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.

Sadly, Crosby praise still comes at Ovechkin’s expense

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 24: Alex Ovechkin #8 and Sidney Crosby #87 shake hands following Team Canada's  5-3 victory to move on to the finals during the World Cup of Hockey at the semifinal game during the World Cup of Hockey tournament at Air Canada Centre on September 24, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Dennis Pajot/Getty Images)
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Here’s a homework assignment for you: praise Sidney Crosby‘s incredible work without downgrading Alex Ovechkin.

Yes, it’s not easy.

ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun presented an interesting column that spotlighted an admittedly “tired narrative” while still ultimately pumping up Crosby at Ovechkin’s expense.

LeBrun quoted anonymous executives who, yes, trotted out tired narratives. One executive did the baseball thing in making it Crosby (“five-tool guy”) vs. Ovechkin (“home run hitter”) while another equated it to a full-court player vs. a “half-court” player.

It’s all … well, tiresome.

Ovechkin may not have had the greatest game of his life on Saturday, but watching that game, was the takeaway really that he let Russia down? That the difference between the two teams was, in any way, about Crosby over Ovechkin?

You can throw out all sorts of stats or lean on the eye test to note how over-matched Russia really was in that game. Or you can consider the defensemen Russia dressed in a best-on-best clash:

Dmitry Kulikov, Dmitry Orlov, Nikita Zaitsev, Alexey Marchenko, Alexei Emelin, Andrei Markov and Nikita Nesterov.

Yikes.

Search your soul for a second and ask: how uneasy would an NHL team feel about that group of blueliners? Such a collection would struggle against one of the league’s 30 squads, let alone against a virtual All-Star team.

Is Crosby better than Ovechkin? There’s a strong chance that is the case, because of the whole “Crosby probably being the best player of his generation” thing.

How about this for a daring idea, though: why not enjoy the work of both players?

Ovechkin is easily the best sniper of his generation, and with 82 points in 84 career playoff games, sure seems like a strong big-game player. As we all know, hockey is a team sport, yet the blame falls on Ovechkin again and again.

Instead, let’s give Crosby and the rest of his brilliant teammates our attention, as we’ve seen here, here and here.

Datsyuk made some magic in North American ‘final act’

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - MAY 19: Pavel Datsyuk #13 of Russia skates against Germany at Ice Palace on May 19, 2016 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Anna Sergeeva/Getty Images)
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TORONTO (AP) Pavel Datsyuk’s North American magic show had one final act.

Months after deciding to leave the NHL and go home to Russia, the Detroit Red Wings great showed off his fanciful skillset one last time on this side of the ocean at the World Cup of Hockey. A lower-body injury may have cut his tournament short but not before another remarkable performance against players 15 to 20 years younger.

Datsyuk’s legs aren’t what they used to be at age 38, but he was a difference maker killing penalties and keeping up with the pace of a lightning-fast end-to-end victory against Team North America that helped Russia advance. He missed Russia’s round-robin finale Thursday against Finland and was scratched again from the lineup Saturday night against Canada.

Datsyuk left a lasting memory on the NHL, especially to his peers who appreciate his play the most from watching him up close.

“Oh, he’s unbelievable,” said Russian star Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins. “You do not see much what he (can) do because he’s so professional. He’s (the) most professional I’ve ever seen.”

Datsyuk had 314 goals and 604 assists in 953 games for the Red Wings over 14 seasons. But his play with the puck is more memorable than the points he scored with it, so much so that Apple’s virtual assistant, Siri, used to recognize Datsyuk as “the magic man.”

Mike Babcock, who coached Datsyuk in Detroit before joining the Toronto Maple Leafs, said the Russian was a pleasure to be around and someone he learned a lot from. Babcock, who’s coaching Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews with Canada for a third time, knows Datsyuk wasn’t as prodigious as those stars who were elite as teenagers but said he made a major impact when he entered the NHL at age 21.

“His span, I don’t know how many years it was, in my opinion he was the best forward in hockey in that time,” Babcock said Thursday. “Lots of people would say somebody else scored more points. He was the best player in hockey up front for a period of time with and without the puck.”

Datsyuk made it look as if he had the puck on a string and was among the best at knocking it away from opponents. Four times he won the Lady Byng Trophy awarded to the player who exemplifies sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of ability.

That standard hasn’t faded. Russia coach Oleg Znarok said in Datsyuk’s case, “age doesn’t matter.”

“He is responsible for a lot of roles on our team like penalty kill,” he said through an interpreter. “Definitely one of the best players.”

Datsyuk signed with SKA St. Petersburg to finish his playing career in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. He has great respect from the game’s top players, and those who played with him understand that the most.

“Talking with guys on (the U.S.) team and guys that I’ve come across, (they know) just how good he is with the puck and his takeaways,” former Red Wings teammate Justin Abdelkader said. “He practices every day. A lot of people don’t see, but he’s always playing after games, small-area games or 1-on-1 with players. It just shows his commitment and how good he is.”

As exciting as watching Datsyuk in games has been for fans for over a decade, Abdelkader isn’t the only player in awe of his practice habits. Russian teammate Vladislav Namestnikov called Datsyuk “unreal” and figures he’ll get better just from soaking in how his elder prepares for games in the gym and after practice.

