Judging by the public outcry in Calgary following a 9-1 loss to San Jose Monday and the team’s precipitous fall from third place in the conference to ninth in less than two weeks, you’d think the Saddledome was falling in on the Flames.
Six losses in a row, eight setbacks in nine games, outscored 33-15 in the process. All the while the Flames watched as the Colorado Avalanche, Phoenix Coyotes, Vancouver Canucks, Nashville Predators, Los Angeles Kings and Detroit Red Wings climbed above them in the Western Conference standings.
Weird thing is, Calgary’s not playing all that poorly. Sure, there was the 9-1 debacle in San Jose, but the Flames have outchanced and outshot the opposition in all but four of those nine games. That’s what the optimists maintain. Do the math, though, and you see the problem. Fifteen goals in nine games. The team just can’t score to save itself.
Coach Brent Sutter says the team is married to its defense-first system. It’s a plan that worked in New Jersey and the Flames presumably have one of the best defense units on paper and a Vezina-candidate in net. But it’s not working in Calgary because the Flames don’t have the horses to average three goals of offense per game.
Things would be much worse if goalie Miikka Kiprusoff wasn’t playing so well. Calgary could conceivably be in 12th, 13th or 14th if Kiprusoff was simply good or very good instead of spectacular like he has been in most of his 44 starts.
So where do the Flames go from here? The fact Calgary is the lowest scoring team in the conference is the biggest indictment. The Flames need to acquire a producer and the only way they can do it is to give up one of their marquee assets on the blueline, Dion Phaneuf or Robyn Regehr.
Eighteen months ago, Phaneuf could have fetched outstanding return. But his game has regressed so much in a year-and-a-half, it’s doubtful the Atlanta Thrashers would accept him straight up for Ilya Kovalchuk, even though Kovy is eligible to walk without compensation as a UFA in July. The Flames would surely have to throw in another asset, then posture like crazy to get the Russian signed before July.
Same goes for Regehr. The book is already out that the 29-year-old defensive defenseman has slowed and become error-prone. Could be that partnering with a defensive liability in Phaneuf is affecting him adversely.
A trade such as this is possible for Calgary because it has eight defensemen with NHL experience. For it to happen, however, GM Darryl Sutter has to sway from his plan to be eight-deep on the blueline going into the playoffs and coach Brent Sutter has to bend on the defense-wins-in-the-playoffs strategy.
Because none of those blueprints are worth a spit if the Flames finish ninth or worse.
Brian Costello is The Hockey News’s senior special editions editor and a regular contributor to THN.com. You can find his blog each weekend.
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