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Jarome Iginla #12 of the Calgary Flames skates up to a face off against the Phoenix Coyotes during the first period of the NHL game at Jobing.com Arena on March 10, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) (Christian Petersen/2011 Getty Images)
Jarome Iginla #12 of the Calgary Flames skates up to a face off against the Phoenix Coyotes during the first period of the NHL game at Jobing.com Arena on March 10, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) (Christian Petersen/2011 Getty Images)

Flames enter next-year territory Add to ...

The Calgary Flames slipped out of town early Thursday morning, preferring not to practise or answer questions about their failed playoff push, which effectively, if not mathematically, ended with a loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday night.

At Christmas, the Flames were duking it out with the Edmonton Oilers for 15th place in the Western Conference, with the prospect of a top-five choice in the 2011 entry draft the only possible solace for a season gone badly off the rails.

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They went on a 22-6-6 run and then had just two wins in their next nine tries to fall out of contention.

So now that they're in next-year country, the postmortems can begin in earnest. The first step is the easiest one: Remove the "interim" tag from Jay Feaster's title and install him as the team's full-time general manager.

Feaster replaced Darryl Sutter just after Christmas and brought a level of professionalism, order and lightness to an organization that had been in chaos, drifting along with no firm plan or direction.

But Feaster is no magician either and the Flames are an older team, with few Grade A prospects in the minors and a whole bunch of unattractive contracts - belonging to Ales Kotalik, Niklas Hagman and Matt Stajan to name just three - that have them boxed into salary-cap purgatory.

Kotalik and Hagman are unlikely to return, but to buy out three years of Stajan at $3.5-million would require a deep hard swallow - and would linger on the payroll for six years to come. That would be a hard call, but on the other hand, if Stajan couldn't move up the depth chart these past few weeks, as injuries sidelined Brendan Morrison and David Moss, who'd been centring the No. 1 line, well, then it is unlikely that he'll be moving up the depth chart next year, when the injured players return.

Feaster will need to deal with a handful of unrestricted free agents, headed up by Alex Tanguay and Curtis Glencross. For $1.7-million, Tanguay delivered great value to the Flames. Presumably, the chance to play with Iginla revived his career. It is unlikely that he'll leave to pursue bigger dollars elsewhere, now that he's shown he can play at a high level again. Glencross had a career year, but is prone to undisciplined penalties and if he's seeking a five-year commitment, may need to go elsewhere to earn his reward.

Ultimately, the key decisions will focus on the respective futures of Iginla and goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, the two franchise cornerstones. Iginla had another great year. He's up to No. 7 in the NHL scoring race, was terrific in March (12 goals to give Corey Perry a run for his money) and provided reliable scoring and leadership, as per usual.

Iginla will need to hash out his plans with Feaster this summer, but has given no indication that he wants to seek greener pastures elsewhere. Iginla is an eternal optimist and thus will view the second-half surge with a glass-half-full perspective. He thinks if the Flames could just get off to a sounder start next season, they have the talent to challenge for a playoff spot.

That may or may not be accurate, but the bottom line is, if Iginla wants to stay, it is unlikely that the Flames will ask him to rethink that position, or actively push him to accept a trade so that the rebuilding can begin.

Iginla has two years remaining on his contract. If the Flames continue that slow steady decline down the ladder, the pivotal moment for him will come at the trading deadline in 2013, as he approaches unrestricted free agency once again. At that point, he will need to decide if his commitment to Calgary remains as strong - or he wants to explore options elsewhere. It is unlikely that any alternative Iginla scenario will be considered, or unfold before then.

Kiprusoff is a different story. He won the usual 30-plus games and was strong again for them in January and February, as they pushed up the standings from 14th and actually got as high as fifth before fading down the stretch.

In an era when teams are becoming less and less anxious to pay goalies big dollars, Kiprusoff's deal - three more years on a six-year contract with a cap hit of $5.833-million - isn't attractive to many teams, especially if Calgary wants quality in return. The only good news is the actual dollars are now shrinking: $6-million next year, $5-million the year after that, $1.5-million in the final year of the deal.

Sadly, the Flames didn't get enough of a look at first-year goaltender Henrik Karlsson to see if he has a starter's ability, demeanour or poise. If they put Kiprusoff in play, that would be interesting.

The same goes for Jay Bouwmeester, who eats up a lot of minutes for the Flames, but makes big bucks and would be difficult to trade, given his inconsistency and the fact that he has been in the NHL for eight years and still hasn't made the playoffs. Moving Bouwmeester would free up salary-cap room and create more flexibility, but it probably couldn't happen unless Calgary took some salary back.

Halfway through the season, there was sentiment in Calgary to support the sort of housecleaning and rebuilding that's going on up the highway in Edmonton. Then the Flames played themselves back into respectability, Edmonton's growing pains got worse, and now? It is more likely that they'll tweak as opposed to blowing everything up and try to get a clearer picture of whether this playoff push was just a bright, short-term mirage, or an indication of what they were really capable of doing. Time will tell.

 

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