After back-to-back seasons out of the playoffs, the Calgary Flames are still dealing with a salary cap crunch as they try to put together a roster that can halt that recent trend.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at the Flames' roster and what GM Jay Feaster might be able to accomplish in his first summer calling the shots for Calgary.
The most obvious challenge facing Feaster is that he not only has most of his salary cap room committed already, but that the Flames also have ten players with some version of a no-trade or no-movement clause.
That doesn't mean that those players can't possibly be traded, but it does complicate matters by limiting the market.
In any case, the Flames have slightly different expectations than most teams that have missed the playoffs for the last couple of seasons.
"The vision is to be a team that is a consistent Stanley Cup challenger," said Feaster. "I think we're a whole lot closer than a lot of people think we are in terms of the players we have in that room."
When one considers that four of the Flames' top five scorers last season were on the north side of 30, to say nothing of goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff hitting his mid-30s, there ought to be some urgency for the Flames to win now.
So, fine, the Flames need to play to win now based on the personnel they already have, but they don't have a great deal of salary cap room to make improvements to the roster.
Maybe, with some creativity, they'll be able to keep some of their unrestricted free agents, but if the Flames are going to be good enough to get back into the playoffs, let alone contend for a Stanley Cup, they are going to need internal improvement.
While the Flames have been getting nice production from unheralded types like David Moss, Curtis Glencross, Mark Giordano and Tim Jackman, the path to the postseason is going to require the big ticket guys to carry more of the load.
That means the Flames need a better return on investment from the likes of Kiprusoff, Jay Bouwmeester, Matt Stajan and, if he's healthy, Daymond Langkow (ignoring, for a moment, that the Flames also have a combined $6-million committed to Ales Kotalik and Niklas Hagman next season).
Olli Jokinen wasn't bad in his return to Calgary, but could still be better. Those players eat up too much cap space to not bear responsibility for some measure of the team's success.
No doubt, Jay Feaster faces an uphill climb with this team, but the Flames were going nowhere fast when Feaster took over as GM last season and the Flames finished 25-11-9 after the change.
If the change in environment carries over to next season, then maybe the Flames will be better than the sum of individual parts.
Jay Feaster/Brent Sutter
When Jarome Iginla had a mere two goals in the first 15 games of the 2010-2011 season, the talk got louder about his time in Calgary maybe nearing an end -- perhaps a fresh start somewhere else would be best for both Iginla and the Flames.
Safe to say that the end results justified keeping Iginla around, as the 33-year-old scored 43 goals and 86 points, the third-highest goal and fifth-highest point totals of an illustrious career.
The challenge facing the Flames is that if they can't get Alex Tanguay under contract, then they lose the playmaker that helped Iginla achieve such lofty totals and none of the Flames' centres fits the bill, so that could affect Iginla's numbers next season.
While it would be nice to keep him in the lineup and even playing more minutes, David Moss turned in a productive season, with 17 goals, 30 points and a plus-9 rating in 58 games.
Moss has yet to average more than 14 minutes per game in an NHL season, though he did play 15:39 per game in February and March, before an ankle injury ended his season early; possibly an indication that he's ready for a more substantial role.
Though his signing last summer was roundly criticized, Olli Jokinen provided decent value, ranking third on the team with 54 points. However, his minus-17 rating was the eighth double-digit minus rating of his career.
While Rene Bourque tied his career-high with 27 goals last season, he was not as strong overall as the year before, not least of all because of a minus-17 rating that was tied (with Jokinen) for worst on the Flames last year. Bourque also had the worst shot differential among Flames regulars.
The Flames didn't let Curtis Glencross get to unrestricted free agency this summer, signing him to a four-year deal -- a nice reward for scoring a career-high 24 goals and 43 points. If Glencross could build on his strong finish (12 goals, 24 points in the last 31 games), he could be a staple among Calgary's top six forwards.
Daymond Langkow made a courageous return from a neck injury for the last four regular season games, but he'll be 35 next season. If he's healthy enough to play, can the Flames handle his $4.5-million cap hit?
Though he played a limited role for much of his rookie season, Mikael Backlund finishing strong, scoring 10 of his 25 points in the last 17 games. The 22-year-old may not have elite offensive upside, but he may still be able to develop into an offensive role.
Veteran winger Niklas Hagman fell out of favour, and not surprisingly after scoring four goals in his last 47 games, so this summer could be an exercise in shopping (or buying out or burying) the $3-million cap hit left on his deal.
