By Jon A. Dolezar, CNNSI.com
The Calgary Flames were an inconsistent conflagration last season.
The Flames got off to a blazing 13-2-4-2 start in the first quarter of the season, but then finished with less intensity than a pilot light, going 19-33-8-1 the rest of the way.
Calgary was 27-25-9-3 on March 7 and still in the playoff hunt. But after getting just two points in their next eight games, the Flames were on the outside looking in, finishing 15 points behind the eighth-seeded Canucks.
The Flames didn't lose much in the offseason, but they certainly didn't gain much, either. Unless, of course, you count keeping Jarome Iginla with a tough-to-swallow contract in an decreasingly competitive Canadian market a "gain." The re-signing of Iginla was as much of a PR move as anything else. How would the Flames have been able to convince their fans they are committed to being a competitive team if they let their leading scorer walk?
"It was very important [to keep Iginla], not only for the team, but for the fans in Calgary," Flames head coach Greg Gilbert said. "Jarome has always wanted to be here. Jarome has proven that he cares about the city and he loves where he's playing. He's a great community person, and I think the people have fallen in love with him. He's a real levelheaded guy, a very caring individual and a very strong person. So he's everything that the people of Calgary epitomize, and he's a big, solid part of our hockey club."
Gone are fourth-line center Clark Wilm (Nashville), backup goalie Mike Vernon (retirement) and depth players Jason Botterill (Buffalo), Dallas Eakins (Atlanta) and Alan Letang (N.Y. Islanders). Martin Gelinas was brought in from Carolina as the big offseason acquisition and will be asked to add scoring punch on the second or third line.
Jarome Iginla, RW -- Iginla's breakout season of 96 points established him as one of the preeminent power forwards in the game. Even though Calgary had little else to offer in terms of consistent offense, Iggy fought through constant checking, tough battles in the corners and frequent slashes while camped in the slot to register his first 50-goal season and win the Art Ross and Maurice Richard trophies.
"I think we always believed that Jarome had that in him," Gilbert said. "Craig Conroy in the center and Dean McAmmond on the left side are very quick skaters and smart players, and that helped Jarome elevate his game and play at a higher tempo. He's a big, strong athlete, he can skate well, and I think playing with those two guys really helped him understand how fast he is and how he can use that asset to the best of his ability. If you look at Jarome's past in the NHL, he's improved every year. Last year was just that year that he kind of busted out."
Iginla finished second in voting for the Hart Trophy, and after signing a two-year, $13 million contract, he will face even more pressure this season.
Scoring depth after the top line -- The Flames don't possess a ton of offensive talent. After the top line of McAmmond, Conroy and Iginla, Calgary has few legitimate scoring threats. Last season the top line combined for 100 of the Flames' 201 goals, with only Marc Savard (14) and Chris Clark (10) totaling double-digit goal totals after the first-liners. Without a more balanced scoring attack this season, Iginla and his mates on the top line are going to face brutal checking every night and could see their numbers dip.
Savard has been feuding with Gilbert for the past year and is likely to be traded prior to the start of the regular season. While a second line consisting of Savard and Gelinas would be an improvement from last year's lackluster No. 2 unit, it's unlikely the duo will skate together in a regular-season game. Savard scored 33 points in 56 games last season, but his feud stems from an injury that cost him his spot on the top line to Conroy. After scoring 65 points in the 2000-01 season, Savard was penciled in to center Iginla, but he never regained his top-line role after returning from the infirmary.
Rob Niedermayer was one of the biggest disappointments in the league last season, tallying six goals and 14 assists in 57 games. Niedermayer scored 61 points with Florida in 1995-96 and had 51 points as recently as 1998-99, so the Flames need him to rediscover his scoring touch.
Some of the slack could be picked up by rookie right winger Chuck Kobasew, who made a splash last year during the preseason. The former Boston College player netted five goals last preseason, but couldn't come to terms on a contract with the Flames and was sent back to juniors for the season. He tore up the WHL with 41 goals in 55 games with Kelowna. Calgary inked Kobasew this offseason and will give him every chance to win a spot on the top three lines out of camp.
"I've always believed that if you have a good solid team, everybody that is on the ice is capable of scoring goals," Gilbert said. "We want to be a defensive-minded team -- there's no question that we want to cut down our goals against -- but we want our guys to be able to use their creativity and have that opportunity to score goals. We feel that we have people here who are going to be able to score goals for us this year."
Which Roman Turek will show up this season?
The Flames' netminder looked Vezina-worthy in the first six weeks of the season, then looked demotion-worthy for the rest of it.
After a 12-3 start, including shutouts in the Flames' first two games, Turek went 6-18 in his next 24 starts. He finished the season ranked 19th in the league in save percentage (.906) and tied for 14th in wins (30). His goals-against average went from 2.28 in St. Louis in 2000-01 to 2.53 in his first season in Calgary, though some of that can be attributed to his no longer having Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis playing in front of him.
"I think as a team we got off to a great start and we were playing well at both ends of the ice," Gilbert said. "We got away from some of the things we did best early in the season, but I don't think [our fast start] went to Roman's head at all. He was carrying that heavy load in his shoulder, where he felt if he didn't do it, nobody else would. Roman is at his best when he just goes and plays. I think he learned from that experience last year."
Turek started a career-high 68 games last season and played 4,081 minutes, 121 minutes more than his previous heaviest workload. Jamie McLennan was signed from Minnesota to back up Turek, and the Flames would be smart to rest their starter more often so he doesn't wear out down the stretch again. McLennan started 38 games for the Minnesota Wild in 2000-01, but spent last season with the Wild's top affiliate, going 25-18-4 with a 2.74 GAA and .905 save percentage with AHL Houston.
The duo successfully teamed together in St. Louis three years ago, leading the Blues to the Presidents' Trophy (51-20-11-1) while winning the Jennings Trophy for finishing with the lowest team GAA (1.95).
Leopold won the Hobey Baker Award last season as the best player in U.S. college hockey while leading the Minnesota Golden Gophers to the NCAA title. He is just the fourth defenseman to win the Hobey Baker, joining Mark Fusco, Tom Kurvers and Mike Mottau. Leopold scored 48 points in 44 games, but his skating and checking are truly his forte.
"He's going to have the opportunity [to make the team out of camp]; there's no question about that," Gilbert said. "It's a matter of seeing how he's adapting to the NHL game. If he needs time, we're not going to force him into a situation he's not ready for. He's a very smooth player and he's a smart player. He's a young fellow who has composure and discipline on the ice, and those are two attributes that any pro hockey team would love to have."
Calgary hopes Leopold eventually will perform like former Flame Phil Housley, another defenseman from the suburban Twin Cities area. Leopold is a future top-four defenseman who eventually will see power-play time, but his role this season likely will be as the No. 6 or No. 7 guy among the rearguards, as he adjusts to the bigger, faster NHL games after dominating at the NCAA level for four seasons.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for CNNSI.com.