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Off-Season Game Plan: Calgary Flames

Scott Cullen
5/21/2010 11:42:52 AM
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Not only did the Calgary Flames miss the playoffs, but they compounded their troubles by making poor investments in the process and that now leaves them in a challenging financial position going forward.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at the Flames and wonders how this team will be better next season.

For a team that didn't make the postseason, the Flames are stuck in an unfriendly spot, with little cap room, no picks in the first two rounds of this year's draft and, while there are a few decent prospects coming, none appear to be on the verge of landing in the Calgary lineup.

So with a roster that wasn't good enough to reach their most basic goal last season, the Flames don't appear to be in a great position to improve that roster this summer.

That doesn't mean moves can't, or won't, be made, but creativity will be required to add talent to this group. Adding to their challenges, the Flames also have to consider no-trade or no-movement clauses if they aim to shed salary.

According to www.capgeek.com, the Flames have eight players with no-trade (inlcuding modified no-trades included in recently-signed extensions for Matt Stajan and Rene Bourque) or no-movement clauses. That makes it difficult to go into cost-cutting mode.

And without cutting costs, it's more than a little challenging to figure how the Flames are going to get better; not that the braintrust has revealed any plans for major changes this summer.

"On paper, we're a really good hockey team. We get three or four guys back to numbers they have to hit, you're right back to where you were." GM Darryl Sutter told reporters at season's end.

So, is the expectation is that the Flames will get more scoring from guys in-house and fill out the remaining holes on the roster with players scavenged from the bargain bins of free agency? That's what fits the current budget.

All players will not reach peak production in every season, so banking on improved production from Jarome Iginla, Daymond Langkow, David Moss and Jay Bouwmeester (or anyone else) isn't likely to be enough because, invariably, others won't score as much as they did last season.

Either the plans for the summer will be dramatically different than they are letting on, which is entirely possible, or the Flames are going to go into next season no better than the team that missed the playoffs this year and that doesn't make much sense.

It's not that the Flames need to make moves for the sake of making moves, but how about making them for the sake of improving a team that ranked 29th in the league with 2.45 goals per game?

The worst part of it is that, even if the Flames want to make changes, they are painted into a corner by their salary cap situation, so any major improvements this summer will be a significant managerial accomplishment.

GM/COACH
Darryl Sutter/Brent Sutter

Returning Forwards

Player Rating Cap Hit
Rene Bourque 81.55 $3.333M
Jarome Iginla 81.04 $7.0M
Niklas Hagman 73.46 $3.0M
Matt Stajan 72.87 $3.5M
Curtis Glencross 72.78 $1.2M
Daymond Langkow 71.45 $4.5M
Nigel Dawes 70.08 $850K
Mikael Backlund 66.76 $1.271M
Ales Kotalik 63.93 $3.0M
David Moss 63.11 $1.3M

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating Class '09-'10 Cap Hit
Christopher Higgins 66.48 UFA $2.25M
Eric Nystrom 65.53 UFA $688K
Craig Conroy 60.46 UFA $1.05M
Jamal Mayers 60.24 UFA $1.333M
Brian McGrattan 57.96 UFA $547K

28-year-old Rene Bourque is coming off a season in which he scored a career-high 58 points and landed a six-year contract extension as a reward. While it's questionable to pay for a career year, Bourque's game has been improving in recent years and he's blossomed into a power forward who is capable of playing in all situations.

Provided he can stay healthy (last season was only the second time in five years that he's topped 70 games), Bourque should continue to be a fixture up front for the Flames.

Flames leader Jarome Iginla comes under a lot of scrutiny, particularly when the Flames miss the playoffs, even though he scored more than 30 goals for the ninth straight season. The 32-year-old has been durable, too, playing all 82 games in four of the last five campaigns.

In the heat of the disappointment of not making the playoffs, there were rumours that Iginla could get shopped this summer, as Calgary finds itself in a precarious position with regard to the salary cap, but moving out a proven commodity like Iginla would only create an additional challenge for a team that has trouble scoring goals.

Niklas Hagman finished with 25 goals and a career-high 44 points last year, while playing 82 games for the third time in the last four seasons, but he managed just five goals and 11 points in 27 games with Calgary after being acquired from Toronto. For a $3-million cap hit, the Flames need Hagman to be a productive scorer.

While he's not considered an ideal No. 1 centre, Matt Stajan did score a career-high 57 points last season and has played at least 80 games in four of the last five years.

Perhaps he's not a picture-perfect first-line centre, but Stajan is one of 24 centres in the league to score at least 55 points in each of the last two seasons and if he can get some chemistry with Iginla or Bourque, then maybe he'll work effectively in that role.

