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Flames plagued by their inconsistency

by Roger Phillips

The Flames' roster boasts some All-Star-caliber players such as the young defenseman Dion Phaneuf and 50-goal scorer Jarome Iginla.
Phaneuf 2007-08 season highlights
There are times when it’s easy to assess whether a team's season was a success or a failure. In the case of the Calgary Flames, it's not so simple.
           
On one hand, they stretched the second-seeded San Jose Sharks to seven games before being eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
           
Then again, they were eliminated in the first round for the third consecutive year. Also, the reason the Flames had to face the Sharks in the first round was that they were the seventh seed – a disappointing showing for a team with so many top-end players on its roster. The seventh seed speaks to the inconsistency displayed by the Flames throughout the season.

That said, first-year coach Mike Keenan did get his team to play the hard-boiled style called for in the playoffs, and the Flames threw a major scare into the Sharks, a team regarded by many as a Stanley Cup contender.
           
Off the ice, General Manager Darryl Sutter had a busy and successful year, securing the services of premier players Jarome Iginla, Dion Phaneuf and Miikka Kiprusoff by signing them to long-term contract extensions.

Those signings mean the Flames should be a tough, competitive team for years to come. But the just-concluded season was, at best, a mixed bag.
 
After all, losing in seven games in the first round doesn't sound so impressive when you consider that four years earlier, their Stanley Cup hopes didn’t die until the seventh game of the Final. The Flames have not won a playoff series since. In fact, except for 2004, they haven't won a playoff round since 1989, when they won their only Stanley Cup.

A year ago, the Flames barely qualified for the playoffs and exited in the first round. After only one season as coach, Jim Playfair was replaced by Keenan, but the results this year weren’t an improvement, at least to the naked eye. They earned 96 points in Playfair's one season, 94 under Keenan. They exited in the first round both times. They allowed one more goal under Keenan and scored 29 fewer. They did become a much better road team — they were abysmal a year ago — but weren’t nearly as good at home.

Sutter insisted after the season ended that he saw positive signs.

“It’s similar to last year in that we lost in the first round, but the big difference is the team that went into the playoffs last year lost four in a row going in and didn’t have the mental ability to recover," Sutter told the Calgary Sun. "This team got into the playoffs fighting for a division championship."

A quick glimpse at the Flames' roster reveals an enviable collection of All-Star-caliber players: Kiprusoff, a top-notch goalie; Iginla, a 50-goal scorer up front; Phaneuf, a young, talented defenseman, and Robyn Regehr, a very underappreciated blueliner. Center Daymond Langkow, who had 30 goals and 65 points while playing mostly with Iginla, is a good bet to be re-signed.

That's a core most teams would be thrilled to have. But the rest of the roster is not nearly so impressive, and some of the would-be top forwards are likely to be gone — especially inconsistent free agent-to-be Kristian Huselius.

Mike Cammalleri will replace Alex Tanguay, who was dealt to the Canadiens after Cammalleri was acquired from Los Angeles, where he scored 19 goals and 28 assists last season.

There are also some questions about Kiprusoff, who was not always his usual impregnable self this season. Keenan is not shy about yanking goalies. In fact, he yanked Kiprusoff in the third and seventh games of the series against the Sharks, and there have been some reports out of Calgary that the relationship between the coach and his goalie has become frayed.

Considering the talent they do have, the Flames, as mentioned, will look good on paper for the foreseeable future. But this has not recently translated into enough on-ice success.

Taking the next step – from consistently appearing in the playoffs to consistently advancing in them – will be the hard part.

For one thing, a number of young teams (Chicago, Edmonton and Phoenix) that missed the playoffs this season are likely to continue to improve.

For another, the Flames have a lot of money invested in their top players, which will limit their flexibility in terms of improving the roster through free agency. In addition, the Flames’ minor-league system does not appear ready to yield any reasonably-priced and ready-for-prime-time offensive talent until at least 2009-10.

The Flames already have a wonderful collection of stars. But to become more than just a one-and-done playoff team, they'll have to improve the supporting cast.


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