Once the NHL’s doormats, the Flames have emerged as one of the teams to beat in the Western Conference because of a combination of talent, experience and stability.
After a surprising run to the Stanley Cup final in 2004 and winning the Northwest Division before a disappointing first-round playoff exit last season, expectations are high inside and outside the Flames’ locker-room.
“I think we have a shot at it,” captain Jarome Iginla said. “We’ve been through a lot of lean years here. The last couple have been a lot better. I think we’re going up.”
The Flames open their 2006-07 season on the road against the Edmonton Oilers on Thursday.
The window to build and maintain a Stanley Cup contender is narrow under the new collective bargaining agreement.
Under the salary cap, player movement is no longer limited to the richest teams and the league’s superstars.
Iginla, goaltender Mikka Kiprusoff, defenceman Robyn Regehr, forward Daymond Langkow and defensive forward Stephane Yelle become unrestricted free agents and defenceman Dion Phaneuf and winger Chuck Kobasew enter restricted free agency following the 2007-08 season.
“I think we realize in this dressing room that the core group of guys here are under contract for another two years and we have to do something within that two years and by that I mean win the Stanley Cup,” Regehr said.
“After that, it’s going to be some very difficult decisions by ownership and management on who is staying and who is going.”
Calgary was the best in the league on defence last season, but third-worst offensively. The Flames came into this campaign in need of some offensive creativity.
General manager Darryl Sutter, who handed the head coaching reins over to assistant Jim Playfair in the off-season, addressed that shortcoming by dealing defenceman Jordan Leopold to Colorado for talented winger Alex Tanguay.
Tanguay later signed a $15.75-million US, three-year deal.
In addition to putting some zing in the offence, Tanguay’s arrival is designed to take the pressure off Iginla and help restore him to the form that won twice won him the NHL’s goal-scoring title.
Under the NHL’s new rules, Iginla felt speed has become more important that power and lost about 12 pounds of bulk over the summer to improve his mobility.
The Flames also added veteran winger Jeff Friesen on a one-year contract and speedy defenceman Andrei Zyuzin early in the off-season.
Kiprusoff has been and will continue to be the cornerstone of Calgary’s success. The soft-spoken Finn, acquired from San Jose for a draft pick in 2003, is agile and quick and the main reason for Calgary’s appearance in a final that went seven games against Tampa Bay the following spring.
In Regehr, Phaneuf, Zyuzin, Roman Hamrlik and Andrew Ference, there is a cross-section of skill, speed, power and toughness on the back end.
Phaneuf, a nominee for the NHL’s rookie award last season, is expected to start the season paired with Regehr following Leopold’s departure and they will log a ton of ice time.
Rhett Warrener is currently sidelined with a knee injury and Mark Giordano is the frontrunner to take his place on the blue-line to start the season.
Playfair’s task will be to find a centre to complement Tanguay and Iginla on each wing and Matthew Lombardi is a candidate.
Moving Tanguay to centre is an option as is splitting he and Iginla onto different lines to keep opposing defences guessing.
Down the centre, Calgary has Lombardi, Yelle and Langkow with Jamie Lundmark, Dustin Boyd and Russian Andrei Taratukhin battling for a job.
The Flames have experience on the wing in Kobasew, Darren McCarty, Marcus Nilson, Tony Amonte and Kristian Huselius.
Calgary’s lone Stanley Cup win was in 1989. The Flames missed the playoffs seven straight years before reaching the Stanley Cup final in 2004, so the position of being a favourite is still fairly new to many of the younger players.
“I think it was something we faced for the first time last year and we struggled with it a little bit in the playoffs,” Regehr said. “We didn’t handle it as well as we’d hoped. It’s something I think we’ve learned a lot from.”