Are the Calgary Flames legitimate playoff contenders?

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For better or worse, the Calgary Flames put together an impressive run to finish just a few strides short of a playoff spot during the 2010-11 season.

On the bright side, that run convinced them to keep Jarome Iginla rather than trading him away; even if the likable star is getting older and ranks as expensive ($7 million annual cap hit for two more seasons), it’s doubtful that the Flames would have received an acceptable trade return for their captain. On the not-so-bright side, that run also allowed the Flames to put off a rebuilding plan that many clamor for. It’s tough to justify the Flames’ status as one of the NHL’s biggest spenders right now. (They spent big last season and currently own the league’s fourth highest payroll according to CapGeek).

Flames GM Jay Feaster seems to believe that the resurgent second-half Flames are the true version of the team. That was his message to the Calgary Herald’s Vicki Hall, at least.

“When you watch what we accomplished in the second half, the way we played and the things we did, I don’t believe it needs to be ripped apart,” he said, pointedly. “I know the that soup de jour are those teams that finished 30th for five straight years or 29th for five straight years. They draft all the sexy names, and it’s going to be wonderful some time down the road. And that could very easily happen for some franchises.

“There are other franchises who have been in that position. They’ve drafted in the top-five or the top-eight year after year after year, and they’re still wandering in the desert. That’s not something anyone here is prepared to do.”

Is Feaster correct in keeping the band together? Are the Flames going to be genuine contenders next season? Here’s my take on both sides of the argument.

Offense: Making Iggy happy

While the experiment didn’t work out so well in Tampa Bay, Alex Tanguay ended up delivering on the expectations that he would be one of the league’s best bargains last season. His new contract ensures that he won’t be severely underpaid anymore ($3.5 million per year for the next five seasons), but it also keeps Iginla happy.

I’m not crazy about the term of that contract – Tanguay has a lot of mileage for a guy who’s 31 years old – but the two wingers developed a nice chemistry in Tanguay’s two stops in Calgary. The hopeful strength of that combo represents their best chance to make the playoffs because the rest of their offense is pretty suspect.

source: Getty ImagesDefense: Essentially trading Robyn Regehr for Scott Hannan

It’s interesting how much the Flames defense changed over the last few years, with Regehr and Dion Phaneuf shipped out of town via the trade route. The logic behind moving both players was reasonable (even if the decisions were debatable), but the returns were lukewarm in each case. Now there’s even less of a question that the leaders of their blueline are Jay Bouwmeester and Mark Giordano (the team’s top two players in ice time last season). While both players have some positives going for them, it doesn’t really bode well for the team’s hopes of ranking among the elite.

Getting rid of Regehr’s approximate $4 million cap hit seemed like a rebuilding move until the Flames basically kept the band together to a considerable expense, but at least they closed some of the gap by signing Hannan to a frugal $1 million deal. If the price were the same, I’d rather have Regehr, but Hannan can absorb tough minutes and bring a physical game to the ice too. (Just not quite as well, in my opinion.)

Goalies: Another big workload for Miikka Kiprusoff

I’m a big proponent of teams adding quality backups. The most obvious reason is the randomness of injuries, but if you look at the way the league is changing at the position, it pays to give your top guys rest. Tim Thomas played in just 57 regular season games and Roberto Luongo played 60, yet both were Vezina Trophy and Stanley Cup finalists.

Kipper, on the other hand, has six straight seasons with 70+ games played. That workload is taking its toll as he’s only had one above-average individual season (.920 save percentage in 2009-10) in the last four. The Finnish goalie probably enjoys getting almost every start, but it’s hard to say that the Martin Brodeur Model is really working in Calgary.

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The Flames finished three points and three wins short of a playoff spot at 10th place last season. If that’s your definition of a playoff contender, then Calgary should be able to reach that mark. It’s hard to imagine that group shooting for much more than a seventh or eighth seed in the stacked Western Conference, though.

Report: Canadiens to sign KHL defenseman Jakub Jerabek

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Just four days after being eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it looks like the Montreal Canadiens’ front office is already hard at work.

The Habs have reportedly agreed to terms with Chekhov Vityaz defenseman Jakub Jerabek, according to KHL reporter Aivis Kalnins.

No official announcement has been made because Jerabek still has four days remaining on his current KHL contract.

The 25-year-old isn’t big (5-foot-10, 180 pounds), but his numbers suggest he’s got a good blend of offensive ability, while playing with an edge.

In his first KHL season, Jerabek scored five goals, 29 assists and accumulated 56 penalty minutes in 59 games.

He had spent the previous eight years with Plzen HC over in the Czech League.

Montreal has plenty of defensemen on their roster, but with the expansion draft and free agency on the horizon, that could change fairly quickly.

Veteran Andrei Markov is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, but it would be shocking to see him go. Alexei Emelin, Shea Weber, Jeff Petry, Jordie Benn and Brandon Davidson are all signed, while Nathan Beaulieu and Nikita Nesterov are both set to become restricted free agents.