Curtis Glencross is a sound complementary winger, a hard worker who is capable of filling in on a scoring line now and then. Admittedly, he's at the low end of this group, but over the last two seasons, only 17 forwards have recorded at least ten goals and a double-digit plus rating in both years and Glencross is one of them.

33-year-old Daymond Langkow's game has declined in recent years, with last season's 37 points his lowest total since 1998-1999. Langkow's a responsible player but, barring a reversal of fortune, it does appear that his production may not be at the level of his salary for the next couple seasons.

Nigel Dawes scored a career-best 32 points last season, and he does have the speed to create chances, but he had yet to play more than last year's 66 games, so it's still difficult to count on him for more than a depth role. If healthy, and playing with the right linemates, a 20-goal season seems possible.

21-year-old Mikael Backlund may have the upside to one day become a number one centre, but after 32 points in 54 AHL games and then one goal and ten points in 23 games with the Flames, it's also possible that he could be Calgary's third number two centre.

If any Flames forward is capable of making a big jump in productivity, though, it figures to be Backlund, based on the growth available at this early stage in his career path.

By making the curious decision to take on Ales Kotalik in last season's Olli Jokinen trade, the Flames have committed two more years (and a no-trade clause) to a forward that was complete washout in New York (scoring 22 points with a minus-18 rating in 45 games) before managing a total of five points in 26 games with Calgary.

Kotalik can shoot the puck and is a three-time 20-goal scorer, but if he doesn't rebound significantly, it will be hard to find somewhere to hide him. If the Flames are inclined to buy out players, Kotalik could be one option.

Following what appeared to be a breakthrough 2008-2009 season (20 goals, 39 points), David Moss struggled to 17 points in 64 games last season. A winger with good size and decent hands, Moss can be effective on the power play, but needs to be better if he's going to earn power play opportunities.

Considering the Flames' tight financial situation, they may not have room to bring back their unrestricted free agents and might need to go bargain-hunting for some depth forwards.

In a dream scenario, the Flames would be able to find a first-line centre via free agency, but that can't happen with their current cap situation. An enforcer would seem to be in the plans, with Brian McGrattan headed for free agency, but the Flames also need some checkers to play fourth-line roles and most will have to come cheaply.

Returning Defencemen

Player Rating Cap Hit
Mark Giordano 76.72 $892K
Jay Bouwmeester 66.58 $6.68M
Robyn Regehr 62.14 $4.02M
Cory Sarich 59.74 $3.6M
Adam Pardy 59.46 $700K
Steve Staios 54.70 $2.7M

Free Agent Defencemen

Player Rating Class '09-'10 Cap Hit
Ian White 73.95 RFA $850K

In a season full of disappointment, the most pleasant surprise for the Flames was the development of Mark Giordano, who finished with 11 goals, 30 points and a plus-17 rating while earning a bigger role on the blueline, playing more than 21 minutes a night from December through the end of the season.

At the other end of the spectrum, Jay Bouwmeester arrived with much fanfare and scored just three goals and 29 points; his lowest totals since the lockout. With Bouwmeester's paycheque come expectations and he didn't live up to them in Year One of his deal. He has four more years to at least get back to the level of play he exhibited in Florida, if not even better.

Defensively, Robyn Regehr handles the heavy lifting and he's generally safe and reliable, though some of that defensive responsibility leaves him prone to taking penalties. He's still a cornerstone piece.

Though he was injured for a time and didn't play a lot of minutes last season, Cory Sarich remains a safe and steady physical presence on the blueline. Given some of the Flames' other needs, Sarich would easily be expendable if another team still sees him as viable at that salary ($3.6-million).

Adam Pardy has been adequate in a depth role for the last two seasons, not giving much indication that he's about to offer anything more, but the 26-year-old is a reasonably-priced option for the third defensive pair.

From the same page as the Ales Kotalik acquisition comes Steve Staios, who was brought in to provide veteran leadership and defensive play, but his minus-8 rating in 18 games with Calgary (after minus-19 in 40 games with Edmonton) indicates that Staios' defensive troubles may not be simply a matter of his teammates.

If the Flames can find a taker, Staios might need to be moved or, he's another buyout candidate.

While some of those that joined Ian White in the trade from Toronto struggled with their new team, White sure wasn't one of them and he finished the year with a career-best 38 points and plus-8 rating.

White can get outmuscled at times, but overall is a steady enough defender who makes good outlet passes and owns a hard shot from the point, so he'll play an important role once he's re-signed.

It's not as though this isn't an adequate group already, because it's fine, but finances could dictate change for the Flames. At least they have a solid enough foursome at the top of the depth chart around which they can build.

