The Calgary Flames' 2007-2008 season ended with another first-round playoff defeat and, with a slew of free agents, the summer promises to be one of significant upheaval.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at the daunting challenge the Flames face as they try to stay in the Western Conference playoff mix.
At the top end of the roster, the Flames are in great shape with All-Stars Jarome Iginla and Dion Phaneuf leading the way.
Beyond them, however, the questions start.
In goal, Miikka Kiprusoff is widely regarded as one of the league's best, but it was far from a smooth season between the pipes and the Flames have little choice but to hope that their goaltender plays up to his new lucrative pay scale.
Kiprusoff's relationship with head coach Mike Keenan will always be under the microscope, just because of Keenan's history, but their first season together didn't do anything to disspell Iron Mike's reputation.
The core of the defence is strong, but the Flames also have a lot of money invested there, potentially making change necessary if only to create greater financial flexibility. Few, if any, teams can spend upwards of $20-million on their defencemen and the Flames already have more than $23-million slated for six returning defencemen.
If the Flames get that financial wiggle room, it would give them the opportunity to address some significant holes anticipated in the forward ranks.
Even if Daymond Langkow's long-rumoured contract extension is finalized, the Flames are still going to need a couple of capable scoring forwards; and if the Langkow deal doesn't get done, well, then the forward ranks are practically in disarray.
General manager Darryl Sutter has earned plenty of credibility for returning the Flames to respectability and will need to live up to that reputation if he's going to keep the Flames on the right track this summer.
Darryl Sutter/Mike Keenan
Top Prospects: Mikael Backlund, Andrei Taratukhin, Brandon Prust
The Flames can't ask for much more from Jarome Iginla, the team leader who is coming off possibly his best NHL seasonwith a career-high 98 points and a plus-27 rating. The 30-year-old is the face of the franchise now and in the midst of his prime years, so he's a fine cornerstone around which they can build.
Alex Tanguay is the one other proven returning offensive performer, but he's coming off a season in which his point total (58) was his lowest since 2001-2002. Nevertheless, the 28-year-old winger has the speed and skills to play a first-line role.
One of the league's best skaters, Matthew Lombardi didn't progress as anticipated, dropping from 46 to 36 points, but the Flames may need him to play a more offensive role next season. The 26-year-old appears to have the requisite skills to be a decent complementary offensive player, if given the chance.
Injuries stalled David Moss' progress in his second NHL season, but he still has enough of a two-way game to warrant consideration for a third-line job.
Veteran Wayne Primeau is a big checking centre with limited offensive upside, which pegs him for a fourth-line spot, even if he's a tad pricy for such a gig.
21-year-old Dustin Boyd got his feet wet with the Flames, scoring 12 points in 48 games while playing less than ten minutes per game. His hockey sense and offensive ability could move him up the depth chart, but that would require a significant jump in production.
Marcus Nilson's role has steadily declined in Calgary, but the 30-year-old can still be useful in a checking and penalty-killing role.
With such a thin group of returning forwards, the Flames will have to be creative in filling out the roster, especially if they can't get Daymond Langkow or Kristian Huselius re-signed.
Prospects Mikael Backlund and Andrei Taratukhin will have a chance to play a scoring role, but that requires the 19-year-old Backlund to make a quick transition to the North American pro game or, perhaps not as likely, the 25-year-old Taratukhin to return from Russia.
Either way, the Flames will need to dig into trades and free agent signings in order to upgrade the skill level up front.
The Flames need to add multiple players, at good value, if they are going to have the necessary scoring depth in order to be a playoff team. Free agents to consider might include Jason Williams, Michael Ryder, Brendan Morrison, Andrew Brunette, Niklas Hagman and Cory Stillman.
Furthermore, Calgary may look to teams that have a surplus of forwards and deal a proven NHL defenceman for a proven player up front.
Whatever the solution, the Flames are going to have to make bold moves in order to enter next season with enough forward talent.
Top Prospects: Mark Giordano, Tim Ramholt, Adam Pardy
23-year-old Dion Phaneuf, possessing a hammer shot and an intimidating physical presence, is already among the league's elite defencemen. Phaneuf could play with more discipline -- none of the other players in his penalty minute range (Phanuef had 182) is nearly the same kind of impact player -- but he's improved every one of his three NHL seasons.
Keenan favourite Adrian Aucoin resurrected his career, playing more than 60 games for the first time since the lockout, putting up 35 points while playing nearly 21 minutes per game. The 35-year-old may have improved his trade value some, but few teams are going to offer much in return for an injury-prone defenceman owed $4-million for another season.
Rock solid Robyn Regehr is big, strong, conscientious and a handful for opposing forwards; the kind of defensive defenceman that any team would love to have.
33-year-old Anders Eriksson is with his sixth NHL team and, while he logged better than 20 minutes per game, he's not consistent enough for that kind of workload. In a depth role, he may be serviceable.
Cory Sarich provides a physical dimension, though it's fair to question whether the Flames can afford to pay such big money to Regehr and Sarich for playing such a similar style.
Veteran Rhett Warrener is another guy capable of playing the physical, stay-at-home role when healthy, but he couldn't get into the regular defensive rotation and only ended up playing about 13 minutes per game in just 31 games last season. Perhaps a new location would give him a needed fresh start and a summer buyout could be considered.
Free agents Jim Vandermeer and David Hale both could have value if they return, particularly Vandermeer who adds toughness and played okay for three teams last season. If neither one comes back, the Flames will likely need to find another depth defenceman to support their returning core.
Mark Giordano, a 24-year-old who bolted to Russia last season, could easily join the NHL regulars now that he's signed a new deal.
Top Prospects: Leland Irving, Matt Keetley
As one might have expected, there were some problems between Mike Keenan and Miikka Kiprusoff. The notorious goalie-switching coach pulled Kipper several times (including the final game of the playoff loss to San Jose), but the truth of the matter is that Kiprusoff didn't perform as well as he had in recent seasons, continuing the steady downward trend in his numbers since arriving in Calgary.
Signed to a six-year extension, though, Kiprusoff is the franchise's defensive backbone for the forseeable future.
Curtis Joseph was lured back to action as Kiprusoff's backup and played well enough in limited action to think that he could handle such a role again if the 41-year-old is still interested.
17th - Josh Bailey, Kirill Petrov, Colby Robak
The Flames have approximately $48-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: Four top nine forwards, one defenceman
What I said the Flames needed last year: One top six forward, One top four defenceman
Who did they add? Owen Nolan, Adrian Aucoin, Anders Eriksson, Cory Sarich
Alex Tanguay, Rhett Warrener, Adrian Aucoin, Anders Eriksson, Cory Sarich
Scott Cullen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org