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Northwest: Keenan has high expectations for Flames

by Roger Phillips /
Head Coach Mike Keenan and the Calgary Flames will play host to the Flyers to open the season.
The Calgary Flames’ season starts Thursday night at home against the Flyers, and ordinarily the beginning of any new year is a time for optimism about the marathon that lies ahead.

You would think that would be the case in Calgary, too. After all, the Flames have been a steady contender during General Manager (and former coach) Darryl Sutter’s regime, coming within one victory of the Stanley Cup in June 2004.

Additionally, the Flames have a premier forward (Jarome Iginla), a premier defenseman (Dion Phaneuf), a premier goalie (Miikka Kiprusoff), and a new coach (Mike Keenan) who did what no one had done in 54 years by guiding the New York Rangers to the Stanley Cup in 1994.

But in Calgary, high hopes are mixed with trepidations. In part, that’s because of the status of Kiprusoff, who will become an unrestricted free agent next summer if he and the Flames can’t agree on a long-term contract. It also has to do with a lackluster preseason that came on the heels of last spring’s disappointing first-round exit from the playoffs.

Mainly, though, it probably has to do with Keenan, the replacement for Jim Playfair, who stayed on as associate coach. There is no getting around Keenan’s mercurial reputation. The Flames are his eighth head-coaching assignment in the NHL, and starting with his one-year Rangers stint, he’s had staying power reminiscent of a Yankees manager prior to the Joe Torre era. He also has not coached a playoff game in more than 11 years, since the St. Louis Blues were eliminated in the second round of the 1996 playoffs.

But Sutter -- who was an assistant under Keenan years ago in Chicago -- is a believer. As a result, the hard-boiled duo is back at it in Alberta. But as with any time Keenan is hired, there is always an intriguing brew of high hopes and foreboding and this season will be no different.

“I expect a lot,” Keenan told the Canadian Press. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. If you have high expectations, if you raise the bar for the players, I think they’ll deliver and they’ll push themselves to be better. I don't think that’s a short fuse, I think that means teaching and setting a standard.”

Keenan coached his first NHL game 23 years ago for the Flyers, and he insists he’s become a kinder, gentler coach – albeit not to the point that anyone is likely to mistake him for being kind and gentle.

“I’m definitely more patient than I was as a 34-year-old, but that just comes with age for anyone,” said Keenan, now 57.

Keenan’s challenge appears to be to mold the Flames into a team that plays the same kind of game on the road as it does at home. The Flames led the NHL with 30 home victories last season, but managed only 13 on the road, among the fewest in the League.

The big problems were penalty killing and defense. The Flames scored 108 goals at home and 108 goals on the road, but they allowed only 70 goals at home while giving up 123 away from the Pengrowth Saddledome. This means they gave up 1.3 more goals a game on the road than at home.

The Flames’ power play actually was better on the road than at home, scoring 38 times at the Saddledome and 49 times on the road. But the Flames allowed more than double the power-play goals on the road (54) as they did at home (26).

“Calgary was almost unbeatable at home, and on the road, I remember playing them a lot of times in Columbus and they were a different team,” defenseman Anders Eriksson, a newcomer to the Flames, told the Canadian Press. “They were there, going through the motions, basically, and losing games. You could tell the guys didn’t have confidence, and I think Mike is going to bring that into the room.”

It should be interesting.

Around the Northwest -- The arrival of Andy Murray as the Blues’ coach is sparking a rivalry with the Minnesota Wild. Last season, Murray took this potshot at Wild enforcer Derek Boogaard; “Tell Derek I’m a fan of his. I want (coach) Jacques (Lemaire) to play him more.” The implication, of course, was that when Boogaard is on the ice it will be good news – for the opposing team. After the Wild beat the Blues, 7-0, in a preseason game last week, Murray accused Minnesota of running up the score and issued a warning to the Wild’s skill players. Murray was quoted as saying the Wild had “all of their power-play guys on the ice to get the seventh goal” and added that the Wild’s skill players “need to be on alert” if Boogaard is going to go after the Blues’ offensive threats. Wild GM Doug Risebrough told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, “I’m never interested in what Andy Murray says. Andy Murray likes to be heard, but one person that doesn’t listen to Andy Murray is me.” Meanwhile, Lemaire defended Boogaard. “Boogey’s not the type of guy to run after the skilled guys,” he told the newspaper. … Edmonton forward Ethan Moreau, the Oilers’ new captain, missed most of last season with a shoulder injury, and he’s hurting again. This time, it’s because of a puck to the foot that limited him to two preseason games. Moreau said his goal is to play in the Oilers’ season opener Thursday against the visiting Sharks. … The Avalanche are deep up front, which meant that a strong training camp this year was no guarantee of a job. The team demoted rookie T.J. Hensick and veteran Mark Rycroft to its AHL affiliate. Hensick led the nation in scoring last year at Michigan and had seven points during the preseason. Rycroft spent all last season in Colorado. … The Vancouver Canucks will not be the most explosive offensive team in the League this season, and they know it. “You can look at other teams and say they have more talent up front, but I don’t know if that wins you games all the time,” veteran Trevor Linden told the Canadian Press. “I do know that playing a very aggressive, hard style of hockey can win you games and that’s how we’re going to have to do it. We’re not going to win a lot of games by large margins. We’re going to have to grind and claw our way for every game.” Success for the Canucks will depend mainly on goalie Roberto Luongo and team defense.

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