The most important newcomer for the Calgary Flames this season doesn't wear a uniform.
With the franchise's lone Stanley Cup now 25 years in the rear-view mirror and a streak of missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs that stretches back to 2009, the Flames brought in Brian Burke as their new director of hockey operations. Burke and general manager Jay Feaster will try to revive a franchise that only recently cut ties with the 2004 team that came within one goal of winning the Stanley Cup.
Since then, the team hasn't gotten beyond the first round of the playoffs and went 19-25-4 last season, its fourth in a row without a trip to the postseason.
Burke built the Anaheim Ducks into a Stanley Cup-winning team in 2007. More recently, he brought in a lot of the pieces that helped the Toronto Maple Leafs return to the playoffs last spring. But both of those accomplishments were as a general manager, a job Feaster still holds and that Burke says he's not interested in.
"I've been able to fix every team I've worked for, some quicker than others," Burke said after his hiring. "I'm very happy to take a back seat here.
"Jay is going to be the general manager of this team. I have talked to executives in other sports about how this works, and it's going to work if both Jay and I want it to work, and we both do. He's going to be in charge, but with my guidance."
For now, Burke, Feaster and coach Bob Hartley would be happy if their rebuilding effort could produce a team that would end the franchise's four-year absence from the playoffs. But it won't be easy. For years, Calgary has tried to mix and match its way back to the postseason rather than start over. Since 2009, the results have been the same: close but no playoffs, despite having a team that was often up against the salary cap.
Burke emphasized that money is no object, but that wise spending under the $64.3 million salary cap will be the order of the day.
"We try to make prudent financial decisions and we try to make sensible decisions," he said. "We are in a good position right now in terms of cap space. We have cap space, ownership is prepared to spend to the cap. That is not the issue. The issue is we want to spend the money wisely."
Some of the Flames' biggest contracts were gone before his arrival as Feaster began to reshape the franchise late last season.
Longtime captain Jarome Iginla is gone, traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins in April for prospects and a first-round draft pick. Veteran defenceman Jay Bouwmeester went to the St. Louis Blues in another late-season trade that also brought back a first-rounder. Miikka Kiprusoff, the winningest goaltender in franchise history (305 victories), turned down a deal near the NHL Trade Deadline, remained with the Flames through the end of the season and announced his retirement just before training camp opened.
"Jay has made some acquisitions that have already started the rebuild. It's hard in the cap system to turn your team around. You have unrestricted free agency, but in a cap system, it's a slower process than it is in a non-cap system," said Burke, who also felt the Flames had the best showing of any team at the NHL Draft, in which they had three first-round picks.
But with the possible exception of center Sean Monahan, the first of the three selections in the opening round, those players won't offer immediate help. Burke's arrival may shake things up in the front office, but on the ice there don't appear to be a lot of avenues for improvement from last season.
By far the biggest change in Calgary this fall is that for the first time since 1996, the Flames will be entering a season minus Iginla, who became the face of the franchise while becoming its all-time leader in goals and points.
"He'll be missed, but it's time to move forward," forward Mike Cammalleri told NHL.com. "He was the face of the franchise for so long, and I learned a ton from him. He was a leader I looked up to, a tremendous competitor and hockey player."
Iginla reached the 30-goal mark in each of his last 11 full seasons with the Flames, so his departure leaves an offensive gap on a team that was in the middle of the pack offensively last season.
Cammalleri (13 goals) and Lee Stempniak (nine) tied for the team lead in points with 32. Cammalleri is the only player on the roster to reach 30 goals in a season; Curtis Glencross was tops last season with 15. Jiri Hudler, Calgary's big free-agent signing last summer, scored 10 goals and finished with 27 points. The Flames sent veteran center Alex Tanguay (27 points) and defenceman Cory Sarich to the Colorado Avalanche for two-time 20-goal scorer David Jones and defenceman Shane O'Brien. They also brought in Calgary native TJ Galiardi (five goals, 14 points) from the San Jose Sharks.
The biggest potential difference-maker from last season is 2011 first-round pick Sven Baertschi, who was slowed by a hip flexor injury for much of last season and was returned to the minors for a while, but closed strong with three goals and nine points in Calgary's final seven games. That came after he teased everyone during a five-game cameo in 2011-12 by scoring three goals in five games.
"I've got to make sure I get my spot," Baertschi said. "As a player, you never want to give up your spot. Last year, I got sent down. With that, I gave up a spot. I don't want that to happen again."
