When I predicted the Anaheim Ducks and New York Rangers for the 2008 Stanley Cup final, I had it in the back of my mind the defending champs were the riskier of the two picks.
Having seen what teams go through after winning the Cup (just making it to the final, for that matter) the past few seasons, I had half a notion to go with Calgary in the West rather than Anaheim.
The Ducks have unquestionably stumbled out of the gate, but I have growing confidence in their ability to find their game as the season progresses, especially if Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne return from their extended vacations.
As for the Flames, they remain the NHL’s mystery team. It is becoming abundantly clear adjustments must be made for this team to reach its potential.
For starters, coach Mike Keenan must come to the realization this is 2007, not 1994 and as much as his top-end talent resembles that of the ’94 Rangers, the game has changed.
Keenan likes to ride his horses hard, the likes of Jarome Iginla and Dion Phaneuf, which is fine, but those players can carry a team only so far. If the Flames are to ever hit their stride, the workload must be more evenly spread out. And the days of sending the rest of his players out with the notion they will be successful if they simply out-work their opponents are long gone.
Keenan likes to play a run-and-gun style, but in doing so, he is making it easy for the opposition to exploit his team’s deficiencies. When they open things up, it is Miikka Kiprusoff who pays the price.
Admittedly, Kiprusoff has not played up to potential since the Flames made the final the season before the lockout, but many times he is left hung out to dry and his poor numbers are every bit a reflection of his team’s poor play as they are his own performance. On Nov. 29 against Anaheim, for example, Kiprusoff faced four breakaways and stopped them all despite his team’s loss.
Teams use systems and systems tend to work. Just ask Ken Hitchcock and the Columbus Blue Jackets. Hitch’s team doesn’t come close to matching the Flames on paper, but Columbus was ahead of Calgary in the standings and had surrendered 19 fewer goals (having played one more game).
I find it unfathomable that defenseman Anders Eriksson is averaging nearly 20 minutes a game (he played 29:46 against the Ducks Nov. 28 and 25:20 against the Blue Jackets Dec. 1) and Robyn Regehr is a mainstay on the power play.
With all due respect, Eriksson is a fourth or fifth D-man and Regehr is a defensive specialist.
I also think there is room in Dion Phaneuf’s game for improvement. I am among a rather large group that think Phaneuf has Norris Trophy in his future, but for that to happen, he needs to add to his repertoire, which currently includes big hits and big shots.
Developing a consistent first pass out of his team’s zone would be a nice start.
I have the utmost respect for Keenan’s ability to motivate players and my understanding is there have been only a few meltdowns thus far, which is good.
But with roster adjustments not being quite the option they once were in the pre-cap days, Keenan needs to find a way to get the likes of Kristian Huselius (who dangled with the puck last season under Jim Playfair, but looks like a deer in the headlights this season), Adrian Aucoin, Alex Tanguay and Craig Conroy contributing more. Otherwise, the Flames will continue to flounder.
I admire Keenan’s self-constraint with his new team – there have been very few meltdowns thus far – but the Flames have been one of the most disappointing teams of the season and there has been little indication of better days ahead.