In Beaulieu and Nesterov’s case, there’s a decent chance they won’t be back with the club next year.

Last year’s ninth overall pick, Mikhail Sergachev, will also be looking to make a full-time leap to the NHL in 2017-18, so Jerabek isn’t a slam dunk to become a regular.

PHT Morning Skate: Five under-the-radar coaching candidates

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–We don’t often see franchise players hit the open market, but next summer could be intriguing in that regard. Elliotte Friedman’s “30 Thoughts” blog focuses on the Islanders’ future with or without John Tavares, and what direction the team could be heading in. Friedman also touches on Joel Quenneville’s job security in Chicago and much more. (Sportsnet)

–Some hockey fans have begun questioning the importance of winning faceoffs, but the Anaheim Ducks aren’t among those who doubt the importance of winning draws. “If you start with the puck, you can use it to your advantage on the offensive side of the game. When you’re trying to protect a lead and starting with the puck, you’re killing their momentum that they’re trying to build.” (OC Register)

–Even though it’s been almost 30 years since Wayne Gretzky has suited up for the Edmonton Oilers, he still gets pretty intense during their playoff games. We’ve all gotten to see the footage of a nervous-looking Gretzky watching the Oilers play, and he’s definitely not just putting on a show. “It’s an emotional game and I’ve always been sort of an emotional guy. It’s exciting. Back in Edmonton, the city is on fire. The Oilers are playing with a great deal of passion. You can’t help but get caught up in that passion. That’s what it’s all about. (Edmonton Journal)

–There’s a couple of teams still looking for new head coaches at this point, and Sportsnet’s Ryan Dixon brings up five off-the-board candidates that could step in and get an NHL job very soon. With the success the Capitals have had over the last few seasons, it’s not surprising to see their associate coach Todd Reirden and assistant Lane Lambert get some recognition. (Sportsnet)

–Speaking of people flying under the radar, USA Today looks at eight players that could surprisingly make a huge difference for their teams in the second round. With the injury to Karl Alzner in Washington, Nate Schmidt could eat up some important minutes for the Caps. Pens forward Jake Guentzel, who was terrific in the first round against Columbus, may need to help shoulder the offensive burden. (USA Today)

–Smaller goalie equipment was supposed to make life harder for netminders, but has it had the opposite effect? Since the equipment change became mandatory on Feb. 4, scoring went down by 0.03 goals-per-game. The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell suggests that if the NHL wants to add more scoring, they may be better off making goalies wear bigger equipment. (The Hockey News)

Bruce Cassidy officially named head coach of the Bruins

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Bruce Cassidy wanted it, and now he’s got it.

On Wednesday morning, Cassidy was officially named the 28th head coach of the Boston Bruins.

He really helped turn Boston’s season around after taking over for Claude Julien, who was fired on Feb. 9. Cassidy led the Bruins to an 18-8-1 record in 33 games behind the bench.

Despite being without a number of key players like Torey Krug, Brandon Carlo, David Krejci and others, Cassidy’s Bruins managed to push the Senators before eventually being eliminated in six games in the opening round of the playoffs.

“Obviously we’re talking (the players) about pretty much everything when we’re out shooting the bull, and a lot of guys liked him,” forward David Backes said on Tuesday, per NESN. “He was put into a tough situation — being out of the playoff race, maybe just chasing at the point he takes over to try to take a team and get in … and you figure the way the business works, that he’s probably coaching for his life to make a splash and show that he can be a difference-maker or else who knows what the future holds for him? I think he did a heck of a job, and his results are what a coach should be judged on.”

Cassidy did some impressive work over the final three months of the campaign. Under his watch, the team finished first in goals-per-game (3.37), first in fewest shots allowed (741), tied for second in wins (18), tied for second in power play percentage (27.8), tied for third in goals allowed per game (2.30), and they ranked sixth in takeaways (229).

Prior to joining Julien’s staff as an assistant at the start of the 2016-17 season, Cassidy spent five years as head coach of Boston’s AHL team in Providence.

This is the second head coaching job for the 51-year-old at the NHL level. He previously served as head coach of the Washington Capitals for parts of two seasons (2002-03 to 2003-04).

After surgery, Joe Thornton should be ready for 2017-18 (Wherever he plays)

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On Monday, we found out that Joe Thornton made the “courageous” (or … outrageous?) decision to fight through tears to his ACL and MCL and suit up for the playoffs.

(That still warrants a moment of reflection, because, wow.)

The San Jose Sharks sent out a positive update in that regard: after successful surgery yesterday, Thornton is expected to be ready to play by the start of the 2017-18 season.

So, that answers one big question. It doesn’t settle an even bigger one, though: where will Thornton play next year?

Patrick Marleau indicated that he believes he has “at least five good years” left, a fine thought that becomes trickier when you consider San Jose’s salary structure problems for 2018-19 and on. The impression is that Thornton wants to come back, too, but what if he – justifiably – seeks security in a longer term deal?

That situation is currently unclear, but at least it sounds like he’ll be healthy to start next season, whether he remains a member of the Sharks or joins a different roster.