Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A promising season goes to waste

There is no doubt that during the first two thirds of the season, everybody in Calgary was thinking Stanley Cup. On paper, this was every bit the team and more so when compared to the 2004 squad.

The addition of Todd Bertuzzi and Mike Cammalleri seemed a great fit. Bertuzzi has given the team some grit, while Cammalleri punched in enough goals to surpass his best season (34) with the Los Angeles Kings. At the NHL Entry Draft, General Manager Darryl Sutter was finally able to land the player he has wanted for so many seasons: Olli Jokinen.

That was then. This is now.

Bertuzzi has not scored since March 1, and Cammalleri had not scored since March 23 before punching two in at the season finale against the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday. Jokinen hasn’t scored since March 24.

The Flames were 2-3-0 in its last five games; 4-6-0 in its last 10 coming back to the Pengrowth Saddledome for the wrap-up. Fortunately for the team, the last game ended on a win.

This last contest was also the fifth consecutive game that the team has played shorthanded – the second game dressing only 15 skaters. Shorthanded because of key injuries to three key defensemen: Cory Sarich, Dion Phaneuf, and Robyn Regehr and left wingers Rene Bourque and Curtis Glencross. Shorthanded because of a balance sheet.

How can a team dress shorthanded in five of the most crucial games of the season when it is battling for a home playoff date? Two words: salary cap mismanagement. There was no contingency plan if its key contributors were hurt.

The club had to send Dustin Boyd to the minors in lieu of John Negrin because keeping him in the lineup would have put them over the cap. Bringing up Negrin still didn’t help much because the team has no funds left to fill a fourth line.

Think back to Jarome Iginla’s very first appearance in Calgary in April 1996. It was Game Three of the first round against Chicago. The closest Iginla every came to a Cup final was 2004, when the Flames went seven games with the Tampa Bay Lightning and lost – and this season. It was this season when Iginla became Calgary’s all-time points leader. It was this season when the club led the Northwest Division for much of the year. It was this season when the Flames were considered one of the best home teams. The club was 13 points ahead in the division and then something happened during an early March extended road trip.

After two road wins against Ottawa and Philadelphia, the Flames then lost three in a row, ending the trip with an 8-6 loss to Toronto and a 3-4 record. The team wasn’t able to regroup. Meanwhile, the Vancouver Canucks found some life and knocked at the lead to the division. The Flames fell from third to fifth place in the Western Conference.

Losing games is one thing, especially due to key injuries. But not being able to dress enough players? You’ll be hard pressed to find an NHL insider who has ever seen that before. It’s a sad testament to see such a promising season whittle away to almost oblivion.

So the pulse around Calgary is the team will be lucky to survive one playoff win in what will be expected as an early exit to the post-season.

One has to wonder what a first-round exit will mean for next year. New coach? Likely. New general manager? Perhaps. New upper management? Also a possibility. You can’t fault the players on this one. Injuries have certainly played a key role, but not being able to dress enough players to field a game is as undeniable as a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty call.

But on the upside, we hear that Jacques Lemaire is available. There is also good news on the economic front. The Flames are still considered one of the league’s most viable franchises. The black ink has flowed in since 2004.

A look ahead to the playoffs

It could be déjà vu all over again. The last time the Flames faced Chicago in the first round of the playoffs was 1996. The outcome wasn’t pretty and the team missed the post-season for eight consecutive seasons thereafter.

Of course, the one guy who was there is the team captain Jarome Iginla. “That was a lot of years ago, and it’s also a new opponent.”

True, but if the regular season has anything to say, it’s not looking promising. The Blackhawks came out the victors in every single contest.

The only thing the team can do is to break down each of those game films and see where they can do better.

“Other than that, it’s a question of who wants it more,” adds Mike Cammalleri. “I’d say we’re due. We’re going to take the positives and say we’re due to have some good games against them.”

The Flames are expected to finally field a full roster come the first game, although Coach Mike Keenan won’t say which of the injured will be returning. But one has to wonder how playing so many games shorthanded has affected the players overall. Eric Nystrom is probably tired of talking about it.

“We were sick of using excuses about being down manpower and stuff. We’ve got a lot of guys in this room that can put the puck in the net and play good hockey.”

Yes, the Flames were unlikely heroes to reach the Stanley Cup final in 2004, but no matter how promising this season was made out to be, the final few weeks are the measuring stick for the momentum coming into the playoffs. Add in Chicago, and well, maybe the team will surprise us.


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