2010-2011 NHL season preview: Calgary Flames

jaromeiginla2.jpgLast season: (40-32-10, 90 points, 3rd in Northwest Division, t-9th in Western Conference) The Flames just missed out on the playoffs last year, finishing five points behind Colorado in the standings. For Calgary, times were tough as Jarome Iginla struggled and the team got virtually no secondary scoring. Rene Bourque did his part to help, but this team had no jump late in the season.

Head coach: Brent Sutter enters his second season as head coach. After a rather uninspiring season, expectations for what Sutter can do to help keep the Flames locked in and in the hunt for the playoffs are tenuous at best. There’s good talent here, but there are cap woes to deal with and Brent’s brother, Daryl, brought back some ghosts from Calgary’s past to try and improve things. Brent Sutter’s job is safe as long as his brother is still the GM.

Key departures: F Nigel Dawes, F Chris Higgins, F Eric Nystrom. Not exactly a murderer’s row. It’s not fair to put both Daymond Langkow and Matt Stajan on this list, but clearly their injuries and however long they’re out for this season will have a drastic effect on the Flames chances this season.

Key arrivals: F Alex Tanguay, F Olli Jokinen, F Raitis Ivanans, F Ryan Stone, F Tim Jackman. All right, on paper the Flames improved themselves. However, the quality of that paper is highly questionable. Jokinen and Tanguay both struggled in Calgary and were sent unceremoniously packing out of town, Tanguay after the 07-08 season, Jokinen in an early season trade with the Rangers just last year. Now they’ll be on the first line with Iginla looking to lead the team to the playoffs. Even Curious George finds this situation to be amazing. Ivanans and Jackman will be the muscle on the fourth line while Stone will potentially get forced into action thanks to injuries to two of the Flames top centers. Good times.

Under pressure: Daryl Sutter. If you thought the pressure was on Iginla to carry this team to the playoffs, you’re nuts. He does the best he can with what he’s got. Instead, the focus goes on Sutter because this fascinating creation of a roster is up to him. If his brother Brent can’t get the team to win, the cries for both of them to get out of Calgary will become deafening.

miikkakiprusoff1.jpgProtecting the house: Miikka Kiprusoff is the man and one of the main reasons why the Flames do as well as they have, even when things aren’t all that inspiring. He’ll play more than 65 games if he’s healthy enough to do so and while that might be an issue come playoff time, the Flames would like to get there first. Backing up Kiprusoff will be either Leland Irving or Henrik Karlsson, the loser of that battle heads to Abbotsford of the AHL. Of course the winner gets to play sparsely and mop up if Kiprusoff has an off night. The life of a backup goalie was never said to be a glamorous one.

Jay Bouwmeester, Robyn Regehr, Ian White, and Mark Giordano make up a fairly solid top four along the blue line. Steve Staios, Cory Sarich and Adam Pardy are there as well. Ideally with these seven, the Flames should have no problems on defense. With all the injury problems the forwards seem to have, keeping the defensive unit healthy and all together is a blessing. These guys won’t score much (Ian White did have 13 goals last season) but keeping the other team off the board will be their job. The Flames won’t dare try to be a run-and-gun team.

Top line we’d like to see: As if there was a doubt? Tanguay-Jokinen-Iginla. This will be the top line unless Brent Sutter loses his mind or youngster Mikael Backlund forces someone’s hand and moves to the top line. This will be like a franchise sport science experiment. The fans are baffled as to why Jokinen was brought back and scratched their heads at the signing of Tanguay. If things don’t pan out, it will be proof that you can’t go home again because the Calgary fans will go ape-nuts if the “chemistry” these three players had at one time doesn’t return. Keep the popcorn ready to watch this season-long soap opera play out.

Oh captain, my captain: Iginla is the captain and rightfully so as he and Kiprusoff have been the sole reason to watch the Flames the last few seasons. Iginla leads the team in scoring year in and year out and leads through his play on the ice. He scores, he fights, he hits, he’s every TV announcer’s man-crush.