Injuries have hampered Datsyuk and he was traded at the draft – to the Arizona Coyotes to give Detroit cap relief. He’s on the Coyotes’ roster this season despite playing in the KHL, where he already has seven points in six games.

Datsyuk leaving with one year left on his contract may have rubbed some people the wrong way, but Babcock points out it happened for the right reason.

“Age catches up to all of us,” Babcock said. “But he’s still an effective player and he’s chosen to go home to be around his family and that’s good for Pavel.”

Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno .

The Crosby-Marchand Duo is dominating the World Cup

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 24: Brad Marchand #63 of Team Canada is congratulated by his teammates Sidney Crosby #87, Drew Doughty #8, Patrice Bergeron #37 and Alex Pietrangelo #27 after scoring a second period goal at the semifinal game during the World Cup of Hockey tournament at Air Canada Centre on September 24, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Canada has been, by far, the most dominant team at the 2016 World Cup, and thanks to their 5-3 win over Russia on Saturday night they are on their way to the championship round.

Leading the way for them has been the line of Sidney Crosby, Brad Marchand, and Patrice Bergeron. It has been, by far, the best line in the tournament, and they put on an especially dominant show on Saturday.

While Bergeron has been his usual rock-solid self, playing shut down defense and just playing great two-way hockey all over the ice, the Crosby-Marchand connection has been especially dominant for Canada on the scoreboard. Of the 19 goals scored by Canada through Saturday, one of those two players has had a hand in seven of them, including three on Saturday.

Crosby started everything with this individual effort to force a turnover and then beat Sergei Bobrovsky.

Later, he set up Marchand to tie the game at two after Russia had briefly taken the lead.

It should be no surprise that Crosby is putting on a show because, well, that is what he does. When you put him with a pair of great two-way players like Bergeron and Marchand and it should be a great fit.

But let’s talk about Marchand for a second, because he is really starting to make a name for himself as a top-line scorer. This tournament, even if it is a small four-game sampling at this point, has helped continue his transformation from always being considered nothing more than a pest that was also a pretty good hockey player to a legitimate top-line goal-producing force. This performance is no accident. Just remember that he scored 37 goals during the 2015-16 season (the sixth most in the NHL) and did not experience a significant jump in his shooting percentage (he actually shot slightly lower than his career shooting percentage), indicating that it may not have been a fluke performance. He simply took on a bigger role in the Bruins offense by receiving an extra two minutes of ice-time per game and being counted on to be a bigger part of the offense. He finally had a chance to shine offensively, and he took advantage of it.

The other thing that makes the obvious chemistry between Crosby and Marchand fascinating at this point is that it has already started the rumor mill for a potential reunion of the duo in Pittsburgh at some point given Marchand’s contract situation. Given the salary cap situations that is probably getting a little too far ahead, but it is at the very least an interesting “what if” discussion to be had.

Marchand is currently entering the final year of his contract and has not yet been re-signed by the Bruins.

No matter where he ends up signing, whether it is with Boston or another team, his next contract is probably going to be an impressive one.

Canada advances to World Cup final with 5-3 win over Russia

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 24: Corey Perry #24 of Team Canada is congratulated by his teammate Shea Weber #6 after scoring a third period goal against Team Russia at the semifinal game during the World Cup of Hockey tournament at Air Canada Centre on September 24, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Through two periods on Saturday night it looked as if Sergei Bobrovsky was going to give Russia a real chance to steal their World Cup semifinal game against Canada.

At that point he was still almost single handedly holding off a relentless Canadian offensive zone push and keeping his team in the game.

And then Canada finally kicked the door down in the third period on their way to a 5-3 win to advance to the World Cup final.

Canada will now play the winner of Sunday’s Sweden-Team Europe game in a best-of-three championship series to determine the winner of the tournament. That series will begin on Tuesday night.

Even though the score was tied through two periods on Saturday and the outcome of the game was still very much in doubt, this was still a pretty dominant performance from Canada from start to finish.

They completely shut down the Russian power play (which was abysmal throughout the entire tournament) and spent most of the night playing in the Russian end of the rink. They ended up finishing the game with a commanding 47-34 edge on the shot chart, and had it not been for a spectacular goaltending performance from Bobrovsky this game could have easily been even more lopsided on the scoreboard. Don’t let the five goals against fool you when it comes to Bobrovsky’s performance, either. He really was great.

The final score is simply a testament to just how good this Canadian team is, and how good it was on Saturday in all phases of the game.

They were great defensively, while the top line of Sidney Crosby, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron combined for three more goals in the win, including a highlight reel individual effort from Crosby in the first period to open the scoring.

Corey Perry and John Tavares also added goals for Canada to help them build a 5-2 lead before Artemi Panarin added a goal in the closing seconds for Russia to help make the score look a little closer than the game actually was.

Nikita Kucherov and Evgeny Kuznetsov also scored for Russia.

Since the start of the 2014 Olympics, Team Canada is now 10-0 in best-on-best tournaments and has outscored its opponents by a 36-9 margin in those games.

It is going to take an incredible effort from either Sweden or Team Europe to beat them two times over the next week.