CALGARY — The Calgary Flames were experienced and expensive the last two NHL seasons. And that didn’t work.
An older team at the top end of the salary cap missed the playoffs two straight years.
Calgary got younger and gained some breathing room under the US$64.3-million cap in Jay Feaster’s first off-season as general manager. The former Tampa Bay Lighting GM had the “interim” tag removed from his title in May.
Feaster took over managing duties midway through last season, when Darryl Sutter was asked to resign and Calgary had a 16-18-3 record. What happened after that, the Flames want to re-capture early in 2011-12.
Calgary went on a 25-11-9 run to finish the year, falling three points short of a playoff berth in a tight Western Conference race.
A 41-29-12 record wasn’t enough to return to the post-season, but the way the Flames finished makes them optimistic now.
“The main thing with us as a group is believing in ourselves,” defenceman Mark Giordano said. “We all do right now.”
The Flames open the regular season at home Oct. 8 against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Calgary’s one and only Stanley Cup win came in 1989, although they lost in seven games to Tampa Bay in the 2004 Cup final.
After the 2004-05 lockout, the Flames were eliminated in the first round of playoffs four straight seasons before falling short in 2010 and 2011.
Was the departure of the dour Darryl Sutter the difference in Calgary’s late surge last winter? That’s a topic for the office water cooler, although the word “fun” was heard more in the dressing room once Feaster was in charge.
“It was pretty clear to everybody that we needed a philosophical adjustment,” Flames president Ken King said when Feaster was made full-fledged GM. “One of the things Jay had said was he had never seen a team that liked winning less, or had enjoyed it less.”
Captain Jarome Iginla, 34, and goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, who turns 35 in October, are the backbone of the Flames. What’s concerning for Calgary to start this season is Iginla’s health. The franchise scoring leader experienced back spasms during his first skate of training camp and sat out a large portion of camp.
The Flames got 20-plus goals from Curtis Glencross, Alex Tanguay and Rene Bourque last season, while Olli Jokinen and David Moss also provided secondary scoring with 17 goals apiece. Calgary will need that output again.
A question mark for the Flames this season is the back end. Feaster traded defenceman Robyn Regehr, who has spent his entire career in Calgary, along with forward Ales Kotalik to Buffalo in exchange for defenceman Chris Butler and forward Paul Byron.
Regehr, 31, is considered among the best shutdown defencemen in the league. Butler’s game is less punishing than Regehr’s, although he has more finesse.
“Don’t under-rate where Butler is at,” warned head coach Brent Sutter, who is Darryl’s brother and returns to Calgary’s bench for a third season.
“He was playing with (Tyler) Myers in Buffalo, playing against the other team’s top forwards from Christmas on. He’s a mobile guy, a guy who can jump up in the play and create some offence for us too.”
Calgary has capable men on defence. Giordano is one of the best shot-blockers in the league, Jay Bouwmeester moves the puck well and Cory Sarich provides Regehr-like muscle.
As Kiprusoff has moved into the later stages of his career, the Flames have vowed to reduce the Finn’s workload. Until now, it hasn’t happened. Calgary couldn’t afford to sit their starter in the push for a playoff berth.
So Kiprusoff has played more than 70 games for six straight seasons. The Vezina Trophy winner in 2006 has said he’s open to playing fewer games and Feaster says he will, which would mean more work for Henrik Karlsson.
Other new Flames this season include winger Lee Stempniak, defencemen Scott Hannan and Jordan Henry and forward Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond. The latter was among the first two players disciplined by new NHL sheriff Brendan Shanahan.
Letourneau-Leblond was suspended for five games, including the season-opener, for a hit on Vancouver’s Matt Clackson in the pre-season.
In addition to Regher and Kotalik, departed players include: Steve Staios (New York Islanders); Daymond Langkow (Phoenix); Adam Pardy (Dallas Stars); and Freddie Modin (retired).
With the exception of Pardy, Calgary’s outgoing players were all over 30. The incoming players are all in their 20s. Feaster retained experience by re-signing 31-year-old winger Alex Tanguay and 36-year-old centre Brendan Morrison as free agents.
The two veterans meshed well with Iginla during Calgary’s hot streak last season. Iginla ended the season with 43 goals, which was the first time he’d passed the 40-goal mark since scoring 50 in 2007-08.
Morrison tore ligaments in his knee in March and required off-season surgery. He’ll have to ease into the season. The Flames will likely audition 22-year-old Mikael Backlund, their first-round pick in 2007, on the top line with Iginla and Tanguay.
The Flames took their time buying into Brent Sutter’s strategy last season and it cost them a playoff berth. He preaches taking care of defensive responsibilities first and exercising offensive creativity second.
“Obviously when you’ve got some offensive-minded guys, creativity is a big part of that,” Sutter said. “You’ve got to allow that, but when you don’t have the puck, you need structure.
“You need to have everyone on board with that and doing the details involved with defensive hockey.”