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.
And if they miss, then it will be up to ownership to make a hard decision. Almost from the moment Darryl Sutter arrived to coach and then manage the team, the front-office motto has been In Darryl We Trust. That trust may start to slip, if the Calgary slide becomes a Calgary freefall.
RUMORS DU JOUR: There's something admirable about the way the Carolina Hurricanes are going about their rebuilding phase, without any pretence about their prospects for the current season, which are lost anyway. First, they installed Eric Staal as captain in place of Rod Brind'Amour, so he can adjust to the yoke of leadership, with comparatively little stress. Secondly, they've acknowledged publicly via general manager Jim Rutherford what everybody knew already - they will be sellers at this year's NHL trading deadline and that any number of veteran players with Stanley Cup championships on their resumes (Ray Whitney, Matt Cullen, Scott Walker, Joe Corvo, Niclas Wallin) will be available to the highest bidder. In recent years, teams have paid a premium for 11th-hour help just because the buyers vastly outnumbered the sellers. This year, the separation between the good and the bad came earlier in half-a-dozen precincts, meaning the market could be deeper than it has been.
FURTHERMORE: If the Atlanta Thrashers do make Ilya Kovalchuk available, but at the same time, do not want to wave the white flag on their season, would they have any interest in the Maple Leafs' Alexei Ponikarovsky? Ponikarovsky and Nik Antropov had some chemistry before in Toronto; he might be a short term fit in Atlanta and maybe that would permit the Leafs to get a first-round draft pick in return … And if we're fuelling wild trade talk in Leaf Nation anyway, would the Pittsburgh Penguins ever make a meaningful offer to Toronto for Nikolai Kulemin, with a view to reuniting him with reigning scoring champion Evgeni Malkin? Kulemin and Malkin were linemates during the latter's final year in Russia; and the fact that the Penguins didn't grab Petr Sykora off waivers this week suggests they have different ideas about how to bolster their flanks for a possible Stanley Cup defence. Kulemin has been solid for the Leafs this season, but he is a restricted free agent and if he gets to July 1 unsigned, the KHL will presumably figure into the equation as well.
FINN STAYING PUT?: Teemu Selanne will almost certainly retire after this season as an Anaheim Duck and the only reason that any one thinks he might not is if the Los Angeles Kings make an offer on his services. Selanne doesn't want to leave southern California, but with the Kings, he wouldn't have to. And the man running Los Angeles, general manager Dean Lombardi, made that deal once before. That was at the 2001 trading deadline when Lombardi, then in charge of the San Jose Sharks, gave the Ducks Jeff Friesen, Steve Shields and a second-round pick, in exchange for Selanne. History - not often but sometimes - does repeat … Calgary, meanwhile, is desperate for additional scoring, but would they ever take underachieving Alex Tanguay off of Tampa's hands? Tanguay did 81 points (and 59 assists) in his first of two seasons with the Flames and might be the set-up man Iginla so desperately lacks. Of course, Tanguay was supposed to be the set-up man that Vincent Lecavalier lacked with the Lightning - and that hasn't worked out so well either … The Thrashers' Colby Armstrong was linked to the Flames in trade talks this past week and why wouldn't they take the former Red Deer Rebel? Armstrong scored for the first time in 19 games Thursday vs. Carolina. With those kinds of numbers, he'd be a perfect fit in Calgary … Flames' general manager Darryl Sutter was in Philadelphia last night to scout the Rangers-Flyers' game, but sources indicate there is nothing brewing between the teams, even though Philly could use a depth defenceman and Calgary has oodles of them to spare.
SEEING STARS: This will be Joe Nieuwendyk's first trading deadline as the Dallas Stars' general manager and his weightiest decision will revolve around goaltender Marty Turco, who is on an expiring contract and probably won't be re-signed by the Stars. If the Stars opt to go younger in goal, two possible options are the Montreal Canadiens' Jaroslav Halak or the Thrashers' Kari Lehtonen. But what if Dallas decides to go back to its future and re-sign Dan Ellis, who likely will be the odd man out in Nashville. Ellis is an unrestricted free agent. In 2007, the Stars let Ellis - a player they chose 60th overall in the 2000 entry draft - walk away for nothing. This would be a way of remedying that miscue - and his acquisition cost would be considerably less than what either Montreal or Atlanta would ask for their young back-ups.
THIS AND THAT: The Bruins' Patrice Bergeron returned to the line-up after missing time with a broken thumb and scored in his first game back Thursday, good news for Canada's men's Olympic hockey team. The Senators' Milan Michalek, out since early January with a concussion, scored in his return to the line-up, good news for the Czech Republic's Olympic team … And Todd Bertuzzi who, once upon a time played for Canada's 2006 Olympic team, is up to 14 goals for the Detroit Red Wings and looks as if he'll be rewarded with a contract extension …The situation in the big Pittsburgh-Washington shootout the other night: Caps are leading by a goal early in the third and are awarded a power play. With Mike Green missing because of an undisclosed injury, coach Bruce Boudreau sends out five forwards - Mike Knuble, Tomas Fleischman and Nicklas Backstrom up front; Alex Ovechkin and Brendan Morrison on the point. The Caps scored almost immediately - and this with Alex Semin and Brooks Laich, who usually sets up in front of the goal with the man advantage, on the bench. Jose Theodore v. Brent Johnson probably wasn't the goaltending match-up that you'll see if these teams meet in the playoffs, but it sure made for a fun game.
AND FINALLY: On the same day the Montreal Canadiens fired Georges Laraque, the NHL players association announced a charity initiative to support the people of earthquake ravaged Haiti with a donation of $100,000. The PA is working with World Vision Canada and Laraque, who was born in Montreal, but traces his roots to Haiti, to help rebuild the shattered Caribbean island. Beyond its initial donation, the NHLPA is also running an online memorabilia auction - beginning next Monday - through its website, www.nhlpa.com , featuring Winter Classic jerseys worn over the past two years by Pavel Datsyuk, Patrice Bergeron, Chris Pronger and Brent Seabrook. Other items will include autographed Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin jerseys, autographed game-used sticks from Scott Gomez and Andrei Markov, as well as numerous framed autographed photos of NHL players. In a statement, Laraque, whose family in Haiti has been directly impacted by this earthquake, noted: "I'm extremely proud that the hockey community, including NHL players and fans, are uniting through Hockey for Haiti to make significant contributions toward this cause. Please open up your heart to these people. This is our chance to do something big to help a nation rebuild itself."