Street fighting man: Take your pick between Ivanans and Tim Jackman. Jackman had 10 fights last year with the Islanders in limited duty and Ivanans, a monstrous figure at 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, had 14. Should both of these guys get into the lineup at the same time, they might just fight each other if they can’t land an opponent to brawl with.

Best-case scenario: Jokinen and Tanguay use their pride to their advantage and go back to when they were both hugely productive players and help Iginla get to 50 goals while lighting up the scoreboard themselves. Stajan and Langkow recover from their injuries and bounce back with solid seasons. Mikael Backlund has a breakout season while Kiprusoff and the defense do their thing keeping everyone off the board. Mark Giordano adds another solid season to his resume while Bouwmeester ceases to be the invisible man in Calgary leading the Flames to a second-place finish in the division and a spot in the lower pack of the playoff race.

Worst-case scenario: Unabashed chaos breaks loose when Jokinen and Tanguay can’t reignite the old chemistry with Iginla and the line is broken up. Langkow and Stajan’s injury recoveries go slowly and with the lack of offense, the weight on Kiprusoff’s shoulders becomes too heavy to bear. Losing too many 2-1 games would make anyone crazy. Pressure to do something causes Flames ownership to step in and relieve the Sutter brothers of their jobs and start figuring things out for next season after finishing out of the playoffs.

Keeping it real: This is a perfectly average team. In the Eastern Conference they’d be able to sneak around better and their shortcomings wouldn’t be as painful and making the playoffs would be conceivably easier. In the Western Conference, however, times are tougher. What will keep Calgary motivated and afloat is that their division is not good. Getting to play a slew of your games against a potentially bad Minnesota team, a very young and goaltending-iffy Oilers team, and a Colorado team allergic to defense will keep you in the hunt. Forget about beating Vancouver though. The Flames can hang around and challenge for a seven or eight seed in the playoffs if things go well enough.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale of 1-5, with one being the worst and a five being the best, the Flames are a practical 3. They’re not terrible, they’re not great, they’re an ideal middle-of-the-pack team in the West. If they make the playoffs, they could cause problems for a round if things go right, but overall you look at the team and you’re left unimpressed.

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    The Buzzer: Pulock opens it up; Price is wronged

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    Players of the Night:

    • Whoa, Ryan Pulock. The Islanders rookie collected one goal and four assists for an unexpected five-point night. He came into Saturday with nine points in 33 games so far in 2017-18, but maybe this will open things up for the young blueliner. Pulock played a big role in the Islanders pasting the Blackhawks 7-3.
    • John Klingberg collected three assists as the Dallas Stars dominated the Buffalo Sabres 7-1. For more on the Norris Trophy argument Klingberg is making, click here.
    • The Toronto Maple Leafs entered the third period down 3-1 to the Ottawa Senators. Jake Gardiner collected two of his three assists during their rally back, helping Toronto erase that deficit and win 4-3 in regulation. Gardiner had to pick up some of the slack for Toronto with Morgan Rielly sidelined.
    • There were some other strong nights, such as Nick Bonino chipping in three points to help the Predators stay hot.

    Lowlight of the Night:

    You won’t see Carey Price allow many goals as bad as this one. At least, the Habs have to hope not in his later years, as his $10.5 million cap hit won’t kick in until 2018-19.

    More than a few wonder if the Canadiens’ playoff hopes died with a poor showing in three recent games against the Bruins.

    Highlights:

    Patrick Marleau: not too old to essentially shrug off a hit. Nice.

    Nice glove stops from Jimmy Howard

    And Mike Smith:

    Meanwhile, this is comes down to cool editing as much as it was a nice goal:

    Fantastic stuff from the Sharks.

    Factoids

    The Bruins are red-hot, and might start putting the heat on the Lightning:

    While the Avalanche might be even hotter?

    (More on those rising Avs here.)

