Edmonton Oilers v Calgary Flames

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Stevens sees similarities between the Wild and those great Devils teams

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–In a Q & A with NHL.com, Minnesota assistant coach Scott Stevens says this year’s edition of the Wild reminds him of the stingy Devils teams he played on. “It reminds me very much of the Devils in how we play. We definitely love to protect the middle of the ice. We might give up a few more shots, but we give up a lot of those perimeter shots and hopefully our goaltenders know where the shots are coming from,” said Stevens. (NHL.com)

–Maple Leafs rookie Auston Matthews has shown that he’s got the hockey thing down, but his “Call of Duty” game has come a long way, according to teammate Mitch Marner. (BarDown)

–Many expect the Canadiens to try to land a top two center between now and the trade deadline, but in an interview with TSN 690 radio, GM Marc Bergevin says “you can never have too many defensemen.” If you listen to Bergevin, it sure sounds like he wants to add a mobile defender to play with Shea Weber. (TSN 690)

–The Chicago Blackhawks got some solid production from Vinne Hinostroza, Nick Schmaltz and Tanner Kero in last night’s win over the Avalanche. You can watch the highlights from that game by clicking the video at the top of the page.

–How much would you pay for a young NHL superstar’s game worn jersey? The jersey Auston Matthews wore during the first period of the Centennial Classic sold for an incredible amount of money. (Yahoo)

–Will we see Patrik Elias return to the New Jersey Devils this season? The 40-year-old underwent cartilage replacement surgery on his knee during the off-season, but he doesn’t seem willing to close the door on his NHL career just yet. Elias wants to make a final decision on his playing career by next month. (USA Today)

–Going through a scoring slump is never fun, but going through a scoring slump when you’re the captain of the Montreal Canadiens might be one of the more unbearable things in professional hockey. Max Pacioretty was able to overcome a slow start thanks to some big-picture thinking. “At the end of the day, look at the life we have, look where we’re playing. I love playing here so much, and the fact I’m able to be the captain here, it sounds cheesy, but what’s better in life right now? I’ve got a family, I’ve got an awesome team, I’m the captain of the best franchise in the world,” said Pacioretty. (NHL.com)

Lonnie Cameron, hockey-tough linesman, shakes off puck to head (Video)

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Talking about hockey toughness is pretty much a trope at this point, yet there are still moments that impress even the cynical among us.

Linesman Lonnie Cameron accomplished that for many on Tuesday, as he returned to the Nashville Predators – Vancouver Canucks game despite taking a puck to the head in a scary moment.

Judging by the Twitter feed of Brooks Bratten from the Predators’ website, Cameron missed mere minutes of time.

So, yeah, it seems like Cameron qualifies as “hockey tough.”

As far as the game itself went, the Canucks beat the Predators 1-0 thanks to Henrik Sedin‘s goal (his 999th point) and Ryan Miller‘s 30-save shutout.

Is this more than just a slump for Henrik Lundqvist?

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People have been wondering for years if Henrik Lundqvist would finally fall off track and, you know, look human. After the New York Rangers’ zany 7-6 loss to the Dallas Stars, those rumblings are probably getting a little louder.

Don’t expect the Rangers to throw their star goalie under the bus, though, especially after a wide-open game like Tuesday’s goal-filled game at Madison Square Garden.

In fact, Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault is already penciling Lundqvist in for Thursday’s game against the rising Toronto Maple Leafs.

“He’s going to play, he’s going to try real hard, and we’re going to try to play better in front of him,” Vigneault said, according to the New York Post’s Brett Cyrgalis. “This is a team.”

Lundqvist, meanwhile, said about what you’d expect:

Naturally, Lundqvist and plenty of other Rangers threw the word embarrassing around quite a bit to describe this game, or at least the first 40 minutes. It’s just that no one’s really raking Lundqvist over the coals.

Is this time different?

Again, Lundqvist is no stranger to struggles, even if he struggles less often than just about any franchise goalie in recent memory.

Still, the sample size is getting large enough for this stretch to be a concern for the 34-year-old netminder.

While goal support and stretches of good play open the door for a respectable 18-12-1 record, Lundqvist’s allowing almost three goals per game (2.89 GAA) and has a backup-level .902 save percentage this season. And that’s over 32 games.

Things get even uglier if you focus on more recent events.

He’s allowed 20 goals in his past four starts, including allowing 12 tallies over four periods during the past two games. Lundqvist has a putrid .841 save percentage in January after producing great work in November (.925 save percentage in 11 games) and nice numbers in December (.915 in eight games).

Lundqvist has given up four goals or more on nine different occasions since Nov. 23.

In other words, there are a lot of different ways in which he’s struggling:

Is this a matter of Lundqvist regaining his focus or is “The King” finally abdicating his throne?

The Rangers are going to let him try to work through this. Otherwise, they might just need to hope that this is an off-year and *gulp* at least consider how far (an eventually healthy?) Antti Raanta could take them.

Supporting cast rallies Blackhawks in win against Avalanche

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For much of the season, the Colorado Avalanche’s biggest names have let them down while many believe that the Chicago Blackhawks are getting it done despite a mediocre supporting cast.

On Tuesday, the script was essentially flipped. The Avs’ stars were productive, yet so were lesser-known Chicago forwards like Tanner Kero and Vinne Hinostroza.

The most important narrative stayed the same, however, as the Blackhawks found a way to get by the Avalanche in a 6-4 decision.

The Blackhawks took a 2-1 lead into the second period, but the Avs put together one of their best stretches of this lousy season. Blake Comeau tied it up, Matt Nieto scored his first goal with Colorado and then Matt Duchene answered Chicago’s only goal of the second period (by Kero) to give the Avalanche a 4-3 edge.

The Avalanche doubled Chicago’s shots on goal in the second period, generating an 8-4 edge. It felt like a rare moment where Colorado’s talent actually flexed its collective muscles.

Then the Blackhawks turned it on in the third, generating a 12-5 shot edge of their own and finding a way to win.

Hinostroza ended up making the biggest difference, scoring the tying and game-winning goals before Kero iced it with an empty-netter thanks to an unselfish pass by Jonathan Toews.

(It’s not to say that Chicago’s big names outright slept through this game, either. Toews got that assist and Marian Hossa made a bunch of plays to help make life easier for Hinostroza and Kero.)

This wasn’t always pretty, but the Blackhawks are doing enough to get points night after night. On some nights, that’s the real difference between a contender like Chicago and a languishing squad like Colorado.