When the Flames made the ill-advised decision to sign Matt Stajan to a four-year, $14-million extension, it seemed awfully hurried for a player that had yet to score 20 goals and finished the 2009-2010 season with a career-high 57 points.
With Stajan dipping to six goals and 31 points last season, the three years remaining on the contract look even worse. However, Stajan is a responsible centre who can ably fill a checking role if he's not putting up points. Of course the ideal would be to get points and responsible two-way play but, after last season, it's hard to have those expectations for Stajan right now.
As Stajan's season was a major disappointment, Tim Jackman's year ranked as an unqualified success (you'll note that they share the same TSN.ca rating), as he played all 82 games and finished with career highs in goals (10), assists, (13), points (23) and plus-minus (plus-4), while dropping the gloves a team-high 12 times. It's all about exceeding expectations and Jackman assuredly did that in 2010-2011.
Acquired from Carolina, Tom Kostopoulos gives an honest day's work, the kind you'd expect from a winger that has scored between 18 and 22 points in six of the last seven seasons.
Enforcer Raitis Ivanans got clocked in the first game of the season by the Oilers' Steve MacIntyre and was sidelined for the rest of the year with concussion problems. If he's healthy, Ivanans can handle the one-dimensional fighter role, or at least he could; whether he can do it in the future remains to be seen.
Two of the Flames' best forwards last season are on the way to unrestricted free agency. Alex Tanguay's 69-point season was his most productive since 2006-2007 as the 31-year-old re-established his offensive credentials following the worst season of his career.
Tanguay should be due a healthy raise and a multi-year deal, which could be difficult for the Flames, given their salary cap situation. At the same time, isn't it worth making some hard decisions, whether that means buyouts or burying undesirable contracts in the AHL, if it means keeping the team's second-leading scorer?
Brendan Morrison was a nice surprise too, with 43 points and a plus-13 rating in 66 games, so it would be fine to bring him back, but he's also not as difficult to replace should he find a better offer elsewhere.
If the Flames can't retain Tanguay, there will be a greater need to acquire a skilled forward, and there remains a gaping hole in the number one centre spot, but the Flames might consider adding a veteran like Ruslan Fedotenko or Vaclav Prospal, both of whom played for the New York Rangers this season, but also played for Jay Feaster's teams in Tampa Bay.
Other depth forwards would be helpful, but may have to come from the bargain bin depending on the Flames' salary cap situation.
Mark Giordano continues to get better and is coming off a season in which he recorded a career-high 43 points while playing a career-high 23:08 per game.
Though Giordano finished with a minus-8 rating, he also had the best shot differential per 60 minutes among Flames defencemen (according to www.behindthenet.ca) and, for all of his offensive skills, no Flames defenceman had more hits and blocked shots combined than Giordano's 333.
Sure, Jay Bouwmeester plays a lot (25:59 per game last season), has played in all 82 games in seven of his eight NHL seasons and takes the toughest matchups, but his production has fallen off dramatically since arriving in Calgary, with last year's 24 points his lowest total since 2003-2004.
Bouwmeester, who had scored 42 goals in his last three years with the Florida Panthers, has managed just seven in two seasons with the Flames and it's tough to justify his salary if he's not going to contribute more offensively. He's in the prime of his career, has size and can skate like few others, so the Flames have every right to expect more; the question is, will they get it?
Cory Sarich had a nice bounceback season, as his plus-11 rating was the second-best of his career. He plays protected minutes, as Bouwmeester and Robyn Regehr face the toughest matchups, but Sarich adds a physical presence in a defensive role.
There is a consistency to Robyn Regehr's game -- he has between 17 and 26 points in six of the last seven seasons and between 21:08 and 23:09 for the last eight years.
Regehr did have the worst shot differential per 60 minutes among Flames defencemen, but that is a function of his taking on the opposition's best forwards.
Brendan Mikkelson has six points and a minus-11 rating in 86 career games and struggled in his limited time (12:52 per game for 19 games) with the Flames last season. The 23-year-old is viable as an inexpensive seventh defenceman, but hasn't proven to be much more.
If the Flames lose free agents Anton Babchuk and Steve Staios, that will leave sizeable holes on the blueline, which could require some creativity to fill since Calgary doesn't appear to have room to sign any premier free agent defencemen.