    An additional Pulock fact for ya …

    Scores

    Stars 7, Sabres 1
    Flyers 3, Devils 1
    Avalanche 3, Rangers 1
    Jets 2, Flames 1 (SO)
    Bruins 4, Canadiens 1
    Maple Leafs 4, Senators 3
    Hurricanes 3, Red Wings 1
    Sharks 2, Penguins 1
    Coyotes 5, Blues 2
    Predators 4, Panthers 3
    Islanders 7, Blackhawks 3
    Wild 5, Lightning 2
    Oilers 5, Canucks 2

    James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

    Bruins may give Lightning a fight for Atlantic title

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    For a while there, the Boston Bruins’ excitement was at least a bit muted by lowered expectations. Yes, it would be great to get a round of home-ice advantage, but that’s not as sexy as going for a division title or more.

    Now, it’s important to point out that the Bruins have some work to do, but if you look at the standings after their 4-1 win against the Canadiens and the Lightning’s 5-2 loss to the Wild, it’s not outrageous. The Bruins trail the Lightning by three standings points, and they hold a game in hand on Tampa Bay.

    Lightning: 33-12-3, 65 points in 46 games
    Bruins: 27-10-8, 62 points in 45 games

    The Bruins can also close the gap in more direct ways by getting the best of the Lightning in head-to-head games. The two teams meet three more times this season, with two of those contests coming in Tampa Bay.

    At a quick glance, the Bruins are certainly the hotter team, as they’re among the hottest teams in the NHL. Their point streak now extends back to an OT loss to the Rangers on Dec. 16 (12-0-4), including a three-game winning streak. The Lightning have been stumbling by their standards, with three straight losses and two wins in their last seven games.

    The road ahead is bumpy for the Lightning, too.

    Star defenseman Victor Hedman‘s window of recovery was placed at three-to-six weeks as of Jan. 12. A bye week softens the blow, but the Bolts have to cross their fingers that he falls closer to three weeks than six, as their upcoming schedule puts them in a vulnerable place.

    Mon, Jan 22 @ Chicago
    Tue, Jan 23 @ Nashville
    Thu, Jan 25 @ Philadelphia
    Tue, Jan 30 @ Winnipeg
    Thu, Feb 1 @ Calgary
    Sat, Feb 3 @ Vancouver
    Mon, Feb 5 @ Edmonton
    Thu, Feb 8 vs Vancouver
    Sat, Feb 10 vs Los Angeles
    Mon, Feb 12 @ Toronto
    Tue, Feb 13 @ Buffalo
    Thu, Feb 15 vs Detroit
    Sat, Feb 17 vs New Jersey
    Tue, Feb 20 @ Washington
    Thu, Feb 22 @ Ottawa
    Sat, Feb 24 @ Montreal

    Tonight’s loss to the Wild began what could be a harrowing eight-game road trip for the Lightning. Overall, they play 12 of their next 16 games on the road. The Bruins face their own challenges as the season goes along, but for the near future, it’s a pretty moderate run. It’s also true that the Lightning will enjoy a stretch of home games too, with March holding the ripest opportunities.

    Still, some damage might be done by then considering that tough month and Hedman’s at-least-partial absence, possibly enough for the Bruins to draw even (or close to even). It could be a tough haul even if Hedman can get back soon, honestly.

    The smart money would still be on the Lightning winning the Atlantic, not to mention possibly getting the East’s top seed and maybe the Presidents’ Trophy as well. Either way, this is another reminder of how remarkable this surge has been for a Bruins team that was once 6-7-4 this season.

    The B’s are justified in setting their sights higher than merely securing a playoff spot. For all we know, this could end up being one of the most captivating races down the stretch.

    James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

    Stars’ Klingberg is building serious Norris argument

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    From Nicklas Lidstrom to Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman, NHL fans are used to Swedish defensemen being involved in Norris Trophy talks, and often winning the award outright. It’s about time that we add another name to the conversation: John Klingberg of the Dallas Stars.

    Some might roll their eyes when points come up in the Norris discussion, but how could they not, especially in Klingberg’s case?

    After collecting three assists in the Stars’ 7-1 Saturday squash of the Sabres, Klingberg now has a whopping 46 points in just 48 games. As of this writing, Klingberg leads all defensemen by 10 points. If he maintains that margin for the remainder of the 2017-18 season, it will be tough to deny Klingberg the first Norris Trophy in Stars history.

