Alex Tanguay, Jarome Iginla

2011-2012 season preview: Calgary Flames

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2010-2011 record: 41-29-12, 94 points; 2nd in Northwest, 10th in West

Playoffs: Did not qualify

Calgary is one of the most curious and maddening teams to follow. The Flames have been inconsistent at times, tough and brilliant at others thanks to Jarome Iginla. That said, they’ve been a non-playoff team the last two seasons. Can the Flames forget about the slumps and learn to embrace consistency?

Offense

Scoring was not an issue in Calgary last season. The Flames were seventh in the NHL in goals scored and had seven players earn 40-plus points. Iginla was again Mr. Everything in Calgary leading the team in points with 86 and scoring 43 goals. Alex Tanguay and Olli Jokinen will try and show that last season wasn’t a flash in the pan offensively while Rene Bourque is emerging as a force on the left wing. Scrappy winger Curtis Glencross will also look to keep his production rolling along as well.

The Flames will need to get more from the center position and the likes of Brendan Morrison (once he’s healthy) as well as Mikael Backlund and Matthew Stajan. Newly acquired Lee Stempniak should help keep things balanced on the right side and give Calgary a steady 20-plus goal effort.

Defense

Calgary’s top four shape up to be rather decent. Adding Scott Hannan helps give them a steady defensive presence while Mark Giordano is one of the best kept secrets in the NHL when it comes to point production on the blue line. Anton Babchuk gives them a booming shot on the power play and Jay Bouwmeester is just quiet and steady as he goes. Cory Sarich, Chris Butler, and Brett Carson round out the pack that will try to keep things quiet for Miikka Kiprusoff in goal. There’s solid play here, but they need to be stronger defensively.

source: APGoalies

Miikka Kiprusoff had a below-average year for himself last season finishing with a goals against average of 2.63. The Flames, however, hope to give Kiprusoff a bit more rest as he gets older. Last season, Kiprusoff was third in the league in minutes played and his backup Henrik Karlsson has to play stronger and earn coach Brent Sutter’s trust more. How Kiprusoff holds up and plays is key to the Flames’ success. A few more nights off would go a long way towards helping him play at his best.

Coaching

Brent Sutter enters his third season as the Flames’ coach and while the Flames have done all right in earning 90-plus points in both previous seasons, the team has yet to make the playoffs with him at the helm. Should Calgary get off to a slow start like how they did last season, the calls for Sutter to be fired will roar quickly. GM Jay Feaster inherited Sutter as his coach, so don’t expect him to sit and wait around for Sutter to fix things if the losses pile up early. In such a questionably talented division Calgary could bully other teams to win. Failure isn’t an option for Sutter.

source: Getty ImagesBreakout candidate

The time is now for Mikael Backlund to prove his worth. At 22 years-old he’s the lone Calgary prospect showing that he can make it in the NHL. After struggling to establish himself as a force last year scoring just 10 goals In 73 games and winding up with just 25 points, if he can break out he’ll provide a huge lift to the Flames offense and make them all the more dangerous there. Earning Sutter’s trust would go a long way to doing that as he averaged just over 12 minutes of ice time per game last season. It’s tough to leave your mark when you’re twiddling your thumbs on the bench.

Best-case scenario

Iginla does the same thing he did last year and dominates play night in and night out and brings all of his linemates along for the ride as well. Getting repeat performances from Jokinen and Tanguay would go a long way to helping that. Seeing continued growth from Bourque and Glencross with another 25-plus goal season would help out too. Giordano and Babchuk make the Flames’ power play one to be feared season-long while Kiprusoff bounces back in a big way to show why he’s one of the better goalies in the league and leads the Flames into the playoffs without much stress.

Reality

Slow starts and poor stretches of play have ruined the last two seasons for the Flames. Avoiding that meddling stretch of play will be key for Calgary as they’ve shown they can keep up with the best in the West, they just haven’t been able to produce that full season of effort to get to the postseason. Iginla’s health (he’s had back spasm issues in training camp) puts the Flames on a dangerous brink. If those issues linger season-long, the Flames are in trouble. Both Iginla and Kiprusoff have to be the All-Stars here to get Calgary back to the playoffs. If their defense can’t hold it together and Kiprusoff has to be beyond brilliant on a nightly basis, the Flames will find their playoff hopes coming down to the final games all over again.

Poll: Will the Leafs have a captain this year?

Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock stands on the bench during the first period of the team's NHL hockey game against the New Jersey Devils on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016, in Toronto. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
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There are six teams currently without a captain — Carolina, Edmonton, Florida, Nashville, Winnipeg and Toronto — and of the six, it’s the latter that seems furthest from filling the role.

Back in April, head coach Mike Babcock said he didn’t expect the Leafs to have a captain this season. That news hardly came as a surprise — Toronto had just wrapped a difficult first year of what figures to be a lengthy rebuild, and didn’t seem to have any leading candidates to inherit the “C” from Dion Phaneuf, who was traded to Ottawa in February.

Of course, things have changed since then.

The biggest, by far, was Toronto landing phenom Auston Matthew with the first overall pick at the draft. GM Lou Lamoriello also locked in two of the club’s better young players — Nazem Kadri and Morgan Rielly — to matching six-year deals, and added a physical veteran presence in free agency by signing former Islander Matt Martin.

All of this makes for a different dynamic in the dressing room, but will it impact the captaincy?

Hard to say.

At first glance, the Leafs still seem to lack a leading candidate, at least for the present. If Lamoriello and team president Brendan Shanahan wanted to go the veteran route, they could anoint Brooks Laich or Matt Hunwick as a placeholder, though neither projects to play a significant role on the team beyond this year and into the future.

