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The Brent Sutter era begins in Calgary

by Todd Kimberley
There's a new sheriff in town.

Say what you want about the Calgary Flames' on-ice affairs -- their dramatic acquisition of blue-chip defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, the departure of 39-goal man Michael Cammalleri, the 11th-hour free-agent tryout offered to Theoren Fleury -- but the biggest move of the summer came behind the bench, when coach Brent Sutter returned to his beloved Alberta in June.

Two weeks after stepping down as head coach of the New Jersey Devils, Sutter was named to the same post with the Flames -- who, heading into the 2009-10 NHL season, are suddenly being touted as Western Conference frontrunners after two seasons of unrealized potential under Mike Keenan.

Much has been made of the fact that five members of hockey's "first family" now draw paychecks from the Flames, including older brother and GM Darryl. But Brent Sutter, who drew rave reviews during his first NHL coaching stint in Jersey, has been putting an immediate personal stamp on the club.

"We want to have good habits from our first day," Sutter told reporters following his first on-ice training camp practice with the Flames. "To me, that's part of forming your identity as a team.

"The organization wants to get back to … (playing) well in any circumstance -- at home, on the road. You're going to have some tough nights, but it can't be because your structure failed you, or your identity failed you."

The Flames skate toward the 2009-10 campaign with 23 players on one-way contracts -- 14 forwards, seven defensemen and two goaltenders.

With precious little room under the league's $56.8-million-per-club salary cap, the Flames didn't find a big-name replacement for Cammalleri, who on July 1 skated away to Montreal and a five-year, $30-million deal.

But the club's party line all summer has been that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, especially when the focus is on defense. The club's shortcomings in that department last season were obvious -- 23rd out of 30 teams, giving up three goals a game.

"I still believe that if you're a good defensive team, you're a good offensive team," Brent Sutter said. "Defensive (superiority) isn't just about how you play in your own zone. It's what you do with the puck when you have it. It's working hard as a group together to get it back as soon as you can."

One of the biggest questions is whether superstar captain Jarome Iginla and star center Olli Jokinen, acquired at the March trade deadline, can take another crack at creating some chemistry, after that experiment fizzled badly down the stretch.

Center Daymond Langkow could also be slotted into the top unit, and from there the Flames have a decent grouping of potential second- and third-line players with some spark, energy and touch.

Winger Rene Bourque had a breakout season in '08-09, scoring 21 goals before he was shelved with an ankle injury. The speedy Curtis Glencross also was productive, as was David Moss, who broke the 20-goal barrier.

Winger Eric Nystrom, son of former Stanley Cup hero Bob Nystrom, transformed into a big-time performer under the glare of the playoff spotlight last spring, with only Jokinen eclipsing his point production (2 goals, 2 assists) in a six-game, first-round loss to Chicago.

Winger Dustin Boyd, who notched 11 goals amid AHL call-ups, is now on a one-way contract. Ditto for a trio of newcomers -- former Calgary Hitmen junior Fredrik Sjostrom, picked up as a free agent; the high-energy Nigel Dawes, plucked off waivers from Phoenix; and Colin Stuart, who arrived in an August trade with Toronto.

Veteran center Craig Conroy, again the Flames' elder statesman at 38, begins his 15th season in the League, and will most likely slip out of a top-six role.

As for pugilism, the Flames picked up former Ottawa Senator Brian McGrattan via free agency, and missed the energetic, young Brandon Prust so much after sending him south in the Jokinen trade that they re-acquired him from Phoenix in a deal for defenseman Jim Vandermeer.

And then, of course, there is the Fleury factor.

The diminutive, incredibly popular player, who was only surpassed by Iginla in March for career points in a Flames uniform, has pulled one on again in his bid to make an NHL comeback at age 41.

Fleury, who battled substance-abuse problems during his career, was reinstated to the League on Sept. 10, and is back rattling cages at Flames training camp.

"There's a blank sheet of ice out there," Fleury told reporters upon his arrival at camp. "Every day, every period, there's a different story that gets written.

"The game has changed. How much? I don't know," added Fleury, who played more than 1,000 NHL games, the most recent of which came with Chicago in 2002-03. "That's kind of why I'm here too. I'm curious. Everyone tells me the game is better. I want to know for a fact if it is."

It's almost certain, should Fleury follow through on his comeback attempt, that he'd begin the season with the Flames' new AHL franchise, the Abbotsford Heat, or the ECHL's Las Vegas Wranglers.

The Flames' most promising young prospect, Swedish center Mikael Backlund, will provide the coaching staff some serious food for thought, after splitting with his home-country side of Vasteras and going on an incredible tear last winter with the WHL champion Kelowna Rockets.

The likes of Jamie Lundmark, Garth Murray, Brett Sutter, Jason Jaffray, Riley Armstrong and Kyle Greentree will push for the final couple of roster spots, but will most likely end up in Abbotsford.

The Flames landed the NHL's biggest free-agent prize of the summer in Bouwmeester, signing the former Florida Panther to a five-year deal worth $6.68M per season.

Now, the fun begins for Flames brass -- whom to pair him with? Do they place Bouwmeester alongside Robyn Regehr, the club's most valuable player, for the ultimate shutdown duo?

Or how about teaming him up with Dion Phaneuf? The hellacious hitter and former Norris Trophy finalist is eager for redemption after a sub-par season that ended in a separated shoulder and cracked rib.

There's also Cory Sarich to consider. The thunderous bodychecker, entering his 10th NHL campaign, has defensive poise to spare.

Beyond this quartet is a group of as many as six players vying for the last few blue line roster spots.

Six-foot-four Newfoundlander Adam Pardy is back for a sophomore season after breaking into the League last winter with a steady, physical game. The Flames missed smooth-skating Mark Giordano and his power-play poise after he was lost to shoulder surgery in February.

Some still consider Anton Stralman, a puck mover with a right-handed shot, to be a real steal after he was sent west by Toronto with Stuart for Wayne Primeau in a late July trade that had "Calgary salary dump" written all over it.

The club also picked up another ex-Leaf in Staffan Kronwall, brother of Detroit's Niklas, via free agency, while organizational prospects Matt Pelech and John Negrin are knocking at the big club's door.

No debate here. The silent Finn, Miikka Kiprusoff, is still firmly ensconced as the club's No. 1 netminder.

But for the first time last spring, Darryl Sutter uttered the words that many in Flames Nation had felt for a long time -- that the former Vezina Trophy winner faced too great a workload. Over the past four seasons, the 'Kipper' has averaged 75 games between the pipes.

"Hey, Miikka played too many games. Simple," Sutter said. "I've coached him. I've seen him when he's sharp. I know when he's tired. I know when he's fresh."

In other words, hometown kid Curtis McElhinney won't be Calgary's answer to the Maytag repairman this season -- and can expect to play in as many as 20 games. The Flames were curiously lifeless when playing in front of him last season, but McElhinney did finally shrug a gorilla off his back by notching his first career NHL win in Game 82.

There'll also be a critical eye cast Kiprusoff's way early this season, since the slender puckstopper has shown a disturbing tendency to take the first full month of the season to round into form.

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