Monahan and Max Reinhart are among the other youngsters trying to break into the lineup. Monahan believes he has a chance to stay with the Flames as an 18-year-old, especially because the Flames have a couple of vacancies in the middle; only Matt Stajan and Mikael Backlund have spent a whole NHL season at center. The experiment with moving Cammalleri from left wing to the middle appears to be over, but Hartley has pondered making the same move with Galiardi.
A big training camp by Monahan might eliminate one of those vacancies.
"It's my goal to play here," he said. "I want to play here."
"Right now, I'm not looking to go back to junior. If that happens, it'll be a disappointment, but something I'll deal with."
Cammalleri believes the youngsters will get their chance to earn jobs.
"We have so many young players. I got a chance to skate with Sean Monahan, our first-round pick this summer," he said. "There's going to be a bunch of guys who are going to get their shot."
There also figure to be positions open among a defence corps that allowed more non-shootout goals than any team in the Western Conference.
The Flames signed Dennis Wideman to a five-year contract last summer in hopes that he'd be a big producer offensively; he managed six goals and 22 points in 46 games. Mark Giordano (four goals, 15 points in 47 games) is a solid two-way player, but has seen his points per game drop in each of the past two seasons after a career-high 43 points in 2010-11. At 23, TJ Brodie has established himself as a solid NHL defenceman. Newcomer Kris Russell is a good puck-mover, but at 173 pounds, he's small.
That's why there's room for youngsters like 19-year-old Patrick Sieloff to establish themselves on a unit that saw all 10 players who manned the blueline last season finish with a minus rating. Feaster has mentioned more than once that Sieloff, the Flames' second-round pick and a big hitter at 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, will get a shot to win a job.
"We told Sieloff, 'We don't have a lot of players in the organization that play the way that you play. We're going to give you an opportunity in camp, and we're going to give you preseason games and see if you can knock the door down,'" Feaster told the media during the Flames' summer development camp in July.
Though Kiprusoff struggled last season (8-14-2, 3.44 goals-against average, .882 save percentage), his departure leaves a big hole because the Flames don't have a proven NHL starting goaltender on the roster. The team's save percentage was .889, 29th among the NHL's 30 teams.
Feaster's biggest off-season move was made with the apparent expectation that Kiprusoff would remain in Finland, when he signed former Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Karri Ramo to a two-year contract worth $5.5 million. Ramo struggled while playing 48 games during three stints with the Lightning, but he excelled during a four-season stretch in the Kontinental Hockey League and was 26-9-5 with a .929 save percentage for Omsk Avangard last season.
"Obviously, those are probably the biggest shoes that you could have to fill. He has played basically every game in 10 years here," Ramo said prior to the opening of training camp. "But like everybody has been saying, nobody expects anybody to fill his shoes, to be a new Kipper. Everybody has to be themselves and see how it's going to play out. It's going to be a tough challenge."
The Flames hope Ramo can give them the same kind of lift that Sergei Bobrovsky provided to the Columbus Blue Jackets last season, when he won the Vezina Trophy and got them within a tiebreaker of the final postseason berth in the Western Conference.
Joey MacDonald, a 33-year-old waiver pickup, played well enough in relief last season to earn a new one-year contract, and Reto Berra, a 26-year-old from Switzerland, are also in the mix.
Ramo is the only one with a multi-year contract, but he knows there are no guarantees.
"You always have to earn your spot," he said. "You have to earn everything you get. You have to earn your playing time. It's not given to anybody."
ADDITIONS: Reto Berra, G (free agent, Biel, Switzerland); TJ Galiardi, C (trade, Sharks); David Jones, RW (trade, Avalanche); Josh Jorris, C (free agent); Corban Knight, C (trade, Panthers); Sean Monahan, C (draft); Shane O'Brien, D (trade, Avalanche); Emile Poirier, LW (draft); Karri Ramo, G (free agent, Omsk, KHL); Kris Russell (trade, Blues);
SUBTRACTIONS: Akim Aliu, RW (free agent); Anton Babchuk, D (free agent, Ufa, KHL); Brett Carson, D (free agent, AIK, SHL); Roman Cervenka, C (free agent, St. Petersburg, KHL); Leland Irving, G (free agent, Jokerit, Finland); Miikka Kiprusoff, G (retirement); Cory Sarich, D (trade, Avalanche); Alex Tanguay, LW (trade, Avalanche); Daniel Taylor, G (free agent, Farjestad, SHL);
ONES TO WATCH: Mark Cundari, D; Michael Ferland, RW; Markus Granlund, C; Ben Hanowski, RW; Josh Jooris, C; Corban Knight, C; Sean Monahan, C; Emile Poirier, LW; John Ramage, D; Max Reinhart, C; Tyler Wotherspoon, D.
Author: John Kreiser | NHL.com Columnist