It didn't take long for Flames coach Brian Sutter to figure out his team last season. "Two minutes into training camp I could tell their approach wasn't conducive to winning," he says. "We had some young players who didn't understand what it takes and others who were accustomed to mediocrity."
For the first half of the season Calgary was worse than mediocre: It won just six times in 31 games as Sutter went with his young players. But then the Flames went 14-13-5 in their final 32 games. They still need to develop consistency—not to mention a power play—before they can think about the playoffs. However, they should improve on last year's 26-41-15 record, the worst in franchise history.
While Calgary's future is its youth—the Flames will use a dozen players under age 24—its immediate success will depend on how the veterans perform. Right wing Theo Fleury, the only player left from Calgary's 1989 Stanley Cup team, led the Flames with 78 points last season, while no other Calgary player had more than 49. The 30-year-old Fleury is capable of a 50-goal season, but he has been frustrated by a lack of support.
The defense is burdened by inexperience. As a stopgap measure, 13-year veteran Steve Smith, a Calgary assistant coach last season, has come out of retirement, and the Flames signed 34-year-old free agent Phil Housley. In the nets Calgary, one of five teams with a goals-against average of more than 3.00 in 1997-98, acquired 34-year-old Ken Wregget to provide stability. Wregget, however, is injury-prone—he was limited to 15 games with the Penguins last season because of a back ailment.
Sutter's not promising a Stanley Cup this season, but he's sure his players now know what it takes to win. "This team has worked hard and sacrificed a lot," Sutter says. "I guarantee we'll be miserable to play against."