The head coach of the Calgary Flames spoke with ease and humour for a long time Tuesday as his players were put through medicals and meetings before starting their summer. One of many questions in Calgary on the heels of the Flames’ first-round exit from the playoffs in six games to the Detroit Red Wings was, did Playfair do a good enough job in his first year as head coach?
Both daily newspapers posted that question prominently in Tuesday’s editions.
General manager Darryl Sutter is expected to address it publicly Wednesday.
Playfair sounded like he expected to be back behind the bench next season.
“Seriously, I wish the season started tomorrow morning,” he said. “You know you’re going to do a better job. It’s like ‘let’s go.’ That’s the excitement of wanting to correct anything you did wrong.”
Calgary had a 43-29-10 record in the regular season, but the Flames were predicted to accomplish more than hanging on for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference and losing in the first round.
It seemed the team that had the best defence in the NHL the previous year under Sutter only needed more goal-scoring to be a Stanley Cup contender.
Calgary scored more goals, but gave up more chances to its opponents this season.
“Consistently, we didn’t defend enough,” Playfair said. “I’m totally in the belief we have to be better at defending and keeping our goals-against down and our goal-scoring will totally take care of itself. That wasn’t the case all the time this year.
“That has to be more of a consistent, reinforced area of our team play. It’s the best part to fix because it’s strictly based on work.”
The players, particularly those who knew they would be back in the fold next season, blamed themselves and not Playfair for the early end to their post-season.
“You can’t always call for the coach’s head when the players don’t excel,” defenceman Rhett Warrener said.
Flames captain Jarome Iginla would not comment on his coach’s performance.
“They tell us how we did. We don’t tell them how they did,” Iginla said with a chuckle.
Forward Craig Conroy says switching coaches again would not help the Flames.
“It’s Jimmy’s first year and it’s growing pains,” Conroy said. “Jimmy knows the team, he knows what’s going on. I always thought he did a good job handling everybody.
“When you lose in the first round, there’s all these questions and they’re going to be out there, but for me I thought the whole coaching staff did a great job.”
But winger Jeff Friesen was not happy with his role on the team.
“It was a step back in becoming a defensive forward,” Friesen said. “I was disappointed I wasn’t a bigger part of the team. I felt I could have helped out a lot more.”
Friesen is one of nine players who become unrestricted free agents on July 1 and defenceman Brad Stuart is the one who will attract the most attention.
The Flames acquired Stuart and Wayne Primeau from Boston at the trade deadline and Stuart will command much more than his $2.4 million US salary on the open market this summer.
“There’s a lot of time for me to go through that process,” Stuart said. “I really did enjoy coming here. Definitely it’s a place I could see myself coming back to, but I’m not at that point where I’m making that decision yet.”
Playoff hero Miikka Kiprusoff and Iginla, the franchise player, become unrestricted free agents after next season and those negotiations could start this summer.
“Ideally I’d like to get it done in the summer, but if not, you deal with it,” Iginla said.
Iginla’s salary is $7 million and Kiprusoff is scheduled to make $3.6 million next season.
“You’ve got to look at those two guys. Might as well sign them right now,” Conroy said. “Everybody else is interchangable in my mind.”
Playfair said he picked up his children from school Monday after the Flames lost in double overtime to Detroit the previous night. They were on the receiving end of comments about the Flames’ performance from their classmates and teachers.
“I said, ‘you guys get free tickets to every hockey game. Suck it up,”‘ he said.
While Playfair was jocular Tuesday, the players were not after meeting with Sutter and the coaches after a season in which felt they could have done more.
“It’s not a fun day,” defenceman Dion Phaneuf said.
Notes – Other UFAs include defenceman Roman Hamrlik, forwards Primeau, Byron Ritchie, Darren McCarty, Tony Amonte and Marcus Nilson and backup goaltender Jamie McLennan . . . Forward Matthew Lombardi, who would be a restricted free agent this summer, said Tuesday that he and the team have agreed on a contract extension.