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Which way will winds of change blow in Calgary?

by Todd Kimberley

"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."
-- Jarome Iginla

CALGARY -- 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 a tragicomic buildup of patients in the trainer's room with 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 also scrubbed for the season Feb. 19, thanks to shoulder surgery.

Fellow defenseman 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 the bum's rush in the first round for the fourth consecutive spring, what does it mean?

Almost certainly, change.

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 Phaneuf are signed, sealed and delivered through 2014 -- another first-round failure will obviously create some movement.


Michael Cammalleri's 39-goal campaign in Calgary ultimately 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," the diminutive Torontonian told reporters after Monday's playoff ouster. "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."

Todd Bertuzzi has also likely played his final game in a Flaming "C" uniform. The 34-year-old, who scored 15 goals, 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.

Aucoin will be 36 this season and prospects Matt Pelech and John Negrin are also waiting in the wings.

"If everything works out well, I would love to come back here," 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, GM 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, but don’t be too sure.

"There are no excuses in pro sports, but there are reasons," Keenan said. "I think the franchise this year suffered 300-plus man games lost during the course of the season, which is the higher end of what the team has experienced the last five or six years.

"I've had a lot of experience with playoff-ready teams. This team was going to be in that position. In the end, they weren't given a fair opportunity because of medical and health reasons. That's a very good reason why we lost the momentum we did when we did."
"I'm not sure what the plan is, but as players here we know we've been given every opportunity, and we didn't get it done." -- Jarome Iginla
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.

"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 acknowledged, 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."
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