Calgary Flames: Contenders or Pretenders?
With October finished, and the double-digit mark surpassed in the new season, it's fair to begin to analyze what teams will be bringing to the table in the 2011-2012 season.
The Flames have now played 11 games to start the year, and they're currently sitting with a 5-5-1 record to show for it.
Before the season began, the Flames, who were expected to make a splash in free agency, didn't tweak a whole lot in their roster.
Jay Feaster, who was officially given the job as GM in Calgary over the offseason, wasted no time in signing veterans Curtis Glencross and Alex Tanguay to multi-year deals.
He also shipped veteran defensemen Robyn Regehr and Ales Kotalik to Buffalo, bringing back forward Chris Butler in return, along with minor league forward Paul Byron.
Apart from several other depth acquisitions like defenders Scott Hannan and Anton Babchuk, the boys in red and black have entered the season—for better or worse—the same as last year.
To Feaster's credit, he was rumored to be one of the front-runners for landing star center Brad Richards through free agency, before Richards chose New York as his new destination.
So once again, it falls upon the shoulders of captain Jarome Iginla and veteran netminder Mikka Kiprusoff to guide the ship back to the postseason.
But do the Flames' two best players have enough left in them to continue to carry the burden placed upon them year after year in Calgary?
The team collectively proved last season that hard work and a host of good role players can carry a team a long ways in the NHL. The Flames started piling up wins at an impressive rate during the second half of the 2010-2011 season, before running out of gas just before the finish line.
The Flames finished three points out of the playoffs.
The general consensus on Calgary is they needed to either rebuild from scratch or find a way to add some significant pieces to help shoulder the load to make it to the post season.
Having to look no further than their provincial rivals in Edmonton to see what stockpiling draft picks is like on the fans, Feaster made it clear in retaining the services of his veteran core that he's in it to win it.
So the question now remains: Do the Flames have what it takes to make it back to the playoffs?
In short, the answer is no.
The Flames expended huge amounts of energy just trying to get back in the playoff race last season, and it took it's toll. Had they made it after that kind of push, a deep playoff run would have been next to impossible.
To ask a team to duplicate the late success they found for an entire campaign without adding any significant pieces to a roster is frankly too much.
But don't be fooled—Jay Feaster hasn't got all of his eggs in one basket.
If the new season goes sideways in a hurry for Calgary, look to see underperforming players shipped off for younger replacements or draft picks.
The Flames biggest challenge ahead will be getting younger and staying competitive.
Calgary doesn't want to endure endless seasons of losing, nor can they afford to continue to ride their top performers, and so the time is fast approaching where management will have to evaluate their assets and establish a core.
Off the top, you'd be safe in assuming that Rene Bourque, Mark Giordano, Jay Bouwmeester and Glencross are all safe. They're young enough to provide enough skill initially and then some veteran presence once players like Sven Baertschi and Roman Horak are leading the team.
Perennial stars Iginla and Kiprusoff are in the unique situation of being extremely vital yet valuable assets that could bring back the kind of talent the Flames want to acquire for their future.
Their value to a contender, however, means that neither of them are safe.
The problem that Calgary has at the moment is owning players like Alex Tanguay and Olli Jokinen. Tanguay in particular was just re-signed to a five-year deal that comes with a reasonable $3.5 million cap hit.
Jokinen's $3 million hit expires after this season, and if the Flames are smart they'll try and unload him before the deadline for a second-round pick.
Committing to older players with multi-year deals is what's catching up to the Flames, though. Veterans like Tanguay are occupying top-six roster spots, and are now relied upon to keep the team from floundering.
This means that younger players don't get a chance to develop in the organization, and you create a gap between NHL-ready prospects and guys just good enough to keep them out of the NHL.
What the Flames should do is trade Iginla to a contender and stock up on high draft picks.
Goaltending is crucial, and keeping Kiprusoff would guarantee that they weren't terrible, but yet dealing him would be smart as well.
Losing hurts, but picking up top-end talent like Nail Yakupov or Ryan Murray would appease the tears, I assure you.
If the Flames want to be great again, they need to stop being mediocre.
You either have to contend, or put yourself in the best position to acquire the kind of talent necessary to win down the road.
It's time for Calgary to take a page out of Edmonton's manual, and restock the cupboards.
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