Returning Goaltender

Player Rating Cap Hit
Miikka Kiprusoff 83.23 $5.833M

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating Class '09-'10 Cap Hit
Vesa Toskala 45.20 UFA $4.0M

Miikka Kiprusoff enjoyed a renaissance season, putting up his best numbers (2.31 GAA, .920 SVPCT) since 2005-2006. When he plays like that, the 33-year-old Finn is capable of being a top-flight starter and there's not such a problem with his starting more than 70 games for the fifth straight season.

In the last two years with Toronto, Vesa Toskala was terrible, posting a 3.39 goals against average and .886 save percentage, but then was better in the half dozen appearances he made with the Flames once he arrived in Calgary.

If he's willing to take a limited role (and salary), Toskala might be a good fit as the backup again next season. Otherwise, the Flames can look to the free agent market, for the likes of Peter Budaj or Andrew Raycroft -- guys that can provide solid enough work even if they go long stretches without playing.

Top Prospects

Player Position Team/League Stats
Mitch Wahl C Spokane (WHL) 30-66-96,+23, 72 GP
Greg Nemisz RW Windsor (OHL) 34-36-70,+22, 59 GP
T.J. Brodie D Barrie (OHL) 7-49-56,+33, 65 GP
John Negrin D Abbotsford (AHL) 5-10-15,even, 45 GP
Ryan Howse LW Chilliwack (WHL) 47-25-72,+9, 72 GP
Matt Pelech D Abbotsford (WHL) 2-8-10,+7, 42 GP
Keith Seabrook D Abbotsford (AHL) 10-18-28,-3, 34 GP
Gord Baldwin D Abbotsford (AHL) 4-20-24,+7, 67 GP
Leland Irving G Abbotsford (AHL) 14-17-2, 2.76 GAA, .905 SVPCT, 34 GP
Bryan Cameron RW Barrie (OHL) 53-25-78,+38, 62 GP

Playmaking centre Mitch Wahl capped off a fine WHL season with a late-season audition in the American Hockey League (scoring four points in four regular season games, then six points in 12 playoff games). Perhaps he'll be the kind of point-producing centre the Flames need, but figures to require some time in the AHL first.

Greg Nemisz is a big, versatile forward who has enjoyed a lot of success with Windsor in the Ontario Hockey League. His adjustment to the pro game will give him a chance to play for an Abbotsford team that won't be head-and-shoulders better than 90% of their opposition.

T.J. Brodie is a puck-moving defenceman who had 71 points in 82 OHL games (regular season and playoffs) last season and will likely need some time in the American Hockey League before he gets his chance in Calgary.

Playing more of an understated game, John Negrin missed some time last season with a broken wrist, but doesn't appear to be too far away. A strong season in the American Hockey League would really set him up to challenge for a spot the following season.

A third-round pick last summer, Ryan Howse turned up his production, sniping 47 goals in the regular season and adding five more in the playoffs and his improving all-around game increases his chances of landing with the Flames in the future.

Matt Pelech was a first-round pick in 2005 and his development has been gradual, but a strong season in the AHL has the 22-year-old ready to challenge for a defensive role if there is an opening on the Flames roster.

Acquired from the Washington Capitals, Keith Seabrook was the top-scoring defenceman in Abbotsford and, given the quality of the Flames' defence prospects, he does warrant consideration for the future.

6-foot-5 blueliner Gord Baldwin has taken some time to develop, but the 23-year-old is significantly closer to the NHL than he was in his first couple minor-league seasons.

A first-round pick in 2006, 22-year-old goaltender Leland Irving was sent down to the ECHL last season, which seems to at least be a speed-bump in his progress. He's still young enough to get back on the right path.

Unsigned after he was drafted by Los Angeles in 2007, Bryan Cameron was signed this spring by the Flames after scoring 53 goals in 62 OHL games. He's proven he can score in junior and will get his chance in the American Hockey League next season.

A couple of other Flames prospects worth waiting for are Swedish defenceman Tim Erixon, last year's first-round pick, and Finnish goaltender Joni Ortio.

DRAFT
No first-round pick.

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Flames have approximately $53.4M committed to the 2010-2011 salary cap for 17 players.

Needs: First-line centre, depth forwards, backup goaltender.

What I said the Flames needed last year: Two top nine forwards, one top four defenceman, another defenceman, backup goaltender.

Who did they add? Nigel Dawes, Brandon Prust, Fredrik Sjostrom, Brian McGrattan, Jay Bouwmeester.

TRADE MARKET Niklas Hagman, Ales Kotalik, David Moss, Cory Sarich, Steve Staios.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen.

 

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