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NEW PLAYERS 5
Calgary's red mile made other hockey cities green with envy in that magical spring of 2004, when thousands filled the streets in anticipation of a Flames' Stanley Cup victory. The team was good, losing the final in seven games. The partying was all-world. Now, as the NHL skates into its new ice age, the Flames have a team that appears worthy of matching the quality of Red Mile revelry.
"I know some teams [in our position] have gone backward," says Calgary captain Jarome Iginla, "but some teams have gone forward. I look at the positive side. We made some key acquisitions. We were a goal away [in 2004], and we were young. Those young players will have even a bigger role this time around. It's a different outlook than previous years, when we were thinking of how we could scrape into the playoffs."
Yes, there were notable additions (forwards Tony Amonte and Daymond Langkow and defenseman Roman Hamrlik), but the Flames' most important signing was Iginla himself. He re-upped for $21 million over three years, the richest new contract, in dollars per season, ladled out in the nascent salary-cap era. Other than a few goalies, no NHL player means more to his team than Iginla. His exceptional productivity--he led the league in goals in two of its past three seasons and had a league-high 13 goals in 26 playoff games in 2004--is equaled only by his marketability. If Calgary mainstays such as Craig Conroy, Iginla's old center, and forward Martin Gelinas are gone, well, so is nearly every ticket for every Flames home game this season. Whenever a player such as Atlanta's Marian Hossa claims that he deserves Iginla money, the appropriate response is: No, you don't. In a league light on accomplished, sellable stars, no one approaches the charismatic and fan-friendly Iginla's ability to fill an arena. Calgary's general manager and coach, Darryl Sutter, who has an acute sense of hockey values, grasped that, which is why he found appropriate dollars for Iginla even while leaving enough to furnish a supporting cast of experienced but not old players.
Iginla must accustom himself to new linemates--Langkow and Amonte, the veteran right wing who will move to the left side. Langkow is a lefthanded shot, which theoretically makes it easier for him to set up the right-shooting Iginla when he storms down the wing. But Langkow is more of a shooter than Conroy was. "Our line is still getting to know each other, where guys like the puck in certain spots on the ice," says Iginla, who played with Langkow on Canada's gold-medal-winning team in the 1996 world junior championships. "But my friend [winger] Shane Doan absolutely loved playing with Daymond [in Phoenix] and keeps telling me how underrated he is." Says Sutter, "Is [Langkow] looked at as a Number 1 center? I don't think so. But I think he's a perfect Number 2. If you can have two or three perfect Number 2s, you're in pretty good shape."
Although the 2003--04 Flames' defense was an admirable bulwark in front of goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, whose 1.69 goals-against average was the lowest in the modern era, Sutter upgraded by signing the durable Hamrlik to a two-year deal. In Calgary, Hamrlik won't need to play his standard 25 minutes per game, but with his strong shot and ability to control the point, he should be a fixture on the power play. The Flames' power play ranked only 21st in the last regular season and clicked at just 13.8% during the postseason. With the NHL anticipating a glut of man-advantage opportunities under the new rules, Hamrlik could relieve pressure on a team that often founders offensively when Iginla is not on the ice.
"The question is how quickly our chemistry in the [dressing] room comes together with the new guys," Iginla says. "[In 2003--04] we were the tightest group I ever played on. But the core of our team is back, and we're even hungrier now."
On the Red Mile, fans are even thirstier. -- Michael Farber