In the aftermath of their six-game losing streak, which was predictably extended by a 3-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, it is reasonable to ask: How good are the Calgary Flames really? And if they're not very good, then what do the Flames do next, either try to salvage the season, or put into place a plan that will take them to another level?
The problem is that the Flames have drafted so badly for so long that the kind of optimism that you see in Chicago, or Colorado, or even the New York Islanders, based on the exciting young players dotting their respective line-ups doesn't resonate in Calgary. The last first-round pick to play regularly for them is Dion Phaneuf, ninth overall in 2003. Kris Chucko, Matt Pelech and Leland Irving - first picks from 2004 to 2006 - may never be NHL regulars; and it remains to be seen how well Mikael Backlund, Greg Nemisz and Tim Erixon will develop.
Forget about 2010 as well; the Phoenix Coyotes own that pick, part of the package of players and draft choices Calgary surrendered to acquired Olli Jokinen at last year's trading deadline.
The future clearly doesn't look bright, which is why the Sutter clan is trying to make the most of the present - because if you put the focus on what may happen down the road, things look grim indeed. In the present, Calgary has a decent-enough nucleus to play a certain way - all defence, all the time. They have a front-line goaltender in the midst of an excellent season, Miikka Kiprusoff. They have one elite defenceman, Jay Bouwmeester, and two that are mistake-prone, but not bad - Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr. Mark Giordano is young, cheap and decent, but Cory Sarich - signed for big bucks coming out of the lockout - seems to have lost a step and is now playing as the team's No. 5 defenceman, not high enough on the depth chart to justify a $3.6-million cap charge.
Up front, team captain Jarome Iginla has had a wildly inconsistent season - red hot in November, ice cold in October, December and into January. Iginla's overall numbers aren't bad (43 points in 50 games) but far too often, he's played on the perimeter, and not as engaged physically as he needs to be on the nights when he dominates.
Years ago, the Vancouver Canucks figured out that the best way to defend against Iginla was to play a contain style of defence against him, but not put the body on him. Iginla is always most effective when he gets his blood up - and in the early days, teams played right into Calgary's hands by matching physical rearguards against Iginla, who would rise to the challenge. Now, they've figured it out. Teams leave Iginla alone. They just cut off his passing lanes and force him to move the puck. Rarely does he ever come out of the corner with the puck any more a la Daniel Sedin or Marian Hossa.
And with no other high-end offensive threat, if teams take Iginla out of his game - no points in 21 of his first 50 games - the secondary scoring hasn't been able to pick up the slack. In the first month, Calgary received unexpected scoring from the likes of Eric Nystrom, Dustin Boyd or Nigel Dawes. When that predictably dried up, they were in trouble. Calgary averaged just over three goals a game for their first 20 games and just over two goals a game in the next 30.
When you want to win 2-1 every night - low-scoring, low-chance games - that one extra goal they're not scoring now is frequently the difference between winning and losing.
What's intriguing about the Flames is that their personnel and the grinding style they play might make them a difficult first-round opponent, assuming they actually get to the playoffs, which based on their recent play, is no sure thing.