    Klingberg’s 46 points tie him with Jamie Benn for the team points lead, and place him in a multi-player tie for 18th overall in the NHL.

    About two weeks ago, Jamie Benn told the Dallas Morning News’ Mike Heika that Klingberg deserves consideration.

    “One hundred percent,” Benn said. “He’s such a dynamic player, and a leader on this team. And I think this year he’s taking his game to another level, and it’s showing out there on the ice.”

    It’s not just about the scoring. Klingberg is getting the ice time you’d expect from a Norris hopeful, with an average of 23:33 per game. While that isn’t in the Drew Doughty range, it shows that the slick Swede is a go-to guy for the Stars (he easily leads Dallas in ice time).

    His all-around game is impressive. You can see strong possession stats at a glance at Hockey Reference, and with just 14 penalty minutes so far, he’s not hurting his team with bad discipline. While he’s not a primary penalty killer for Dallas, there’s some trust in that area, as he’s averaging 1:18 PK time per contest.

    Maybe you’d lean more toward Doughty, Brent Burns, P.K. Subban, or Karlsson – it’s a dynamic and deep field this year – but Klingberg deserves consideration, and he’s already drawing favorable comparisons to beloved Stars blueliner Sergei Zubov (without the in-game smoking breaks, one would assume).

    You could argue that Klingberg has been one of the greatest beneficiaries to Ken Hitchcock’s return to Dallas.

    Not that long ago, Klingberg was suffering through healthy scratches as the Stars experienced a wildly disappointing 2016-17 season. Now he’s easily on pace to surpass his career-high of 58 points, and Klingberg might just collect some hardware in the process.

    James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

    Johnson’s shot at Duchene makes lack of Colorado return a bummer

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    Through a rare scheduling quirk, Matt Duchene‘s first game as a member of the Ottawa Senators against the Colorado Avalanche was both a letdown and a case of instant gratification.

    The Senators faced the Avs on back-to-back games on Nov. 10 and 11, Duchene’s debut contests with Ottawa. That’s really something, but those contests took place in Sweden, so fans – and former teammates, honestly – were deprived of the spectacle of seeing Duchene return to town.

    Barring a highly unlikely trade or an equally unlikely meeting in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final (hey, the Avs are doing a better job holding up their end of the bargain in that regard), Duchene won’t play in Colorado as a member of the opposing team until 2018-19.

    That was already a bummer, even before Colorado extended its scorching run to nine straight wins. That missed opportunity for drama and entertainment stings more today, though, as Erik Johnson took a swipe at Duchene without using his name, as NHL.com’s Rick Sadowski reports.

    “The way things went last year, I think the easy thing to say would have been, ‘It’s not working here, let’s go somewhere else, let’s jump ship.’ The character guys and the core guys in this room said we want to figure things out here in Colorado and make it work,” Johnson said, via Sadowski.

    Zing.

    Again, Johnson didn’t add “Right, Matt Duchene?” at the end, so perhaps there’s plausible deniability right there. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that Johnson wasn’t taking a shot at, say, Mikhail Grigorenko, though.

    It’s disappointing that we won’t get to see those two teams play in North America until next season, but at least Erik Johnson provided the in-real-life answer to a “subtweet” on Matt Duchene, eh?

    (Hot take: the NHL needs more smack-talking moments like these, even if names aren’t always named.)

    In case you’re wondering

    Duchene now has 13 points in 29 games with the Senators heading into Saturday’s action, numbers that lag behind his Colorado work (including 10 points in 14 sometimes-awkward games with the Avs in 2017-18).

    That said, Duchene has been heating up lately, generating at least one point in four of his last five games (three goals and four assists for seven points during that span).

    Samuel Girard has nine points (all assists) in 31 games with Colorado after generating a goal and two assists in five contests for Nashville. Girard has three assists in his last five appearances for the Avs. He also has seven assists during Colorado’s nine-game winning streak, even with more modest ice time than he first received with the Avalanche.

    Kyle Turris‘ numbers are most relevant to Sens fans, but nonetheless: he’s been slowing down a bit with Nashville lately, yet he still has 19 points in 29 games as a member of the Predators.

    James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.