Unlike their rising stars to the north, where the excitement surrounding the youthful Edmonton Oilers is palpable and maybe even beyond rational exuberance, the Calgary Flames come into the shortened 2012-13 season dealing with the lowest of outside expectations. Sports oddsmakers have installed them as 50-1 long-shots to win the Stanley Cup and only three teams – the Columbus Blue Jackets, the New York Islanders and the Winnipeg Jets – face longer odds.
Their captain, Jarome Iginla, is – after all – a notorious slow starter, in a transitional year in which his contract is set to expire and nursing a minor groin pull. The player they signed to step in as their No. 1 centre, free-agent Roman Cervenka, is sidelined indefinitely with a blood clot is in his leg. Their newest sniper up front, Jiri Hudler, reported for duty Monday, and then informed the team he had to go back to the Czech Republic to deal with an illness to his father. There is a new coach, Bob Hartley, who could have used a real training camp to teach his systems and theories to the team, instead of having to introduce them on the fly.
Around the NHL, all those early complications make the Flames an easy team to dismiss. People wonder: How can they possibly succeed when their best-laid off-season plans seem to have already been undermined by the timing of the lockout and now Cervenka’s injury?
As a team, Calgary finds itself in that unsexy middle of the pack, a no-man’s land that nobody wants to inhabit. For three years in a row now, they have been unable to get a playoff spot and for the four years before that, they lost in the first round. The Flames are never really terrible. They never had fewer than 90 points in any season between the last two lockouts, a standard that only the Detroit Red Wings and the San Jose Sharks also achieved in those same seven seasons.
The problem is they are never really good enough to excite anyone either – and that is an issue. While just all the contenders now went back to the starting blocks at some stage in their development, the Flames are just steady as she goes.
It’s doesn’t make for a great marketing slogan, does it?
We’re gonna be – you know – all right.
They are a veteran team that looked stale at times last year, and yet they have a decent complement of forwards (Iginla, Alex Tanguay, Michael Cammalleri), plus three defencemen perfectly suited to take advantage of any post-lockout obstruction crackdown that they come (Mark Giordano, Jay Bouwmeester and Dennis Wideman) plus a stellar goalie in Miikka Kiprusoff.
In short, they are not as bad as the public perception of them seems to be.
“You hear it,” said Cammalleri. “We’re all fans of the game. I turn on the sports channels at night. Does it bother you? No. On a personal level, anybody who’s got to this level in their careers has probably had a lot of people tell them what they couldn’t do at some point or other.
“Really, what it comes to do is, the experts and fans can make whatever predictions they want, but the bottom line is, this is the consummate team sport. So it’s a matter of, ‘how good a team can you become?’ not ‘how good do you look on paper?’ I truly believe that. So saying that, we have just as good a chance as anybody, and anybody has just as good a chance as us.”
Tanguay, who is playing centre in Cervenka’s absence, has had two productive years since returning to Calgary. Cammalleri, another repatriation project, had 19 points in 28 games after coming over mid-season from the Montreal Canadiens. In his last full season with the Flames, Cammalleri scored 39 goals.
On a veteran team, the lack of pressure may be just what they need to succeed, where in other years they’ve fallen short.
“Sometimes, the teams that have a lot of pressure on themselves, it can wear on them,” said Giordano, who pointed out that the Flames have one secret weapon, Kiprusoff’s goaltending, that sometimes gets curiously overlooked.
“If we make playoffs, I think he definitely gets considered for the Vézina,” said Giordano. “He was great all of last year – our most consistent player and our best player most nights. I don’t know if people just expect that from him. That’s part of it.
“The other part is, we have to get into the playoffs. When teams get in the playoffs, that’s where most of the recognition comes from.”
As Hartley noted Monday, in off-season interviews with the team’s veteran players, he heard one word – redemption – over and over again from the mainstays.
“Three years without playoffs is a very long time,” said Hartley. “I told the players, whatever you’ve accomplished as a team, it wasn’t good enough. The passing grade in the NHL is to be in the playoffs – and it’s quite difficult. I learned this in Atlanta. To be a playoff team, nobody makes you gifts. You have to earn your spot to the big dance.”