Rielly could be the guy but, at 22, he’d be awfully young.

The same can be said of Matthews, though many do expect him to eventually captain the Leafs. But asking him to shoulder that responsibility now — as an 18-year-old rookie — would be the most anti-Lamoriello move of all time, so you can rule that out.

Anyway, here’s how this will work. The poll will be a straight yes-no and, if you vote yes, put your pick for captain in the comments section.

Welcome back: Flames sign Higgins to camp PTO

Chris Higgins
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Chris Higgins is back in Cowtown.

On Tuesday, the Flames announced that Higgins would be attending training camp on a professional tryout, bringing him back to the organization he played part of the 2009-10 campaign with.

Higgins, 33, had spent the last six years in Vancouver. His stint with the Canucks included some quality highs — a trip to the ’11 Stanley Cup Final, and an 18-goal, 43-point season the year following — but ended on a sour note last spring when, after GM Jim Benning failed to orchestrate a trade, Higgins was placed on waivers and spent time in AHL Utica.

All told, Higgins finished the campaign with three goals and four points in 33 contests.

In June, the Canucks bought out the last of his four-year, $10 million deal.

Higgins has played in Calgary before — as mentioned above — but that’s not his only connection to the organization. The Flames’ new head coach, Glen Gulutzan, was the assistant in Vancouver for the last three years and worked closely with Higgins (who had a good season in Gulutzan’s first year with the Canucks, scoring 17 goals and 39 points).

 

 

Under Pressure: Auston Matthews

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24: (l-r) Lou Lamoriello and  Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs attend round one of the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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This post is part of Toronto Maple Leafs day at PHT…

It’s the collective, really.

There’s no single reason why Auston Matthews was our clear cut choice for today’s “Under Pressure” post.

No single reason, because there are so many reasons.

There was the pre-draft hype, which was off the charts. There was Toronto tanking to get the No. 1 overall pick — or, as team president Brendan Shanahan put it, earning the pick “the hard way.”

There were the names, too.

Matthews is now linked to Patrick Kane, after becoming the first American to go No. 1 overall since Chicago took Kane nine years ago. Matthew is also now forever linked to Leafs legend Wendel Clark — Toronto’s last No. 1 overall pick, taken all the way back in 1985.

Then, there’s his pedigree.

And with that pedigree comes privilege.

Before he ever played a second of NHL hockey, Matthews was named to Team North America for the World Cup of Hockey — ahead of the likes of Max Domi, Boone Jenner and Alex Galchenyuk, the latter a 30-goal scorer and already a veteran of nearly 300 NHL contests.

Pundits have already slotted Matthews into a top-two center role in Toronto, one that will come with all the requisite power play time befitting a special offensive talent. As a result, expectations for this year are sky high. A recent NHL.com projection said the 60-point plateau should be within reach, and think pieces about how other rookies won’t just concede the Calder.

Smartly, but perhaps futilely, Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello is trying to shield Matthew from some of pressure that comes along with being, y’know, the savior of a team in one of the league’s most storied markets.

“I don’t think there’s any player that’s going to be the face of this franchise,” Lamoriello said at the draft, when asked if Matthews would be exactly that. “The logo will be the face of the franchise.”

Lamoriello went on to say that when “you’re taking an 18-year-old and expect him to do wonders, it’s not fair.”

No, it’s not fair.

But it is the reality.

Looking to make the leap: Nikita Zaitsev

BUFFALO, NY - DECEMBER 26: Defenseman Nikita Zaitsev #2 of Russia dumps the puck in as forward Cody Eakin #21 of Canada tries to block the puck during the 2011 IIHF World U20 Championship Group B game between Canada and Russia on December 26, 2010 at HSBC Arena in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
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This post is part of Toronto Maple Leafs day at PHT…

“I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people. The physical part of the game will be different for him in the NHL, but the way he moves the puck and skates and how defensive you now have to be to play, it just really makes you think he can be really successful for the Leafs.”

That quote was from former NHL defenseman Ryan Whitney, speaking in May about newly minted Toronto defenseman Nikita Zaitsev, who went up against Whitney in the KHL.

So needless to say, expectations for Zaitsev this season are fairly high.

And they’re high for reason. At 24, the undrafted blueliner has a wealth of professional experience — seven full campaigns, split between Novosibirsk and CSKA Moscow — and really came into his own over the last few years. He routinely led CSKA in d-man scoring, and was named a KHL first-team all-star in ’14-15.

That pedigree should translate into plenty of opportunities in Toronto.

And hey, Toronto has plenty of opportunities to offer.

It’s likely one of the big reasons Zaitsev chose the Leafs over other interested suitors like Calgary, Vancouver, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh (per Sportsnet). The Leafs are still in the early stages of their rebuild, and it shows on defense — based on current projections, Zaitsev could open as a top-four guy alongside Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner and Matt Hunwick, leapfrogging the likes of Martin Maricin, Roman Polak and Connor Carrick in the process.

The great unknown, of course, is how his success in the KHL will translate into North America. Every NHL club is hoping to land the next Artemi Panarin, but it’s important to remember that 1) Panarin is a forward, and 2) jumped onto a line next to Patrick Kane.

The transition for defenders has generally been tougher, something folks in Philly saw last year with the failed Evgeny Medvedev experience.

Of course, Zaitsev has a few more things going for him than his fellow Russian. He’s younger than Medvedev by nearly a decade, and is a coveted right-handed shot (Medvedev’s a lefty).

And like most players coming over from the KHL, Zaitsev’s on a one-year, performance bonus-laden contract that amounts to a “prove it” deal in the NHL.

That should be enough motivation to help him make the leap.

And if it’s not, there’s always the leap back to Russia.