CALGARY – Recycled Flame forwards Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay will finally start answering the summer-long questions.
Can they, playing on a line with captain Jarome Iginla, boost what was a moribund offence and return the Calgary Flames to the playoffs?
The Flames open the regular season Thursday in Edmonton. Calgary aims to spoil the debut of Oilers forward Taylor Hall, whom Edmonton drafted first overall this year.
The reclamations of Jokinen and Tanguay were Calgary’s most significant off-season moves. Since Flames GM Darryl Sutter signed them as free agents on July 1, the recurring query in this NHL market has been can the two forwards recapture former glory?
The best season of Tanguay’s career was with the Flames three seasons ago. The 30-year-old had 81 points in 81 games, but had just 10 goals and 27 assists for Tampa Bay last season.
Jokinen had 19 goals and 31 assists in 75 games with Calgary over parts of two seasons before Sutter traded him to New York in February. The 31-year-old Finn was over a point per game with Florida in 2005-06 and 2006-07.
Jokinen signed a two-year deal worth US$6 million with Calgary, which is down from the $5.25-million salary he made last season. Tanguay’s is a $1.7-million, one-year deal.
Jokinen is under scrutiny more than Tanguay, as Sutter gave up Calgary’s first-round draft pick this year to acquire him at the 2009 trade deadline.
“It’s been five months we’ve been answering these questions,” Jokinen said. “Especially the last couple of months about ‘why did you sign here? What’s going on? You’re a bad player, you should be playing in Europe’ and all that kind of stuff. There are a lot of people you want to prove wrong.”
While the Flames have altered their game plan to get a defenceman more involved in creating offence, the burden of scoring for any NHL team rests with their top line.
“Anxious, nervous,” Tanguay described his feelings. “It’s a big year for a lot of us. The way the team ended up here last year, there’s a lot of bitterness towards what happened late in the year so for us, it’s a chance to get off to a fresh start and prove ourselves.”
Calgary compiled a league-low 204 goals last season and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2003.
The Flames averaged three goals a game during the pre-season in which they went 7-0. Iginla had four goals and one assist, Tanguay a goal and five assists and Jokinen one assist.
“I think we’re a better team than last year,” Iginla said. “I like the changes. We’ve made a lot of changes since last year. I think in the pre-season we’ve looked a lot quicker.”
Thursday’s season-opener is the third straight meeting between the Alberta rivals after two pre-season games that Calgary won 5-1 and 1-0. The Flames will get their fill of the Oilers early with three games against Edmonton in their first nine of the regular season.
“We want to have a good start to the season,” head coach Brent Sutter said. “We’re going to Edmonton. We know they’ll be fired up and revved up and we’ve just got to go play our game and play with the emotions we need to play with, make sure they’re controlled and we’ll be fine.”
Former long-time Vancouver Canuck forward Brendan Morrison, signed Monday after he was released from the Canucks, will experience the Battle of Alberta for the first time.
“This is my first taste of it,” the Pitt Meadows, B.C., native said. “You always hear about it.
“Obviously the Oilers have a lot to prove this year. They’ve got a young lineup, a bunch of kids there that want to show they belong and they’ll be hungry so it should be entertaining game.”
Calgary starts the season banged up at forward, particularly down the middle with Daymond Langkow (neck), Matt Stajan (shoulder) and Ryan Stone (knee) on the sidelines. Wingers David Moss (shoulder) and Ales Kotalik (knee) were also placed on injury reserve.
The Flames signed Morrison, 35, to a one-year, $725,000 deal for some insurance at centre. He’s played on Calgary’s second line between wingers Niklas Hagman and Rene Bourque in two practices since his arrival.
Mikael Backlund, the club’s first-round draft pick in 2007, will centre the third line between Curtis Glencross and Tim Jackman on his wings. Craig Conroy, 39, needs 10 goals to pass a career 1,000. Stefan Meyer and enforcer Taitis Ivanas will join Conroy on the fourth line.
Calgary’s strength is defence with former Vezina Trophy winner Miikka Kiprusoff in net and a solid, experienced group of defencemen, led by Robyn Regehr, Mark Giordano and Jay Bouwmeester. Veteran Steve Staios, Ian White, Adam Pardy and newcomer T.J. Brodie of Chatham, Ont., round out the blue-line.
“If you look through it, our positions are strong,” Iginla said. “Our goaltending is great obviously, our defence looks better and better every year. They’re one of the top groups in the league.
“You look at each pairing and there’s guys who can jump up and see the play and complement each other. One guy will stay back and one guy join (the rush) and I think we need that.”
Since losing in seven games to Tampa Bay in the 2004 Stanley Cup final, the Flames were expected to battle for a division title every year. But four straight first-round exits followed by missing the playoffs last season tempered expectations.
The Canucks are widely picked to take the division, with the Flames battling just to make the post-season.
“There’s not as much pressure,” Iginla said. “Let other teams deal with ‘oh, they’re supposed to win it this year’. Those predictions, they’re right in some areas and very off in others.
“Let other teams deal with that pressure. We’ll just enjoy playing and working on winning.”