-- The Calgary Flames
' captain had a chance to backtrack. But Jarome Iginla
stuck to his guns.
The lone holdover from the Flames' last playoff series against the Chicago Blackhawks
, back in the spring of 1996, Iginla reiterated late Monday night that this was the best Flames team he'd ever been a part of.
"It always hurts, but this is the hardest one," murmured No. 12 late Monday night in the aftermath of another Flames first-round playoff exit.
"This was the best team I've been a part of since I've been here. The best potential. The organization built a team that could go deep into the playoffs; now we're out. It's tough to explain or to understand. It's hard to believe it's over."
Of course, there are always mitigating factors. The Flames, who'd breezed along with virtually no injury woes for the better part of six months, suddenly had an overflow crowd in the trainer's room with the playoffs just around the corner.
Shut-down defenseman Robyn Regehr
— an "animal" and a "difference-maker," in the words of teammate Eric Nystrom
— didn't play after twisting his knee April 2 in Dallas. Puck-moving defenseman Mark Giordano
was lost for the season Feb. 19, thanks to shoulder surgery.
Fellow blueliner Cory Sarich
labored for five playoff games on a broken ankle. Former Norris Trophy finalist Dion Phaneuf
, as it turned out, missed Monday's playoff finale with broken ribs. Quiet, effective center Daymond Langkow
was playing with two injured hands.
But excuses, as they say, are for losers. And unpleasant realities remain.
When the best Flames team in recent memory, according to one of the game's bona fide superstars, gets beat by a bunch of kids (albeit very talented ones) in the first round for the fourth consecutive spring, what does it mean?
Change, almost certainly.
While the Flames' core group isn't expected to go anywhere — Iginla, Langkow and Regehr are under contract for three more years, Olli Jokinen
has another season to go, and Miikka Kiprusoff
and Dion Phaneuf
are signed, sealed and delivered through 2014 — a fourth consecutive first-round failure will obviously create some movement.
's 39-goal campaign in Calgary probably makes him too rich for the Flames' blood. With more than $30 million committed to that core group of Iginla, Jokinen, Regehr, Phaneuf, Langkow and Kiprusoff, the club almost certainly can't afford to pay the pending unrestricted free agent the $5 million-plus per season he'll command come July 1.
"I really like playing here," he told reporters after Monday's loss. "I know people have been saying it doesn't seem like it's possible, and things like that.
"But I would, for sure, not put it out of the question."
has also likely played his final game in Calgary. The 34-year-old, who scored 15 goals this season, is also eligible for free agency this summer.
"I really don't have answers right now," he said Monday night.
Another potential free agent up front is Jamie Lundmark
, who posted decent numbers in the second half of the season and played sparingly in two post-season games.
Veteran defenseman Adrian Aucoin
leads a group of potential free agents on the blue line. That list also includes Jordan Leopold
, Adam Pardy
, Anders Eriksson
, who played the whole season in AHL Quad Cities, and Rhett Warrener
, who spent 2008-09 on the long-term injury list.
Blue-line prospects Matt Pelech
and John Negrin
are also waiting in the wings.
"If everything works out well, I would love to come back here," the 36-year-old Aucoin said. "I know with the group here, we can make a lot of noise."
It was a strange, unsatisfying season for Miikka Kiprusoff
, who, despite chasing Martin Brodeur
's single-season record of 48 wins, sported some of the poorest numbers among NHL starting goaltenders.
Nor did the former Vezina Trophy winner resemble his old self in playoffs. The unflappable Finn used to steal games for the Flames singlehandedly, but not this spring.
Still, the Kipper isn't going anywhere, thanks to his long-term, front-loaded contract.
Backup Curtis McElhinney
, though, is eligible for free agency.
When Mike Keenan was hired on June 14, 2007 as the 13th coach in Calgary Flames
history, general manager Darryl Sutter
said: "He's a perfect selection to take our team to the next level. As I told Mike and Jimmy (Playfair, who stepped down from head coach to associate coach) yesterday, together they will do something remarkable for our organization."
In two seasons, the Flames haven't found that next level, or done anything particularly remarkable. While Iron Mike still has a year left on his contract, conventional wisdom says Monday's ouster means the end of the line for Keenan in Calgary.
The club's elder statesman, Craig Conroy
, put it best Monday night after his club was kicked to the curb by the Blackhawks.
In the past four years, the Flames have had campaigns of 98, 94, 96 and 103 points — and no appearances in the NHL's elite eight.
"I do believe this is the best team we've had since I've been here. This is very exciting . . . Everybody wants to win. But this is the best opportunity (at a Stanley Cup) we've had." -- Jarome Iginla
"As you get older, you feel like time's running out," said the 37-year-old center from Potsdam, N.Y. "How many more chances are you going to get?
"This was as good a team as I've played on. We're on the wrong side of the score . . . again."
Change, as Iginla acknowledges, is in the wind in Calgary.
"I'm not sure what the plan is," he frowned, "but as players here we know we've been given every opportunity, and we didn't get it done."