Calgary Flames Take on the 2009-10 Season: Fresh Start or Proven Formula?

M MacDonald Hall@@DocMacHallSenior Analyst IOctober 26, 2009

Retro silks flow with contemporary talent as Dion Phaneuf and the 2009-10 Calgary Flames meet the season head-on. Will team history help, hinder, or be a non-factor as they work for future success?

The Calgary Flames intend to be much more than a flash in the pan in 2009-10. Recent years have averaged out as numerical successes and critical failures, leaving the team and its fans tantalized by great potential, yet frustrated by incomplete follow-through.

There have been concerted efforts to solidify the club’s updated play while retaining enviable aspects from days gone by, and as the franchise celebrates a collection of anniversaries—30 years in Calgary, 29 seasons in the city, and 25 years based in the Saddledome—there’s hope that time is finally on the side of the Flames.

Local fans have taken to willing the spirits of their favourite teams-of-yore to return to the ice. Some may remember well-hidden highlights stretched between Calgary’s three Cup runs, but few are looking to strip spare parts from 1996-2000 and no one wants to recapture 1998-99.

Followers from the Flames’ fledgling days in Calgary yearn for the '80s, an era which featured some of the organization’s most complete rosters, two trips to the Stanley Cup Final, a pair of Presidents' Trophies, and ownership of hockey’s most coveted hardware to round out the decade.

Younger groupies cling to the Cinderella effort of 2004 which saw a Darryl Sutter-directed underdog squad, inspired by the determination of newly-appointed captain Jarome Iginla, blue-line stalwart Robyn Regehr, and a nearly-unknown Miikka Kiprusoff rise as the first Canadian team to make the Finals since 1994.

At this point, everyone should be looking forward.

Retro colours and the brief but inspired return of former Flames prodigy Theoren Fleury are glimpses of Calgary’s glorified youth. Leading today’s Flames with hockey heritage and current-day experience, the team’s third Coach Sutter, Brent, strengthens his family’s link with the team.

And under the gaze of original owner Harley Hotchkiss, who has stuck by his investment through 30 turbulent years, Calgary aims to be inspired, but not distracted by team legend, as they work on building their own legacy.

A Taste of What They’ve Got

Trying to create a world-beater, an organization can’t dwell on the past, but must learn from it and move forward—an endeavour Flames management has been constantly refining.

Since competing clubs also learn—especially in this age of intensified video analysis—attempts at replicating old rosters or techniques often fail. That much was evident when rival teams spent 2005-06 figuring out Calgary‘s tried-and-true methods. Moving too far from proven ideas can also be difficult, reflected by disturbing blips in Calgary’s plus/minus ratings, netminder GAAs, and shots-on-net.

Confident in their built-up roster, Flames staff are now focused on ironing out the wrinkles in team play, not only getting the best out of every individual, but developing true cohesion. Confidence doesn't mean they don't recognize room for improvement.

Bearing this in mind, the team is in a good position, possessing the right ingredients. Core players relied on since the lockout remain central, with the likes of Iginla, Regehr, Kiprusoff, Dion Phaneuf, and Daymond Langkow well aware of expectations. 2004 playmaker Craig Conroy seems like he never left his red sweater.

Recent reliables, such as David Moss, Eric Nystrom, Mark Giordano, Dustin Boyd, Adam Pardy, Brandon Prust, and Curtis McElhinney, were all with the organisation before the lockout and represent Calgary’s long-term plan for balancing on-ice responsibility, adding depth by transforming young players into seasoned Flames.

Behind the bench, ‘04 call-up Dave Lowry serves as assistant coach, former Flames netminder Jamie McLennan joins in as goaltending coach, and Rob Cookson stands as the only remnant after the department's summer clear-cut.

Newer additions to the roster aim to secure all areas of the ice as Flames territory. Recently enlisted slicksters like Olli Jokinen and stud rearguard Jay Bouwmeester help complete their respective departments and send a clear message of the team’s growing star-power.

Rene Bourque and Curtis Glencross were picked up last year and already have integral spots on the team, while anticipated draftees and long-term prospects are now hitting stride and ready to test the big leagues. For extra grit, heart, and boosted scoring, look no further than the team’s role players and emerging talent, brought in to solidify the ensemble.

The revamped bench bears the fresh but uncannily familiar features of Brent Sutter, a slightly different voice delivering a reliable message, backed by assistant coach Ryan McGill and his four years experience coaching Flames AHL affiliates.

The impressive menu Calgary presents has grown stale in the mouths of fans due to a lack of dessert in June. With all the ability available, this is the moment to earn their five-star rating and erase lingering concerns over consistency, defensive responsibility, and general balance to make the absolute most of their well-stocked larder.

Forget History and It Bites You—Spend Too Much Time Peering Back and You’ll Slam into a Wall

The past is gone—time has retired skaters from the ice and countless rule changes have transformed the game and its players from those vaunted pre-lockout versions. Calgary’s fanbase has spent the last few years listening to repeat statements about identity, philosophy, key cogs bolstered by well-tailored tweaks, and management’s confidence that the team can and will excel.

These are well-intentioned scraps of encouragement to a mass of fans whose earnest and anxiety causes selective memory loss, blocking any recall of a seven-year postseason absence, stars forced to flounder in a boggy lack of support, regular threats to relocate the team—issues now conveniently dismissed as dead and buried.

The recent flood of marquee names and their improved point-totals have re-branded Calgary as a desirable big-name destination, with exploding expectations and dwindling patience firmly in tow.

Despite the fact that the 2004 playoff push, which made this influx possible, was the result of hard-working, heart-fuelled over-achievement from lesser-known names, there are still those who easily ignore historic rough patches and forget the back-breaking effort it took to pull the team from the mire.

Upgrades, disappointments, and contradictions cause understandable confusion, but it’s no excuse for taking anything for granted. The best teams dig deep to earn their place in history, and it’s down to the Flames to do the same. For everyone else, there’s nothing left to do but trust the system and see what happens.

Can the Calgary Flames re-learn discipline under the tutelage of their no-nonsense head coach and regain consistency at both ends of the ice? Will this season’s roster come together as a unit to maintain and control all key elements for continued success? And finally, along with other uncertainties, what kind of Flames team will lead fans forward into April? The hockey world waits for their answer.

Ten games down in Calgary’s assorted-anniversary season, it’s time to put generational debates to bed and let the chimera do whatever it’s going to do—then we can judge. There are 72 regular season games left to perfect this experiment, but the Flames won’t want to wait. Check back regularly as we analyze their efforts through the season and beyond.


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