CALGARY – Mike Keenan expects to remain head coach of the Calgary Flames next season and chalks up his team’s first-round playoff exit to injuries.
“I have another year left on my contract,” Keenan said Wednesday as his players packed their bags. “My expectation is to be here to fulfil my contract.”
Two days after losing 4-1 in Game 6 to the Chicago Blackhawks, questions hovered over the future of Keenan and general manager Darryl Sutter with the Flames. Sutter won’t address the media until early next week.
After four straight years of first-round losses, the last two of them under Keenan, Flames fans are not happy judging from the booing that sounded through the Pengrowth Saddledome late in Monday’s game.
But Keenan pleaded for perspective.
“There are no excuses in pro sports, but there are reasons,” he said. “I think the franchise this year suffered 300-plus man games lost during the course of the season, which is the higher end of what the team has experienced the last five or six years.
“I’ve had a lot of experience with playoff-ready teams. This team was going to be in that position. In the end, they weren’t given a fair opportunity because of medical and health reasons. That’s a very good reason why we lost the momentum we did when we did.”
He pointed out that the favoured New Jersey Devils and President’s Trophy winner San Jose were upset in the first round with healthier teams than Calgary.
“You’ve got some great coaches knocked out in the first round,” Keenan said “Does that mean the guy in San Jose (Todd McLellan) and the guy in New Jersey (Brent Sutter) didn’t do his job?”
The Flames led the Northwest Division by 13 points in January. The rash of injuries that started in February and continued into the playoffs helped erode that cushion and cost Calgary home-ice advantage in the post-season.
But the players insisted Wednesday this team had the horses to overcome that. The club spent right up to the US$56.7 million salary cap to ensure there would be enough depth to compensate for injuries.
“There were obviously some key injuries down the stretch and in the playoffs, but we still could have won that series,” captain Jarome Iginla said.
“I understand why fans aren’t happy. We’d been given every opportunity to succeed and move on and we didn’t get it done.”
Injuries and a lack of cap room forced the Flames to ice only 15 players in their final game two games of the regular season against Edmonton.
The litany of Flames injury woes is as follows:
-Defenceman Mark Giordano underwent season-ending shoulder surgery Feb. 23.
-Winger Rene Bourque suffered a high ankle sprain Feb. 19 that both sidelined him for the last 24 games of the regular season and limited the effectiveness of Calgary’s best-penalty killer in the playoffs.
-Second-line centre Daymond Langkow missed 10 games with an injured left hand suffered Feb. 17. A slapshot in the fourth game of the playoffs broke his right hand. He continued to play, but couldn’t shoot the puck.
-Dion Phaneuf sat out the final two games of the season with a muscle tear in his back. In Game 5 versus Chicago, he “popped” his shoulder and suffered a cracked rib when he was checked by Troy Brouwer. He did not play Game 6.
-Defenceman Robyn Regehr suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament in his knee April 2 and did not appear in the playoffs.
-Winger Todd Bertuzzi required arthroscopic surgery on his knee March 2 and missed 10 games.
-Craig Conroy separated his shoulder Game 4 of the playoffs, but played the final two games.
-Defenceman Cory Sarich played with a fractured foot in the post-season.
Whether it’s management or player personnel, there will be changes on a club that was built to go much further than the first round this season.
On defence, Adrian Aucoin, Jordan Leopold and Anders Erikkson are due to become unrestricted free agents on July 1. Up front, Mike Cammalleri, Bertuzzi and David Moss are the key forwards also headed for free agency. Backup goaltender Curtis McElhenny is also scheduled to become a UFA.
The Flames may not be able to afford to re-sign Cammalleri, who had a career-high 39 goals in the regular season, but just one in six playoff games. His salary this season was $3.6 million.
“I don’t think it’s as grim as everybody is making it out to be, that it’s impossible,” Cammalleri said of a possible re-signing with the Flames. “There’s creative things done with contracts these days and Darryl has obviously found ways to make things work. Calgary is one of those possibilities for sure.”
The 34-year-old Bertuzzi, who had two goals in his last 16 games, said he wasn’t the same after his knee surgery.
“The harder I pushed the worse it got,” he said. “It’s just an excuse like anything else. I wasn’t good enough down the stretch and didn’t produce enough playing those minutes.”
Neither Iginla nor Phaneuf had banner seasons. Phaneuf, a Norris Trophy nominee a year ago, was minus-11 this season and he’s never been on the negative side of that stat before.
“I would also have to say personally, I didn’t have my best year,” Phaneuf said. “I was not happy about my plus-minus.”
Iginla’s 35 goals ties for his lowest production in his last seven seasons and his 10 power-play goal also ties for the lowest during that span.
The Flames captain pointed to the power play as a major shortfall in the playoffs. Calgary was 2-for-18 a man up.
“Specialty teams, to end the season like that on the power play, didn’t help us at all. I didn’t produce in that area and I’m on there a lot,” he said.
“I don’t think it was a great year for me. I wasn’t as consistent as I would have liked to have been. I feel I can be better. I’ll be 32 next year and I still feel I have my best years ahead of me.”
Leopold and centre Olli Jokinen were acquired at the March 3 trade deadline. Jokinen had eight goals in his first six games as a Flame, but didn’t score again until Game 4 of the post-season, which was the first of the 30-year-old’s career.
Jokinen said having to quickly settle into a new team was difficult. He expects to feel more comfortable next season, when he’ll earn $5.25 million in the final year of his contract.
“It was a tough year being in a couple places, being dealt the first time at the deadline, being in a hockey market,” Jokinen said. “All that stuff was new for me.
“I’ll be a lot more prepared for next season.”