September 05, 2008
NHL previews are often superfluous collections of popular opinions that, in the end, usually have no relation to how life actually works out. Which makes using stereotypical high-school yearbook superlatives and awards the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2008-09 NHL season previews, presented throughout September.
Last Semester: Seventh in the Western Conference (42-30-10, 94 points). Lost in seven games to the San Jose Sharks in the conference quarterfinals to end coach Mike Keenan's first season behind the Calgary bench. Keenan peacefully smiled, looked the heavens and said, "The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart."
Aw, who the hell are we kidding: He morphed into the cynically wicked Iron Mike and tossed goalie Miikka Kiprusoff under the bus after yanking him in Game 7. The two reportedly had a reconciliation this summer, swallowing their respective prides for the betterment of the team. Also swallowed, by the Flames' preposterously high payroll: Kristian Huselius. But Alex Tanguay finally got his wish to leave, because (wait for it) Mike Keenan alienated the former 80-point scorer by placing him in a defensive role. Ah, good times...
Homecoming King (Top Player): The Calgary Flames are either blessed or cursed in the sense that their best player isn't their most critical player, and vice versa. Jarome Iginla is, without question, the top player on the team; and, coming off a 50-goal season, one of the elite hockey players in the world. But Kiprusoff is, also without question, the team's most crucial player. If Iggy slumps, perhaps the rest of this deep lineup picks up the slack. If Kippur slumps, in this Conference of Death, the Flames could miss the postseason.
Kiprusoff was accused of being out of shape at the beginning of last season, and the Flames' record during the first two months of his struggles (10-12-2) dug them a hole that probably cost them a Northwest Division title. It's cliché to say a team sinks or swims based on its goaltender, but here are your 2008-09 Calgary Flames.
From the most crucial to the most inspirational: Iginla was a Hart Trophy finalist, and had the Capitals missed the playoffs he may have skated away with the hardware. But once that T-shirt came out, we knew Iggy was a runner-up.
Last season was a career best for Iginla in points (98) and goals (50) -- kudos to often unheralded center Daymond Langkow -- and the numbers would had been even bigger were it not for a 10-game goal drought in January. (ED NOTE: Doogie points out that Iggy had 52 goals in the 2001-02 season.) Your head tells you there needs to be some statistic decline this season. Your gut tells you not to doubt Jarome Iginla.
Most Likely To Succeed (Potential Breakout): Michael Cammalleri, center/winger. We're going to find out who Cammalleri is this season. He slumped through injuries last year, but his 34 goals and 80 points two seasons ago showed an undeniable offensive spark. He's going to be surrounded by better, more veteran offensive talent than he was in Los Angeles. Most of all, he's an aces power-play performer (90 man-advantage points over the last three seasons) that will certainly improve Calgary's middling special teams (16.8 percent conversation rate last season). Cammalleri is also delicious when lightly breaded with a side of marinara. Wait ...
Best Expulsion: (Addition by Subtraction): Tanguay hated his coach, begged for a trade and was about as reliable from game-to-game as booking Amy Winehouse for your Sweet 16. Happy trails, Alex. Good thing the media in Montreal isn't overly critical of inconsistent players.
Exchange Students (Key New Additions): The only real danger with Cammalleri, besides his suffering another season-derailing injury, is Keenan attempting to turn him into a solid defensive forward, which is like trying to teach a dolphin how to cook an omelet.
But his addition to the Flames was completely overshadowed by the signing of Todd Bertuzzi to a one-year, $1.950 million contract. The bar is low for Bert: Replicate the offensive output of departed veteran Owen Nolan (16 goals, 32 points), be a physical presence down the lineup and, most of all, continue to try his best not to viciously attack an opponent from behind, resulting in several years of criminal and civil litigation.
Yeah, about that: Bertuzzi is facing a $38 million lawsuit from Steve Moore, the player he attacked back in 2004. So far, Bertuzzi has refused to discuss the suit or the incident as a Flame. It'll be interesting to see if this case becomes a distraction, as the pieces are there for it to become a Canadian hockey O.J. trial: The involvement of a Canadian team (Vancouver), having it center around hockey violence and the tabloid intrigue of who ordered this Code Red.
But again: At $1.950 million, Bertuzzi's a risk worth taking for Calgary.
The Flames also traded for Rene Bourque, who was Richard Zednick before there was a Richard Zednick.
Class Clowns (Pests and Pugilists): The Flames had three players with over 100 penalty minutes last season: Defenseman Cory Sarich (135), winger Eric Godard (171, and now playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins) and defenseman Dion Phaneuf, who led the team with 182 penalty minutes and is really doing nothing to dispel those "next Scott Stevens" comparisons.
