by Mike Board
The Calgary Flames dressing room underwent some renovations and received a shiny new coat of paint over the summer. But that’s just the start of some of the changes the National Hockey League team has made since last spring.
There’s a new head coach and a number of new faces in key places as the off-season proved to be a busy one for the Flames.
Darryl Sutter, who put his unique stamp on the Flames from the moment he arrived in December of 2002, will not be behind the bench this season as he handed those reins to Jim Playfair, the Flames assistant coach for the past three seasons. Sutter will concentrate solely on his general manager duties.
New faces include offensive sensation Alex Tanguay, speedy Jeff Friesen, a puck-moving defenceman in Andrei Zyuzin and a returning face in back-up goalie Jamie McLennan. While the roster is a veteran one, there may be room for one or two rookies, including Russian centre Andrei Taratukhin.
But, despite the changes off the ice, the Flames will not be changing their identity on the ice, said Playfair, who won the AHL Calder Cup in 2000-01 as head coach with the Flames top affiliate.
“It’s really important that we re-establish our identity of being a hard team to play against,” said Playfair.
If that sounds a lot like what Sutter might say, there is good reason. Playfair was the captain of the Indianapolis Ice (IHL) in 1989-90 where Darryl Sutter was the head coach of the Chicago farm team. The Ice rambled through the regular season with 114 points and a 12-2 record en route to winning the Turner Cup championship. Shortly after Sutter joined the Flames as head coach in 2002, Playfair was promoted from the minors to the NHL as one of Sutter’s assistants and has played a key role in developing the Flames identity – an identity he doesn’t plan on letting slip away.
“Our mindset doesn’t change,” said Playfair, a former first round pick of the Edmonton Oilers whose career was cut short because of a retina injury suffered in 1991. “Our group is based on playing strong defensive hockey and creating scoring chances from that.”
Throughout the summer – with veterans, rookies and the newly signed players – Playfair has sent a consistent message about the Flames identity.
“Through summer training, through training camp with the details that we will put into place every day, it will allow us to be a competitive team every night,” said Playfair.
It begins with work ethic. Without it, players are going to struggle to make the Flames line-up.
“I think what we expect to see from our training camp is our work ethic improve each and every day and understand that getting our systems and details into place is really important for us,” said the head coach, who is joined by Rich Preston, Rob Cookson, David Marcoux and newcomer Wayne Fleming in the coaching ranks.
“It’s about building and reinforcing our identity – how we expect the game to be played by the Calgary Flames. It’s hard work. It’s intensity. The players recognize that that gives us a chance to win each and every night. It’s about maintaining that and improving on that.”
Over the summer the Flames held a prospect camp and began instilling the work ethic identity in the younger players in the system. Some of those younger players are expected to crack the line-up this season.
“When you go back on the history of our team, you see Chuck Kobasew, Matthew Lombardi and Dion Phaneuf, young players coming in and making our hockey club. It is important to have that rollover of youth coming in because it gives you a chance for a long period of time to be successful. That is an important mindset of the organization – to continue to develop and improve and bring players along from within that are going to give us a chance to win and who already understand the identity of the team as well as understand the expectation level of our team,” said Playfair.
As for which players are going to be playing together when the season starts, we’ll have to see how camp evolves. So, while Jarome Iginla and Tanguay are together now, nothing is written in stone.
“You piece things together in your head and get the perfect picture and then it doesn’t always play out that way,” said Playfair.
“We have to be flexible enough to make the adjustments and changes. You can’t get locked in to the point that it handicaps you.”
The bonus from the Flames standpoint is the flexibility – Tanguay, for example, can play centre or on the wing.
“The asset in having players who can play multiple positions is that you can move them around and find the combinations that work,” said Playfair.
The Flames open the season with the Battle of Alberta in Edmonton on Oct. 5 with a return date with the Oilers on Oct. 7 at the 'Dome.
“Obviously getting a good start to the season is important,” said Playfair. “But it is a long season and the important thing is to not get too far ahead of ourselves and stay really focused on what we can control.”