It's Tuesday, and that means we're on to the Northwest for MOP's 2005-06 NHL Preview. Starting with Calgary pains me to a certain degree, being from Edmonton and all, but you can't argue with results, and the results from the 2004 playoffs and from the Flames off-season say this is the team that will finish atop the Northwest division standings.
These previews will now appear five a day (hopefully), or one division on each of Monday (Central), Tuesday (Northwest), and Wednesday (Pacific) until the season starts on October 5th. They will be put on-site by division, roughly in order of predicted finish. Note that the rookies listed are only those most likely to make the team, not necessarily ones who have already sewn up a spot, and surprises always occur in training camp, though with camps out at this point the guesses are more solid than they were two weeks ago. The In/Out portion represents significant players added and lost since the end of the 2003-04 season. And now, on with the show...
In: Roman Hamrlik, Tony Amonte, Darren McCarty, Jason Wiemer, Byron Ritchie, Philippe Sauve
Out: Chris Clark, Martin Gelinas, Dean McAmmond, Roman Turek, Ville Nieminen, Mike Commodore, Toni Lydman, Craig Conroy
Rookies: Dion Phaneuf, Eric Nystrom
It’s been a year, but the Flames run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2004 is still fresh in the minds of most fans. And while Calgary is bringing back much the same core from that team that was a mere game from winning the Cup, they’ve also added some additional grit and scoring punch that has many picking the Flames as the class of the Western Conference. MOP Squad’s hockey department always thinks October is way too early to go quite that far in our predictions, but you’ll certainly find Calgary at the top of our projected Northwest division standings, and this team certainly looks good enough on paper to compete for the top spot in the conference.
Strengths: 1. If Jarome Iginla isn’t the best player in the world right now, he’s certainly in the top three. Iginla is the complete package: goal-scorer, playmaker, leader, and a gritty, physical presence. He has 128 goals in his last three NHL seasons, and he not only makes players around him better with his own play, he makes his whole team want to play better with his example. Best of all, Iginla will only be 28 when the season starts and is signed in Calgary for two more seasons past this one. He will be looking to win a Cup in at least one of those three seasons, and it will be difficult to stand in his way. Iginla’s regular center the past three seasons, Craig Conroy, signed a free agent contract with Los Angeles in the summer of 2004, but the Flames are hoping Iginla can find some chemistry on a scoring line with replacement Daymond Langkow and free agent signing Tony Amonte, both talented players. If he can, he’s the odds-on favorite to lead the league in goals.
2. The Flames depth on defense has long been the envy of teams across the league. Even when the Flames were missing the playoffs regularly their young defense core was a reason to be optimistic. Now, that core is all grown up, and despite the subtractions of Lydman and Commodore, the Flames are clearly better off with Hamrlik, who was last seen with the Islanders and signed a free agent contract with Calgary this past summer, and rookie Dion Phaneuf, who terrorized Canadian junior hockey the last three seasons with thunderous checks and excellent puck-moving skills while playing for Flames coach and GM Darryl Sutter’s brother Brent in Red Deer. Ference, Warrener and Montador give the Flames three dependable veterans capable of contributing a great deal, while their top pairing from the 2004 playoffs, Robyn Regehr and Jordan Leopold, returns as well, though Regehr is expected to miss the first month of the season with a knee injury. This is a talented, formidable group that should be even better than they were in 2003-04.
Weaknesses: 1. Miikka Kiprusoff had a great 2003-04 season. He played 38 games for Calgary, had a ridiculous 1.69 GAA and .933 SP in the regular season and a nearly as ridiculous 1.85 and .928 in the playoffs. Most experts will list him as a strength for Calgary, and he is. However, while Kiprusoff had a breakout year in 2003-04, those 38 games were the most he had ever played in a season. Before that, he spent two seasons as San Jose’s backup and played a total of 42 games as Evgeni Nabokov’s understudy. While there’s no reason to think that he can’t play at a high level for an entire season and stay healthy for 60-70 starts, he’s never done it before. If the Flames had a veteran backup like, say, the departed Roman Turek, Kiprusoff’s lack of experience as a starter might not be that much of an issue; instead, his backup is Colorado castoff Philippe Sauve, who couldn’t handle being David Aebischer’s backup in 2003-04 and spent most of the lockout in the ECHL, a league that’s a step below the NHL’s primary minor-league affiliate, the AHL. Whether Sauve can even relieve Kiprusoff for a game here and there effectively isn’t a given; if Kiprusoff were to get hurt, and he did miss almost 20 games in 2003-04 with a bad knee, or can’t handle the additional workload of being an everyday starter, the Flames could be in real trouble.
2. While the signing of Wiemer, Amonte and McCarty does give Calgary some added scoring and toughness on the wings, it does little to address what could be an issue at center. At this point, Langkow is a given to be Calgary’s first line pivot; while he’s never put up more than 62 points in an NHL season, he’s a decent playmaker that could easily work well with Iginla. However, while Langkow is generously listed at 5’11 and 192 pounds, questions about his size and toughness have dogged him throughout his NHL career, and in truth it’s a problem throughout Calgary’s corps of centers. Stephane Yelle is 6’1 and 190 pounds, but doesn’t play an overly physical game, and outside of roles winning faceoffs and killing penalties, both of which he does extremely well, mind you, he’s not extremely useful. Matthew Lombardi is 5’11 and 191 pounds, coming off a serious concussion suffered in the 2004 playoffs that caused him to sit out most of the lockout, and he struggled with consistency even when healthy and may not be able to handle more than a fourth-line center’s role. That leaves Byron Ritchie, a free agent signing who’s 5’10, 195 pounds and simply an energy player at this point in his career, and Steve Reinprecht. Reinprecht missed almost half of 2003-04 and all of the playoffs with a shoulder problem; he’s quick and has good offensive prowess, but will be 30 at the end of 2005-06, his fifth NHL season, and has yet to really prove himself. The Flames badly need him to be an effective second-line center, as scoring support for Iginla’s line has long been an issue in Calgary, but whether he can fulfill that role is uncertain.
Don’t be Surprised If: Calgary goes shopping towards the trade deadline. Despite Iginla’s new three-year, $21 million contract and the signings of Hamrlik, McCarty and Amonte, Calgary still has significant room under the league’s new salary cap. If it turns out Calgary does need a veteran backup, a second-line center or additional scoring depth they likely won’t be shy about adding it. With the Canadian dollar relatively strong right now and with the rabid Flames fan base expected to sell out all of Calgary’s home games, money won’t be a problem.
Outlook: Calgary’s not as much of a sure thing as other pre-season predictions I’ve seen say, but they’re a good bet to win the Northwest division, which is suddenly one of the league’s most competitive, and to compete for the Conference title. With most of the key pieces in place as 2004, Sutter behind the bench, Iginla on the wing, and Kiprusoff in goal, there’s no reason to think the Flames can’t repeat their run to the Cup final as well.
Centres: 1. Daymond Langkow 2. Steve Reinprecht 3. Matthew Lombardi 4. Stephane Yelle 5. Byron Ritchie
Wingers: 1. Jarome Iginla 2. Tony Amonte 3. Chuck Kobasew 4. Marcus Nilson 5. Darren McCarty 6. Shean Donovan 7. Jason Wiemer 8. Chris Simon 9. Eric Nystrom
Defensemen: 1. Robyn Regehr 2. Jordan Leopold 3. Roman Hamrlik 4. Rhett Warrener 5. Andrew Ference 6. Dion Phaneuf 7. Steve Montador
Goalies: 1. Miikka Kiprusoff 2. Phillipe SauveRestricted Free Agents: none.