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Northwest: Flames haven't generated a spark so far

by Roger Phillips

Calgary head coach Mike Keenan has
seen his Flames fall under the .500 mark by going 1-5 so far in November.
With the season nearing the one-quarter mark, the Calgary Flames remain one of the NHL’s big puzzles.

On paper, they look like a powerhouse, with an appealing mixture of offense, defense, experience and youth, and a premier goalie to complete the package. Topping it all off, this offseason the Flames added a celebrity coach when they hired Mike Keenan, who was supposed to pull the whole thing together.

But on the ice, the Flames so far rank as one of the NHL’s big disappointments. Through 18 games, they have managed only seven victories, and Saturday they even lost on their home ice to primary rival Edmonton, which has been battered by injuries and hasn’t been beating anybody.

The Saturday setback was the Flames’ fifth in a row, by a combined margin of 19-7. Penalty killing has been one of the Flames’ biggest deficiencies; while shorthanded, they allow goals more than 25 percent of the time. The losing streak ended with a victory over Minnesota Tuesday night.

It was after the Edmonton loss that Flames forward Craig Conroy said; “Everyone talks about rock bottom. Well, if we’re not at it, we’re close.”

The odd thing is, General Manager Darryl Sutter has gone to great lengths to eliminate the distractions that seemed as if they might be the only things capable of pulling the Flames down. Mainly, Sutter eliminated the possibility of losing his two best players to unrestricted free agency next summer by signing right wing Jarome Iginla and goalie Miikka Kiprusoff to long-term contract extensions valued at a combined $70 million.

Perhaps, though, the distractions didn’t end with the signings of Iginla and Kiprusoff. Though those two were the most important potential free agents, they weren’t the only ones. Kristian Huselius, Daymond Langkow, Craig Conroy and Stephane Yelle can become unrestricted free agents next summer. Additionally, star defenseman and ice-time leader Dion Phaneuf is a potential restricted free agent.

With Edmonton’s successful signing of restricted free agent Dustin Penner this past summer, retaining Phaneuf becomes something less than the certainty it once would have been should he hit the free-agent market.

The Flames reportedly have been speaking with Phaneuf’s agent, so perhaps a deal will get done, but it’s going to cost the Flames, who already have more than $38 million committed to next season’s payroll.

The Calgary Herald speculated that some team out there might throw $7 million a year at Phaneuf next summer, and if that were to happen, the salary cap would start to loom even before the Flames looked at dealing with their remaining unrestricted free agents.

Whether any of these off-ice machinations has negatively affected the on-ice product is impossible to say. But for now, the Flames remain a puzzle on the ice even as they try to assemble the puzzle pieces for their long-range future.

Who’s hot -- Roberto Luongo outplayed Miikka Kiprusoff as the Canucks beat the Flames last Thursday. Luongo

stopped all but two of the 38 shots he faced in the 3-2 road victory. Kiprusoff, meanwhile, faced only 24 shots, but three got past him. … The Canucks got another victory 24 hours later, beating the visiting Avalanche by a 2-1 margin in overtime. Henrik Sedin scored both Vancouver goals, the second of them coming 82 seconds into the extra period. … Marek Svatos of the Avalanche already has scored seven goals. The highly skilled forward scored only 15 last season. Two years ago, he scored 32 goals in only 61 games. … Shawn Horcoff entered Saturday’s game against the Flames with only five goals, but scored twice in the Oilers’ 4-2 victory. … Paul Stastny had two goals and an assist as the Avalanche beat the Wild. It was Stastny’s third multi-goal game of the season. … Kristian Huselius scored a last-minute goal for the Flames as they edged the Wild, 3-2. Both Minnesota goals in that game were scored by Miikko Koivu, who snapped an eight-game goal drought.

Shootout summary -- The Oilers had a five-shootout winning streak dating back well into last season, and the shootout has proven to be their primary means for getting victories. But the shootout success streak ended against Colorado.

The shootout went to a fourth round. In the first three rounds, Wojtek Wolski scored for the Avalanche, but Ryan Smyth and Joe Sakic failed to beat Dwayne Roloson. Sam Gagner and Ales Hemsky failed to beat Avalanche goalie Peter Budaj, but Raffi Torres scored to force an extra round.

Marek Svatos opened the extra round by beating Roloson with a wrist shot. The shootout ended when Marty Reasoner beat Budaj but hit the goal post.

Rumor mill -- Both Twin Cities papers reported that winger Wes Walz is on indefinite leave while considering

retirement. … TSN compiled a list of players who might be traded at some point this season. Making the list from the Northwest Division were Colorado winger Marek Svatos, Edmonton forward Raffi Torres, Vancouver winger Markus Naslund and Canucks center Brendan Morrison. … The Ottawa Sun reported that the Canucks are one of several teams interested in Bruins winger Glen Murray, a former 44-goal scorer who has been struggling this season. The Edmonton Journal lent credence to the report that the Oilers are interested. According to the newspaper, the Oilers were close to trading for Murray last summer. Additionally, the paper reported that Oilers GM Kevin Lowe attended a recent Canadiens-Bruins game. … The Ottawa Sun suggested that if Scott Niedermayer rejoins the Ducks, Anaheim might deal Mathieu Schneider and the Canucks, Oilers and Avalanche might be interested.

The week ahead -- The ongoing immersion in division play continues. The Flames are at Edmonton and Vancouver Saturday and Sunday, then host the Avalanche Tuesday.

The Avalanche gets a brief respite from divisional play, visiting Dallas Friday. Then the Avalanche is back at it, with games at Minnesota on Sunday and Calgary Tuesday.

The Oilers begin a six-game home stand Thursday against Minnesota. They host the Flames Saturday and the Canucks Tuesday.

The Wild completes a four-game trip in Edmonton Thursday and Vancouver Friday. They start a three-game home stand Sunday against Colorado and host Vancouver Wednesday.

The Canucks finish a four-game home stand against Minnesota Friday and Calgary Sunday. They are at Edmonton Tuesday and at Minnesota Wednesday.


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