The Calgary Flames look to take a new path this season after three years of coming up short of the playoffs.
One More Try?
Rather than dismantle a core group of players that haven't made the playoffs for three seasons, the Flames decided in the off-season to stick with the majority of their team.
The Flames hung around the cut line for the first half of last season before making a trade they thought would ensure themselves a playoff spot - re-acquiring forward Michael Cammalleri from the Montreal Canadiens.
Cammalleri had been struggling in Montreal and while his numbers did improve after the move to Calgary, it wasn't enough to help push the Flames into the postseason.
GM Jay Feaster later opted to move on from head coach Brent Sutter and hired good friend Bob Hartley; the two had worked together before with Hershey of the AHL. While Hartley has been out of the league since being fired by the Atlanta Thrashers six games into the 2007-08 season, he certainly has proven playoff coaching experience - lead the Avalanche to four Conference finals and 2001 Stanley Cup championship.
Will the change behind the bench be enough to vault the Flames in the playoffs, or are there deeper issues within the organization to be addressed?
Flames fans have to love what they saw of Sven Baertschi last season. The 2011 first-rounder got a surprise call-up from the WHL and scored three goals in five games before being returned. He can be expected to push hard for a roster spot.
While his brother Mikael is believed to be one of the top players not yet in the NHL, Markus Granlund is proving to be a solid second rounder. Taken in 2011 by the Flames, the young sensation posted 34 points in 47 games in the Finnish Elite League as an 18-year-old.
The team reached a bit on draft day, trading down to the 21st pick to grab high-school centre Mark Jankowski. Although he is still a few years away, he will accelerate his development by skipping his planned stop in the USHL to play for Providence College as one of the NCAA's youngest players. Jankowski has undeniable talent and the team must now wait to see how it is displayed against tougher opposition.
The Flames also saw one of their prospects play way above his size at the 2013 World Juniors, as 2011 fourth-rounder John Gaudreau led the tournament in goals. The 5'6" New Jersey-native scored seven times - five coming in knockout-round games - en route to being named a tournament All-Star.
The question in Calgary for some time has been whether the Flames should rebuild their roster, or if they're just a few tweaks away from making some noise in the Western Conference. Feaster didn't tear down the roster, but he did make some moves with an eye towards the future.
The Flames received criticism for the contract given to Dennis Wideman (five years, $26.5 million) but the blueliner is still on the right side of 30 and was named an All-Star last season.
Along with Jiri Hudler - also under 30 – the Flames added two proven players with a lot of hockey left in them. And let's not forget Roman Cervenka, brought in by the club to take a top six spot and provide some scoring punch. It's the first step towards injecting some life into the Flames and their playoff chances.
Miikka Kiprusoff doesn't owe the Flames anything, as he's been solid in his eight seasons in Calgary. That said, he'll turn 36 this season and he can't carry the same workload he did early on in his career.
Kipper's performance dropped last year when he wasn't given ample rest and because the Flames didn't make a veteran upgrade at the backup position this summer, he'll likely be facing a similar workload this year.
The backup tandem of Henrik Karlsson and Leland Irving combined for just two wins and a goals against average above 3.00 last season. The Flames' decision not to consistently play the two led to 70 appearances for Kipper - 68 of which were starts. Those numbers ranked in the top five in the NHL as Kiprusoff was the only goalie above the age of 30 with such a heavy workload.
A look at where Flames players went during the lockout:
Anton Babchuk (Donbass Donetsk, KHL), Mikael Backlund (Vasteras, Swedish Elite), Sven Baertschi (Abbotsford, AHL), T.J. Brodie (Abbotsford, AHL), Paul Byron (Abbotsford, AHL), Roman Cervenka (Slavia Praha, Czech League), Roman Horak (Abbotsford, AHL), Jiri Hudler (Lev Praha, KHL), Krys Kolanos (Abbotsford, AHL)
Bob McKenzie's Breakdown
There will be no make the playoffs "guarantee" this year from Calgary Flames' general manager Jay Feaster, like there was prior to last season, but actions speak far louder than words anyway and it's safe to say the goal in Cowtown remains unchanged: it's playoffs or bust.
While some have wondered for years why the Flames don't embark on a full-scale tear-down, trade Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff and rebuild, last summer's free agency spree in Calgary leaves no doubt the mindset of Feaster and new head coach Bob Hartley.
You don't trade for Mike Cammalleri or sign Jiri Hudler or defenceman Dennis Wideman if you're rebuilding.
The Flames have a burning desire to get into the top eight in the West and will likely go as far as a top line of veterans Iginla, Cammalleri and Alex Tanguay up front and stalwart netminder Kiprusoff take them.
Hartley is a coach who isn't afraid to go to the whip and Calgary's best players will be rolled out and rolled out often.
That isn't to say the Flames' future is going up in smoke. The prospects cupboard, slowly but surely, is being re-stocked with not-quite-yet-ready talent such as John Gaudreau, Tyler Wotherspoon, Patrick Sieloff, Markus Granlund and Mark Jankowski but the crown jewel of the franchise's young guns is first-year pro Sven Baertschi, who will be given a chance to show he can play in the Flames top six up front. He could be a rookie of the year candidate if healthy, after coming off a neck injury that kept him out a month.
Calgary also needs Jaromir Jagr's old running mate from the KHL - centre Roman Cervenka - to be a player who can contribute offensively along with Hudler, who's had some injury problems this season but looks ready to go now.
The Flames will try to backfill with Curtis Glencross, Matt Stajan, Mikael Backlund and Lee Stempniak as potential Top 9 guys and there's no shortage of depth bodies such as Blair Jones, Tim Jackman, Blake Comeau, Roman Horak, Paul Byron, Ben Street and even old warhorse Steve Begin, who's in on a professional tryout.
If Mark Giordano, Jay Bouwmeester and Wideman play to potential, Calgary's blueline can be solid, with Chris Butler, Derek Smith, vet Cory Sarich, Anton Babchuk and Brett Carson providing depth. Hartley favourite Steve McCarthy will get a look on a professional tryout and youngsters T.J. Brodie and Chris Breen could challenge.
Goaltending is a strength and self explanatory. Kiprusoff will play almost all the games and Henrik Karlsson will be there when relief is required.
If things go well, the Flames hope to compete for a playoff spot. If things go poorly, they'll have to reconcile, one more time, why they shouldn't trade Iginla and/or Kiprusoff before the deadline.