CALGARY — The Calgary Flames are trying to finish their NHL season respectably, while everybody else is already thinking about what’s going to happen to the team in the off-season.
That’s the price the Flames pay for their elimination from the NHL playoff race Tuesday with two games remaining in the regular season.
They’ve left no other options for their unhappy fans other than second-guessing this season or moving onto next-year territory.
They’ve watched their team steadily increase its payroll, get eliminated in the first round of playoffs the last four seasons and then finish out of the post-season entirely this year. They demanded on radio call-in shows and on websites Wednesday for change from the fourth-line forwards to just below the ownership level.
General manager Darryl Sutter and team president and CEO Ken King are expected to address the season publicly early next week.
Head coach Brent Sutter, hired by brother Darryl last summer to push the Flames further in the playoffs, was in no mood Wednesday to parse the season with games remaining Thursday at home against Minnesota and Saturday in Vancouver.
A weary-looking captain Jarome Iginla, the subject of trade speculation, was more reflective. For those who felt problems in the dressing room or a lack of team chemistry were factors in Calgary’s inability to score goals, he said more than once Wednesday that wasn’t an issue.
“There’s going to be a lot said from the outside that we have a bad locker-room,” Iginla said. “That’s not true. The guys who have come had great attitudes, they wanted to win, they worked hard, they blocked shots, fought. We were one of the top teams in fights, which is commitment and courage.
“The guys who came in here were 100 per cent committed. They weren’t pouting. They weren’t complaining about the coach. Guys got along. Guys like each other, they like working for each other.”
One of the reasons Darryl hired his brother was because Brent preached responsible, disciplined play on the defensive side of the puck. Calgary ranked 23rd in goals-against at the end of the 2008-09 season. The GM demanded improvement in that area.
The Flames accomplished that and will finish in the top five or six teams in the league defensively. Goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff had a strong year with a top-six ranking in both goals-against average and save percentage.
Iginla pointed to Calgary’s improved defence as proof against the notion the team did not work hard enough.
“Defence is commitment and hard work,” he said.
But the team that was supposed to score by committee, led by Iginla, did not do so. Calgary will finish among the league’s bottom four in goal production. The power-play was a weak 16.5 per cent Wednesday. In the fateful 2-1 loss to San Jose on Tuesday, Calgary did not score on four chances.
“We just didn’t do enough in the offensive zone,” acknowledged Sutter. “There’s nights like last night, you get 39 shots on net and you have some great opportunities to score and you don’t capitalize on them.
“There’s a fine line there. Offensively we stayed below the line and defensively we were way above it.”
Too much emphasis on defence?
“It has nothing to do with systems,” Sutter said. “The system is what 99 per cent of the teams play in the NHL. It’s just that level inside of it that you have to play every night.”
The Flames spent close to the salary cap of US$56,800,000 this season. The majority of Calgary’s roster is under contract for next year with defenceman Ian White the notable exception.
Acquired from Toronto in a package deal that sent Dion Phaneuf to the Leafs, White was an asset on the blue-line. The 25-year old will command a raise on his US$950,000 salary when he becomes a restricted free agent this summer.
Three different coaches in the last four years and multiple player trades and signings during that span were all moves that were supposed to push Calgary higher in the standings. Some fans were wondering if the team should just shed expensive, veteran talent and build anew.
That’s the well from which the Iginla speculation sprung. The two-time goalscoring champion will finish with around 70 points, which is still the best on the team, but his lowest numbers in five seasons. After assisting on Sidney Crosby’s goal that won the Olympic gold medal on Feb. 28, Iginla scored five goals in 18 games for the Flames.
Iginla would fetch young talent on the market, but he has to agree to be traded first. The 32-year-old isn’t an advocate of a scorched-earth policy and says he doesn’t want out.
“I want to be part of the solution here and I don’t think we’re that far,” Iginla said. “It’s tough today. I know there’s going to be lots of talk and everything. From my point of view, I want to be here, not just because it’s comfortable or it’s a nice city or the fans are into it, but also that I think we can win.”
Calgary made the playoffs every season from 2003 to 2009. The Flames reached the Stanley Cup final and lost to Tampa Bay in seven games in 2004. It was an uncomfortable feeling for Iginla and company Wednesday, on the outside looking in.
“It’s tough and its gets even tougher when you are watching the other teams play,” the captain said.