The bottom line is that Phaneuf is one of the League's ultimate pests: A player who can blow you up with a clean hit and then stick up for himself should he need to pay the price. As the Minnesota Wild discovered:
Let's hope Iggy and Andrew Ference get that Dion/Lucic fight booked. James Vandermeer and Andre Roy, both added this off-season, will drop the gloves before you're even ready to fight. Craig Conroy can also be a tenacious player.
Cutest Couple: But seriously, who gives a flying crap about Dion's 60-point season or his work on the power play or the fact that he seems destined for a run at the Norris once it's pried out of Lidstrom's cold dead hands.
He's dating hockey's preeminent Puck Bunny.
And we've seen "Old School" and "The Girl Next Door" on HBO enough to know this is, in many ways, more rewarding than a Norris Trophy. Here's hoping Dion saw more action this summer than the uniform nameplate stitcher for the Lightning.
Teacher of the Year: In ranking the Calgary Flames ninth in the NHL during the off-season, USA Today writer Kevin Allen opined: "Mike Keenan, Jarome Iginla and Dion Phaneuf are painful to play against. Keenan is also painful to play for."
The good news for Flames fans is that this is Year Two of the Keenan Era, and on average it takes Iron Mike about three seasons before he's completely worn out his welcome. So there's still a chance Calgary can win with him, before the inevitable and painful divorce looming next season when his contract is up. Hey, at least he's no Jim Playfair, right?
The Custodians (Goalies): The Flames may be deep enough to overcome another off-year from Kiprusoff -- hell, they had 94 points last season -- but life would be much easier if he regained his form through the entire campaign. The good news is that he changed his training regimen from last off-season and appears encouraged by the results.
But if Kiprusoff is truly in decline, as his stats indicate since winning the Vezina two seasons ago ... well, Curtis McElhinney is Plan B. And he's one of the worst players in hockey ... video games.
The Hall Monitors (Defensemen): Phaneuf is one of the best defenseman in hockey, and a game-changer both offensively and defensively. Is he the sharpest hook in the tackle box? Ask the guy who stole his truck when Dion left it unlocked and running during a Starbucks run.
His salary immediately put one strike against him, but Adrian Aucoin picked up 20 power-play points and convinced some naysayers last season -- although some expect him to morph into an overpaid and underperforming defenseman this season.
This is a deep group. Rhett Warrener is a gamer if he stays healthy. Newcomer James Vandermeer provides a physical (often pugilistic) component, as does Sarich. Players like Anders Eriksson and potential offensive breakout Mark Giordano are in the mix as well.
Most Likely To Earn a Wedgie in the Hallway (Potential Flop): Kent from Five Hole Fanatics hit the nail on the head: Matthew Lombardi has been an average player teetering on the brink. From Five Hole Fanatics:
This will be Lombardi's last and best chance to convince me (and everyone else) that he's capable of being a legit top 6 forward in this league. He floundered last season, but has the kind of tools that suggest he could produce in the right circumstances. All signs point to him starting the year as the 2nd line center. It'll be fascinating to see what he does with it.
AV Club (Media): Peter Loubardias is the new television voice of the Flames, and people seem rather pleased about that. On the Web, Five Hole Fanatics and Battle of Alberta are two daily stops for Calgary coverage. The Calgary Herald's Flames blog is also a good read, even if it makes our hackneyed HTML skills seem rather superior.
Toughest Class (Biggest Issue Facing the Team): Make no mistake that there's a bit of transition on this team. You don't remove a Kristian Huselius, add a Mike Cammalleri and expect the offense to churn in the same way. You don't lose a character guy like Owen Nolan, add a Todd Bertuzzi (no matter how much Iginla vouches for him) and expect the same vibe. This is where a player like Iginla becomes invaluable: It's his team, everyone knows it, and he's the kind of captain that can work through adversity.
2008-09 Preseason Report Card:
Special Teams: B-
Prom Theme: "Timebomb" by Beck. Because if Keenan's already pissed off several players in Year One, he's not exactly getting a personality transplant for Year Two.
Expected Graduation: Keenan has some lineup decisions to make but, on paper, you can see the pieces here for a good-to-great season in Calgary, especially if the power play improves and Kiprusoff is ready to serve on day one. Expect another playoff berth at a minimum, but with the rest of the division dealing with some question marks, a Northwest title isn't out of the question.
And as any red-blooded North American male who can type "Red Mile" and "girls" into a search engine knows, the deeper the Flames go the better it is for all of us.