), D David Hale (Phoenix Coyotes), G Curtis Joseph (Toronto Maple Leafs), C Grant Stevenson (Atlanta Thrashers), D Tim Ramholt (Philadelphia Flyers), RW Eric Godard (Pittsburgh Penguins), C Mark Smith (available free agent).
Three keys to the season: Miikka Kiprusoff has to return to the dominant goalie he was when he won the Vezina Trophy in 2006. The Finn, who turns 32 in late October, literally rested on his laurels last offseason, reporting to camp out of shape. It resulted in a slow start and caused some friction in the organization. He has a fat contract extension now – signed through 2013 – but that had better be the only fat thing about his game come October.
Second, team chemistry and finding line combinations that work will be an early challenge. The Flames are fairly deep down the middle of the ice with Langkow, Cammalleri, Craig Conroy, Matthew Lombardi and Wayne Primeau, but they are suspect on the wings after Iginla on the right side. The natural left wings include David Moss, Eric Nystrom, Marcus Nilson, Bourque, Glencross and Greentree. On the right side after Iginla, there's Bertuzzi – a flameout in Anaheim, Detroit and Florida since his long suspension and departure from Vancouver – and tough guy Andre Roy. It sounds like either some natural centers are going to fan out to the wings, or it's time to rush some prospects into the lineup.
And third, special teams have to be special. The power play ranked 19th and penalty killing was 21st. Kiprusoff ultimately will decide if the PK improves or remains less than average. Expect the power play to feature new personnel, especially up front. Cammalleri is a shifty, clever player. He might be a good fit with Iginla. And Bertuzzi must find a way to contribute, maybe as a player planted in front of the net. Phaneuf will let go with the bombs from the point, but the Flames are going to need contributions from more people to shore up this part of their game.
On the hot seat: It's all on Kiprusoff's shoulders. He has the support of fans and teammates. He can be a difference maker. Don't be fooled by his aloof demeanor, Kiprusoff cares and he's a competitor. He's going to have to be outstanding if the Flames want to jump back atop a competitive and balanced division. There is no experienced backup for Kiprusoff, and forget about the ill effects Keenan's tactics can have on a goalie. No one has coached more outstanding and eccentric goalies than Keenan, and Kiprusoff is no different.
Poised to blossom: Glencross, with two years of NHL experience and 25 years of age, figures to get a good look considering the lack of depth and scoring on the left side of Calgary's lines. He's 6-foot-1, 195 pounds and isn't afraid to play a physical game. Glencross scored 15 goals while splitting last season in Columbus and Edmonton. The Flames wanted him for a reason, and he's sure to get a chance to show them what he can do.
Analysis and prediction: Calgary will be one of the toughest cities to visit and escape with two points, but the Flames have so many question marks up front they look like a team that will have to rely on goaltending and defense to keep them in the hunt. That goes a long way, but usually not all the way. The Flames should be part of the playoff mix in the West, but one slip-up and you can be on the outside looking in real quick.