CALGARY – The Calgary Flames have started the last few seasons vowing to give goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff more games off to keep him fresh for the playoffs.
But every time the team rode him hard right until the end to try and make the post-season, falling short in the last three campaigns.
The narrative for Kiprusoff is obviously different to open this lockout-shortened season. For the first time in seven years, the former Vezina Trophy winner won’t play more than 70 games during the regular season because there’s only 48.
New Flames head coach Bob Hartley indicated the 36-year-old Finn will start almost all of them, including Sunday’s home-opener versus the San Jose Sharks.
“We have a plan and we will do everything in the best interest of Kipper and the Calgary Flames, but the guy is a thoroughbred and you know what thoroughbreds like to do,” the coach said Friday. “They like to run. They don’t like to sit in the stable.”
The prevailing thought is goaltending becomes magnified in a shorter season, but Kiprusoff suggests that’s overstated.
“I like to think every season it’s important,” he said. “It’s huge how your goalie plays. It’s the same thing this year. I don’t think any team in this league is going to make playoffs with bad goaltending.”
Hartley gave Kiprusoff the day off from practice Thursday. While the stated purpose was to rest the star goaltender, it was also so Hartley could make a decision between the two men vying for the backup job.
The verdict went to Leland Irving of Barrhead, Alta., over Sweden’s Henrik Karlsson when the Flames announced their 23-man roster Friday.
Also, the Flames reached deep into their past and signed forward Steve Begin to a one-year, two-way contract worth $525,000. The 34-year-old was a second-round draft pick by Calgary in 1996. Begin played 123 games for the Flames from 1997 to 2003.
Centre Paul Byron and defenceman Brett Carson were assigned to the Abbotsford Heat. Karlsson, Kiprusoff’s backup last season, was designated for reassignment.
Forward Roman Cervenka (blood-thinning medication) and defenceman Anton Babchuk (shoulder) start the season on the injured list. Jiri Hudler attended his father’s funeral in the Czech Republic on Friday and Hartley did not know when the forward would return to the lineup.
Kiprusoff is three wins away from a career 300 in a Flames uniform.
“It’ll be a tough year if I’m not going to get that,” the goaltender deadpanned.
If captain Jarome Iginla is the heart of the Flames, then Kiprusoff is the spine.
Reliable and durable well into his 30s, he’s rarely had a string of bad games. There have been many nights where the Flames got better than they deserved because of him.
But Kiprusoff is entering the fifth year of a six-year, US$35-million contract extension signed in October, 2007. The deal was front-end loaded. According to capgeek.com, Kiprusoff’s salary in the final season is $1.5 million.
So Kiprusoff’s age and contract status makes the goaltender’s future in Calgary beyond this season cloudy, as it does for Iginla who is 35 and in the final year of his contract.
Despite one of the heaviest workloads in the NHL, the six-foot-one, 185-pound Kiprusoff has yet to show signs of flagging. His .921 save percentage last season was his best since 2005-06 when he won the Vezina Trophy.
Starting with their season-opener Jan. 20, Calgary will play a game every 2.08 days until the end of the regular season compared to 2.29 from the same date last year.
Kiprusoff will be rested with a longer off-season and, given his history, should be able to handle a slightly condensed schedule.
“I might play a lot,” he says. “I don’t want to think too much ahead. My mind is on the first game.”
The Flames also announced Friday the assistant captains will rotate between Mike Cammalleri, Curtis Glencross, Jay Bouwmeester and Mark Giordano.
“It’s spreading and increasing the leadership,” Hartley explained. “We have a partnership with the Calgary fire department this year. I told those guys we have our own very big red truck, but I want everyone with their hands on the steering wheel.
“Having four assistants with Jarome, I think it’s going to work well.”