Preview: Flames have championship qualities
In the NHL, one year’s Cinderella team can often be branded an underachiever in subsequent seasons as the expectations are raised.
In 2005-06, the club won the Northwest Division with the NHL’s stingiest defense and best goaltending. It was a lack of scoring depth that ultimately doused the Flames’ hopes of a return to the Stanley Cup Final. Last season, the Flames scored 40 more goals than the previous season and ranked seventh in the NHL offensively (although some folks insisted on decrying lack of scoring as the team’s main problem).
In actuality, it was lack continuity and consistency -- coupled with improvement by Vancouver and Minnesota -- that dropped the Flames to third in the division and eighth in the conference. In 2006-07, the Flames were almost unbeatable at the Saddledome (30-9-2), but struggled on the road (13-20-7). Some nights the Flames were miserable to play against, other nights they seemed uncharacteristically flat and passive.
The Flames drew the top-seeded Detroit Red Wings in the first round the playoffs. In an often downright nasty series, the Wings prevailed in six games. The finale ended in a heartbreaking double-OT loss for Calgary.
In June, GM Darryl Sutter surprised many people when he hired veteran Mike Keenan to become the new head coach. Keenan cultivated a reputation as a tyrannical – but highly intelligent and successful – coach during his days in Philadelphia, Chicago and Manhattan. But he seemingly lost his touch in St. Louis, Vancouver, Boston and Florida. Despite assertions that he’s mellowed over the years, Keenan’s modus operandi is still to make himself the common enemy that draws his players closer together. His attention to detail is comprehensive, which is why some of his former players say they played their best hockey under “Iron Mike.” That’s what Sutter (who served as an assistant coach to Keenan in Chicago) is banking on.
Keenan inherits a team with the nucleus of a champion – including one of the NHL’s top captains and clutch scorers in Jarome Iginla, a Vezina Trophy caliber goaltender in Miikka Kiprusoff, a burgeoning franchise defenseman in Dion Phaneuf, and a supporting cast that balances talent with grit.
The Flames made quite a few changes to the roster over the off-season. Most notably, the club added three new defensemen – Adrian Aucoin, Anders Eriksson and Cory Sarich – while losing a pair of key starters in Roman Hamrlik (signed with Montreal) and Brad Stuart (signed with Los Angeles). Calgary also signed veteran power forward Owen Nolan to add leadership, grit and contribute some power-play goals.