Time to play the blame game in Calgary

The blame game is officially underway. In recent weeks, many fingers were pointed at the likes of captain Jarome Iginla, team president Ken King and all things Sutter — particularly general manager Darryl and head coach Brent — as the Calgary Flames’ playoff hopes grew slimmer as each game passed. But the Flames were snuffed once and for all Tuesday night, and the scalpels have been sharpened.

The blame game is officially underway.

In recent weeks, many fingers were pointed at the likes of captain Jarome Iginla, team president Ken King and all things Sutter — particularly general manager Darryl and head coach Brent — as the Calgary Flames’ playoff hopes grew slimmer as each game passed. But the Flames were snuffed once and for all Tuesday night, and the scalpels have been sharpened.

There are those who insist that the patient is still very much alive and with the replacement of a limb or two, can still function as a successful NHL club. And there are those who insist that there is no sense in reviving the patient, that the carcass be picked clean. In other words, plant the TNT, run for cover, and blow ‘er up.

The solution, of course, lies somewhere in between.

A Flames team that looked so promising with the off-season signing of prize free agent Jay Bouwmeester and the hiring of an impressive new coaching staff headed by Brent Sutter and including young and promising assistants Dave Lowry and Ryan McGill, fell shockingly short of expectations, and for that the winds of change will blow.

Who’s to blame? Well, there’s no shortage of suspects.

Start with GM Sutter, who is, in some ways, a victim of circumstance. His signing of Bouwmeester, his coaching makeover and even his decision to trade the mostly-ineffective Dion Phaneuf and Olli Jokinen looked like astute moves ­— to varying degrees — but nothing seemed to work.

The addition of Niklas Hagman, Ales Kotalik, Chris Higgins and Matt Stajan was supposed to give the Flames some badly-needed scoring punch, but Higgins was injured and the other three failed to produce as expected. The bottom line? While perhaps they never had the opportunity to properly fit in with their new team, none are ‘go-to’ types and are more comfortable in supporting roles.

But the trades didn’t contribute greatly to the Flames’ failure to make the playoffs. In hindsight, the GM should have given Mike Cammalleri a large portion of the money used to sign Bouwmeester, and perhaps Phaneuf should have been moved earlier.

But at least Sutter wasn’t afraid to make a deal — his intentions were honourable even if the returns didn’t always pan out.

Still, while wheeling and dealing over the last two years, Sutter surrendered the club’s first- and second-round picks in June’s NHL entry draft, which could prove big-time costly with the franchise lacking in blue-chip scoring prospects due to some shoddy scouting decisions in recent years.

Meanwhile, coach Sutter gets a reprieve. While not totally free of blame, he was preceded by Mike Keenan and Jim Playfair in a span of four years, which suggests that coaching is not the major weakness with the club.

When Darryl Sutter signed his brother last summer, he admitted that the Flames players are a difficult group to coach. That rang true this season as too many skaters either resisted adjusting to the coaching staff’s structured system or refused to consistently put in a full day’s work.

More likely it was a combination, plus the simple fact the club, while strong defensively — especially with Miikka Kiprusoff guarding the goal — lacked creative forwards and had to bump and grind for every goal.

The Flames could finish the 2009-10 season with fewer goals than the last-place Edmonton Oilers, and that’s more a reflection of the up-front talent than the coaching schemes.

And that brings us to Iginla, who remains as the Flames’ leader and alpha male despite slipping from 89 points in 2008-09 to 69 this season with two games remaining. Iginla sniped 50 goals two years ago, scored 35 last season and currently sits at 32, a somewhat subtle suggestion that his skills are in decline.

Iginla remains a hugely popular figure with Calgary fans, as much for his dogged persistence and cheerful outlook as for his past heroics. But his time as a Flame could be over in short order if management decides to move him in return for draft picks and/or promising prospects/younger players.

Of course, if Sutter is indeed replaced at the top, the new man in charge will have to determine if the Flames can be a contender with just a handful of cosmetic changes, or are four to five years away from reaching that status.

If it’s the latter, then Iginla and Kiprusoff, who as one of the league’s top three goaltenders and would certainly demand a healthy return, could very well be moved.

Whatever, the next two to three months should be interesting times in Calgary.

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