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Allan Maki

Flames are hurtin' Add to ...

One week, three games, three acid-reflux storylines: start poorly against the Vancouver Canucks and lose by a goal; take a 1-0 lead on the Detroit Red Wings, then give up the winner with 79 seconds remaining; start strongly against the Colorado Avalanche, then hang on for a one-goal win.

No wonder the Calgary Flames have driven their fans wild this NHL season. Wild with hope, frustration, anger. It's all come down to 11 games and the locals have no clue what they're going to get. Talk-radio shows and on-line chatrooms crackle with criticism. Darryl Sutter, the once beloved general manager who took the Flames to the 2004 Stanley Cup final, has become a lightning rod in a gathering ire. His remake of the 2009-10 roster, a desperate act to many observers, has yet to produce the desired results; the team sits outside a playoff spot (not counting last night's clash with the San Jose Sharks, and the Detroit Red Wings' game against the Edmonton Oilers).

The here and now is major heartburn for the Flames, and the short-term future could be equally unsettling. That's the underlying worry, that Calgary has inched its way to a place where one more slip means recovery could take years. This isn't a team that's young and poised for a breakthrough. It's a veteran group with a $7-million (all currency U.S.) captain, a $6.6-million defenceman and a $5.8-million goaltender built to challenge for the Stanley Cup.

The top two players, Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff, will be 33 and 34, respectively, one month into the 2010-11 season, critical ages for a power forward and a franchise goalie. Next year's salary cap already has 17 players under contract at a total of $51.5-million, and the vast majority of those players are the same ones currently struggling to make the playoffs.

As for up-and-coming prospects, players who could excite the fan base with their potential, centre Mikael Backlund is already with the big team but can't draw much ice time. Greg Nemisz, of the Windsor Spitfires, can score in the OHL but there are concerns about his skating ability. Tim Erixon is playing in the Swedish Elite League and has seven goals in 45 games. All three players are first-round picks from 2007 to 2009. At this year's draft, Calgary has already traded away its first and second-round selections and may opt to lose its third (as part of the Steve Staios trade with the Oilers).

That leaves the Flames pretty much where they are now, a team that can play physically but doesn't always, can play defensively but doesn't score enough, can work hard but doesn't always. In other words, a fringe playoff team overseen by a GM who has been around long enough to have given his critics plenty of ammunition to use against him.

No wonder angst is on the rise.

"I've been in the NHL for 30 years as a player, coach, a manager and shoulda, coulda, woulda. It doesn't have any impact," Sutter said. "That's why we've stayed on this steady course. We have a good hockey team."

It's a rant heard with increasing regularity: Sutter must go, fire the GM. It's a natural progression given the fact Sutter has hired and fired coaches, shuffled players, some good, some bad, only to alter his plan of sticking with the core performers inked to long-term deals and building around them.

Trading 24-year-old defenceman Dion Phaneuf wasn't necessarily the wrong decision considering the January funk the Flames were in. But trading him to the Toronto Maple Leafs and not acquiring either a definitive No.1 centreman or a high-round draft pick was inexcusable. Worse, it reeked of grab-bagging. Calgary got a decent player (Matt Stajan), a tough guy (Jamal Mayers), some depth (Ian White, Niklas Hagman) but nothing unmistakably sensational, just four guys from a franchise with a history of losing.

Moving the overpaid, underachieving Olli Jokinen was another good idea except the return from the New York Rangers brought in Christopher Higgins (now injured) and Ales Kotalik, a winger whose salary ($3-million) and goal production (nine) are badly out of whack. Sutter insisted he had to do it to inspire a lagging offence.

"The first 30 games I figured we'd need time to adjust to a new coaching staff [led by Brent Sutter]and we had the second-best record in the history of our team. In January we stopped scoring. That to me is the disappointing part," he said. "It's an interesting time for some of our players who get a lot of credit because they have to put it on their shoulders."

That opened the door for a discussion on how well Iginla and others, such as high-priced defenceman Jay Bouwmeester (just two goals in 69 games) have done to date. But Sutter declined the invitation.

"I don't want to go into individuals. It's unfair," he explained. "I'm no different than anyone else. You do it [plot the season]with team expectations based on individuals and what they've done in the course of their careers. We're still on pace for 95, 97 points. That's pretty good. Is that good enough? We don't know."

If it isn't enough, the team's owners will have to decide how to sell tickets and optimism. Do they keep Sutter or name brother Brent coach and GM? Do they change presidents and bring in Hockey Canada boss Bob Nicholson? Could Nicholson deliver Steve Yzerman as the next GM? Is Yzerman, despite the gold-medal finish at the Olympics, experienced enough to handle a budget, the salary cap, a scouting department, the works? Rumours are swirling.

And what about this: If the Flames miss the playoffs and need an infusion of young blood, would they have the chutzpah to ask Iginla to waive the no-movement clause in his contract? He's the bankable franchise face acquired 15 years ago when Calgary traded Joe Nieuwendyk, as much for money reasons as the need to get something beneficial in return. There's no doubt Iginla remains a top-end player, but power forwards begin to lose their effectiveness in their mid-30s and soon, whether now or a little later, the Flames will have to make a decision on what to do with their captain.

"Iginla could end up being the Flames' Mats Sundin," an NHL source said. "He wants to stay. He wants to be part of the solution. But what if he has to be traded to make the team better? That's the question Calgary is left with."

It's one of many, starting with: Will this team make the playoffs and what happens if it doesn't? For now, there's intrigue and anxiety. It's down to 11 games (five at home, six on the road), and all that's hanging in the balance is next season and beyond.

 

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