CALGARY – Identifying what the Calgary Flames have to do this season is simple.
The club scored a league-low 204 goals in 2009-10 and knows an improvement is needed for a return to the playoffs.
Calgary opens the regular season on the road Thursday against Taylor Hall and the Edmonton Oilers, before returning home for Sunday’s tilt against the Los Angeles Kings.
The Flames missed the post-season for the first time since 2003 thanks to a goal drought following the Olympic break in February.
Generating more offence from the back end and extracting more goalscoring from players who have previously demonstrated that ability, while retaining their strong defence, is Calgary’s strategy for a return to glory.
The free-agent signings of former Flames Olli Jokinen and winger Alex Tanguay on July 1 is part of that plan.
Tanguay, 30, had the best season of his career as a Flame three seasons ago before heading to Montreal and then Tampa Bay.
The re-acquisition of Jokinen has created the biggest buzz around the team. All eyes are on the 31-year-old Finn to see if his second stint with Calgary will be more successful than the first.
Flames GM Darryl Sutter signed Jokinen just five months after trading him away to the New York Rangers. Jokinen signed a two-year deal worth US$6 million, which was a pay cut from his previous salary of $5.25 million a season.
Jokinen had 19 goals and 31 assists in his 75 games with Calgary over parts of two seasons. The Flames gave up their first-round pick in this year’s draft to get Jokinen from Phoenix at the 2009 trade deadline.
Tanguay, who signed a one-year deal with the Flames after a disappointing season in Tampa Bay, is set be the playmaker for Jokinen and captain Jarome Iginla on Calgary’s top line.
Iginla’s offensive totals last season were his lowest since before the 2004-05 lockout. When Tanguay had his banner season in 2006-07, Iginla posted the second-highest totals of his career.
With Tanguay and Jokinen bent on proving they are still elite players in the NHL, it’s hoped they’ll revitalize the Calgary captain’s game.
The trio showed flashes of chemistry during the pre-season, in which Calgary went 7-0.
“I truly believe we’ll be better this year,” Iginla. “It’s not just Olli and I working together and being better individually. We have a lot of help from Alex joining us, but also all the way down to our style of play and the defencemen joining in and all those things are going to help a lot.
“We still have to have good defensive habits and be good in our own zone, but we can put a lot more pressure on the other team and be quicker.
Calgary’s defence wasn’t an issue last season as the Flames ranked No. 6 in goals-against. Miikka Kiprusoff had some of his best career numbers with a .920 save percentage and 2.31 GAA.
While head coach Brent Sutter isn’t likely moving away from his philosophy of defensive responsibility, the plan is to get defencemen more involved in generating offence.
“We’re trying to be different from last season,” defenceman Robyn Regehr explained. “We’re trying to get more involvement from the back end with a defenceman jumping up in the play. To be more involved on the rush and maybe turn three-on-twos into four-on-twos and also be a little bit more involved in the offensive zone.
“The forwards are sometimes fairly covered down low. If you can get the puck back to the point, get some movement and get the opposition moving a little bit, maybe open things up and create chances that way.”
So expect Jay Bouwmeester, Ian White and Mark Giordano to be the offensive catalysts in their defensive pairings.
Behind Jokinen, the Flames open the season thin at centre as Daymond Langkow (neck), Matt Stajan (shoulder) and Ryan Stone (centre) were out indefinitely as of Monday.
With right-winger David Moss (shoulder) and Alex Kotalik (knee) also out, the Flames went looking for insurance by signing veteran centre Brendan Morrison on Monday.
Calgary’s power play (16 per cent) and a home record of 20-17-4 last season are other areas the teamhopes to improve.
“For us to be successful this year, and we’ve talked about it in the dressing room, we want to be in the top-10 both with our penalty killing and the power play,” Regehr said. “That’s going to be something that’s very important.
“We can be more physical and better, especially at home. Our home record really ended up costing us.”
NHL clubs must declare their rosters by 3 p.m. ET on Wednesday. The Flames have to get under the $59.4 million salary cap by then. Langkow, whose salary is $4.25 million, was expected to start the season on long-term injury—out a minimum of 10 games—which would give Calgary some short-term salary-cap relief.
Flames fans have hoped Calgary would to vie for a division title every season since losing to Tampa Bay in the 2004 Stanley Cup final. Missing the post-season in 2010 followed four straight years of first-round exits.
Expectations are more tempered this season, with the playoffs the first priority.
“It’s tough losing out early in the playoffs, but when you don’t even make them…that was rock bottom,” Iginla said.
“We’re in a Canadian market. We’re a great sports market. As much as some people don’t expect lots, we still expect a lot from ourselves and we know there are still people who believe we’re going to be a good team.”