The Calgary Flames have fallen into a familiar routine over the last three seasons - slow starts, strong finishes and first-round playoff exits.
Former Vancouver Canucks star Todd Bertuzzi may end up breaking that pattern. He's already gotten the backing of the Flames' fan base.
The Flames have turned to the controversial forward to help bolster a solid core, and they hope to put recent years of futility behind them when they open the 2008-09 season against the Canucks on Thursday night at GM Place.
Shortly before the Flames made their most recent Stanley Cup finals appearance in 2004, Bertuzzi was at the center of one of the ugliest incidents in NHL history. While with the Canucks, he jumped Colorado's Steve Moore during a game, leaving him with a broken neck, a concussion and facial cuts.
Bertuzzi was suspended by the league for 17 months, charged with assault, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation and community service. Moore hasn't played since.
Now, Calgary (42-30-10) and second-year coach Mike Keenan are counting on the hard-nosed Bertuzzi and fellow offseason free-agent signing Michael Cammalleri to bolster their offense. Flames fans seem ready to embrace Bertuzzi - who played with Vancouver from 1999-2006 - given the ovation he received in his first preseason appearance at the Pengrowth Saddledome.
"Obviously I'm well aware I wasn't the most popular pickup in Calgary Flame history, but at the same time I think you've got to give it a little time and give me a chance," the 33-year-old forward said. "I can't lie to you, it's not the jersey I thought I was going to wear, but at the same time I played enough games here to know what kind of fan base and what kind of team they are."
Bertuzzi had 14 goals and 40 assists with Anaheim last season, and he joins a strong group led by winger Jarome Iginla and defensemen Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr. With Calgary in a win-now mode under Keenan, the Flames will expect Cammalleri to return to the 34-goal, 80-point form he showed in 2006-07 with Los Angeles.
In goal, Calgary continues to rely on Miikka Kiprusoff. The veteran has a 2.30 goals-against average in 262 games since joining the Flames in 2003-04, but was pulled twice during the team's seven-game loss to San Jose in the first round of the playoffs last year.
Vancouver (39-33-10), meanwhile, will again go as far as goaltender Roberto Luongo can take them.
He's coming off his third straight season of at least 35 wins, but lost seven of his last eight starts last season as the Canucks missed the playoffs for the second time in three years.
Finding a way to give Luongo enough support will again be Vancouver's biggest challenge after managing 213 goals last season.
With captain Markus Naslund and second-line center Brendan Morrison gone via free agency, the Canucks need veteran Pavol Demitra to rediscover the scoring touch that produced at least 35 goals three times over eight seasons with St. Louis.
Demitra, signed as a free agent after two seasons with Minnesota, had a career-high 93 points in 2002-03 for the Blues. He had only 15 goals and 39 assists in 68 games with the Wild last season.
Demitra blamed his subpar production to Minnesota's emphasis on defense in a system similar to what Vancouver used last season. But he also believes in the change of direction promised by new general manager Mike Gillis after he replaced the fired Dave Nonis in late April.
"We've been talking and I know what kind of hockey he likes," Demitra said. "He likes definitely offensive hockey and that's what I like, too. He knows what I can bring. I can offensively do much more than what I did in Minnesota."
On defense, meanwhile, the Canucks should be improved after being ravaged by injuries last season. Alexander Edler and Willie Mitchell were the only blueliners to play more than 70 games.
The Canucks were able to win their first four contests against the Flames last season despite giving up three goals in two of those games, and finished 5-3-0 in the series.
Calgary has dropped five straight season openers.