While prospects Tim Erixon or T.J. Brodie may be ready to join the team and Adam Pardy could return the Flames may want at least one more veteran to round out the unit.
After a 2009-2010 season in which he reversed his declining numbers, Miika Kiprusoff dropped off in 2010-2011, with hsi .906 save percentage tying for his second-worst in Calgary.
The Flames can't succeed with Kiprusoff stopping a below-average percentage of shots faced, so either he performs at an elite level or the Flames may look to other solutions. Considering Kiprusoff's no-movement clause expires after the 2011-2012 season (per www.capgeek.com), he may just have this season to prove that he can be an elite goaltender for the Flames.
If Kiprusoff doesn't perform at a high level next season, though, what teams are going to be interested in acquiring a 35-year-old goaltender who comes at a cap hit of more than $5.8-million? Obviously, then, a lot rides on Kiprusoff's play.
Henrik Karlsson played 17 games (only 11 starts) as Kiprusoff's backup, but figures to be as good as any other options to fulfill the backup role again next year.
||5-19-24,-3, 48 GP
||14-19-33,-8, 68 GP
||5-29-34,+3, 68 GP
||51-32-83,-19, 70 GP
||12-8-20,-12, 61 GP
||0-6-6,-2, 24 GP
||1-4-5,-2, 17 GP
||1-10-11,+7, 37 GP
||3.12 GAA, .910 SV%, 15 GP
||2.30 GAA, .913 SV%, 61 GP
A first-round pick in 2009, Tim Erixon is a 20-year-old with three full years of experience in the Swedish Elite League, so he ought to be ready to challenge for a spot in Calgary. Given the Flames' salary cap constraints, it would sure help to have the rookie step in and play a big role right away.
While Greg Nemisz's totals weren't overwhelming, he was among the leading scorers on Abbotsford as a rookie pro. He has good size and should be able to play a two-way game at the next level, but more time in the AHL should allow him to arrive more fully developed.
T.J. Brodie is a mobile puck-moving defenceman who surprised by making the Flames for three games before getting sent back to the AHL, where he enjoyed a strong rookie year. He could use to get stronger and more aware defensively to make the jump, but he could be close to landing a job in Calgary.
Winger Ryan Howse has scored 98 goals in two WHL seasons since the Flames drafted him in the third round in 2009. He'll have to prove he can score and play without the puck at the next level.
Lance Bouma got into 16 games with Calgary to wrap up his first pro season. He doesn't offer much offensive upside, but is a gritty performer who can fill in on the fourth line, if needed.
Injuries have plagued 22-year-old defenceman John Negrin, as he's played just 69 games in his first two pro seasons. Shoulder surgery limited him to 24 games last season, so Negrin could just use a full season of good health to re-establish his place in the prospect pecking order.
Skilled centre Mitch Wahl was off to a slow start in his first pro season before suffering a concussion that kept him out for the rest of the season. A fresh start in 2011-2012 should allow him to start putting up points.
The captain for Team USA at the World Junior Championship, John Ramage plays a smart and steady game and has finished his sophomore year at Wisconsin. The 20-year-old should have some good long-range potential.
Joni Ortio, who starred for Finland at the World Juniors, has potential to be the heir apparent to Kiprusoff, but he's still just 20-years-old. If he gets a couple of years in the AHL and proves he's capable of handling the North American game, then Ortio could be ready for that job.
A first-round pick in 206, Leland Irving has played reasonably well in the AHL for three seasons, but doesn't appear to be knocking on the door for an NHL job, perhaps in part because his salary cap hit is a tad pricey for a backup. Until he gets a shot in the NHL, it's hard to gauge whether he's merely a decent AHL goaltender or whether he can carry it to the next level.
Here is a projected lineup for next season on www.capgeek.com, which will either require an increased cap, buyouts or salaries buried in the minors (Niklas Hagman, we're looking at you): http://bit.ly/if0PFS
13th - Duncan Siemens, Mark McNeill, Joel Armia.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Flames have approximately $58.8M committed to the 2011-12 salary cap for 18 players.
Needs: One top nine forward, depth forwards, three defencemen, backup goaltender.
What I said the Flames needed last year: First-line centre, depth forwards, backup goaltender.
They added: Olli Jokinen, Alex Tanguay, Brendan Morrison, Tim Jackman, Henrik Karlsson.
TRADE MARKET Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman, Ales Kotalik, Mikael Backlund, Miikka Kiprusoff.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.