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Features

Is Mike Keenan the answer for the Calgary Flames?

Wednesday, 03.10.2007 / 12:12 PM / Features
The Canadian Press
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Is Mike Keenan the answer for the Calgary Flames?

CALGARY - The Iron Mike watch is underway in Calgary.

Will new head coach Mike Keenan alienate his players? Or will he give a club that

Calgary Flames head coach Mike Keenan
underachieved last season the edge it needs to be a Stanley Cup contender?

Flames general manager Darryl Sutter brought Keenan on board in June to replace Jim Playfair, who was the bench boss last season and who remained with the club as associate coach.

Keenan brings more than 20 years of NHL coaching experience and a track record of winning with his most successful years were prior to 1998.

He's taken teams to the Stanley Cup final four times and won a championship with the New York Rangers in 1994.

His career has been marked by abrupt resignations or firings from organizations and he has a reputation for being hard on players

"I expect a lot. I don't think there's anything wrong with that," Keenan said. "If you have high expectations, if you raise the bar for the players I think they'll deliver and they'll push themselves to be better.

"I don't think that's a short fuse, I think that means teaching and setting a standard."

The Flames open the 2007-08 regular season Oct. 4 at home against the Philadelphia Flyers (CBC, 8 p.m. ET).

If Sutter was looking for a coach to draw a line in the sand for his players, he's got one who can dig a trench, although the 57-year-old Keenan insists he's mellowed.

He speaks in measured professorial tones that belie his firebrand image.

"I'm definitely more patient than I was as a 34-year-old, but that just comes with age for anyone," he said with a chuckle.

The Flames have the ingredients to win the Northwest Division, but were thought to have had them last season when they finished third at 43-29-10.

Calgary had the most home wins of any team in the league with 30, but were one of the worst on the road with just 13.

"Calgary was almost unbeatable at home, and on the road, I remember playing them a lot of times in Columbus and they were a different team," newly signed defenceman Anders Eriksson said.

"They were there, going through the motions basically and losing games. You could tell the guys didn't have confidence and I think Mike is going to bring that into the room."

The Flames gave up more shots and thus more goals away from the Pengrowth Saddledome than in the previous season in which they had the best defence in the NHL.

Calgary finished in the eighth and final playoff berth in the Western Conference and lost in the first round to Detroit in a six-games series that went as long as it did because of the outstanding play of goaltender Mikka Kiprusoff at the Saddledome.

If captain Jarome Iginla is the heart and soul of Calgary's Stanley Cup aspirations, Kiprusoff is the backbone.

The former Vezina Trophy winner is entering the final year of his contract with the Flames. His agent and the club are currently in negotiations on an extension.

"In the dressing room, we believe he's the best goalie in the league so we hope it gets done soon," Iginla said. "There's a lot of good things going on here and he's a big part of it."

The Flames are a veteran team as there is room for only one rookie at forward and at backup goaltender. Curtis McElhinney will start the season as Kiprusoff's backup.

Iginla's 94 points last season was his best since he won the NHL's scoring title in 2002. Alex Tanguay will likely play the opposite wing of Iginla with Daymond Langkow at centre.

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If Owen Nolan's 35-year-old body holds up under his physical brand of hockey, his off-season signing could bring toughness and leadership up front.

Left-winger Kristian Huselius is coming off a breakout season of 34 goals and 43 assists and Keenan has commented that the Swede is stronger mentally and physically than he was when Keenan coached Huselius in Florida.

Sutter also added experience on the back end during the off-season with the free-agent signings of 34-year-old Adrian Aucoin, Eriksson, 32, and Cory Sarich, 29, to complement a blue-line that includes two of the best in the league in Robyn Regehr and Dion Phaneuf.

"They're a solid veteran corps of guys," winger Craig Conroy said. "They do everything well and I think it brings a calming effect for everybody else."

Sutter has kept two major pieces of the puzzle in place long term by signing Iginla and Regehr to five-year contract extensions worth US$35 million and $20 million respectively in the off-season.

Second-line centre Matthew Lombardi's contract was extended three years as well.

Huselius, Langkow and defensive forward Stephane Yelle will be unrestricted free agents next summer and Phaneuf will be a restricted free agent.

Calgary has been guilty of slow starts the last two seasons with two wins in the first seven games of the regular season.

The Flames' pre-lockout run to the Stanley Cup final in 2004 is still fresh in the minds of their fans and Calgary's two consecutive first-round exits in the post-season fall short of expectations in the city.

Is the volatile Keenan the answer?

"We feel the pressure and so does he," Eriksson said. "He comes into a new organization and he wants to win. Obviously he looks to the older guys to really take charge.

"If you do what you're told and work hard, I think he'll be all right . . . hopefully."

A look at the Calgary Flames heading into the 2007-08 NHL season:

Last Year: 43-29-10, 8th in the Western Conference.

Who's In: Owen Nolan, Adrian Aucoin, Cory Sarich, Anders Eriksson, Curtis McElhinney.

Who's Out: Jeff Friesen, Tony Amonte, Roman Hamrlik, Darren McCarty, Andre Zyuzin, Jamie McLennan.

The Storylines: Will Keenan alienate the players or get more out of them than Jim Playfair did last season? Can Jarome Iginla duplicate one of the best seasons of his career? Will the Flames be able to sign Mikka Kiprusoff to a long-term contract extension?