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Calgary Flames general manager Darryl Sutter. (Jeff McIntosh)
Calgary Flames general manager Darryl Sutter. (Jeff McIntosh)

Eric Duhatschek

Flames in a freefall, but Sutter's biding his time Add to ...

NHL general manager Darryl Sutter was going on and on about trade rumours the other day - dismissing all the speculation percolating around his Calgary Flames - and, on one level, what's not to believe?

Few NHL teams are in a position to make a blockbuster move this far in advance of the March 3 deadline. With the league shutting down for 16 days in February to compete in the 2010 Winter Olympics, why would any team - tight up against the salary cap - trade for a player three weeks early, given it would be paying him during the Olympic break not to play?

Better, it would seem, to wait until the 11th hour before jumping into the trade frenzy with both feet - if such a thing is deemed necessary at the time.

Much of the speculation surrounding the Flames' role as a major player at the deadline again has been prompted by two factors.

The first was Sutter's recent four-game tour of the Eastern Conference, where his press-box presence in New York and Philadelphia prompted speculation the Rangers and Flyers, respectively, might be prospective trading partners. The second - and larger issue - was his team's poor play of late; the Flames (26-19-6) were mired in a season-high six-game losing skid heading into last night's home date with the St. Louis Blues.

Calgary's freefall in the Western Conference has slid it out of the race for first in the Northwest Division and in need of an expedited turnaround just to stay in the top eight and qualify for the playoffs.

The team is stuck in a scoring funk that begins with captain Jarome Iginla and spreads throughout the forward ranks. Just about everyone this side of Rene Bourque that's been counted on to score goals is in a deep slump.

Part of the problem is the emphasis in Cowtown has been so heavy on defensive responsibility this season that the Flames forwards look conditioned to err on the defensive side of the equation if there is ever any doubt on a play.

With the reins pulled in ever so much tighter than in past years, Iginla hasn't looked so unsure of himself since his second pro season, in 1997-98, when he slumped to 32 points in 70 games playing for then-head coach Brian Sutter. At his current rate of production, Iginla will fall 20 shy of the 94-point average he has posted over the past three seasons.

Iginla runs hot and cold (a 14-goal November bracketed by a grim December, and, thus far, an underachieving January). And it may well be that he gets his act together just in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics, where he will have the luxury of playing with a Team Canada centre (Sidney Crosby, Mike Richards or Jonathan Toews) who might be able to get him the puck in a scoring position more often than the revolving cast of pivots he's played with this season in Calgary.

Logically, if there is a move to be made in Calgary, it is to subtract from their position of relative strength (a deep blueline; on paper, one of the more attractive in the NHL) and add a scorer to the mix.

Iginla needs help - that was the whole point of acquiring Olli Jokinen at last year's deadline. That the chemistry between the two has been mostly non-existent means it is either back to the drawing board for Darryl Sutter - or continue the experiment of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, with predictably uneven results.

Philosophically, Sutter doesn't share much publicly about his intentions. Even last year, as rumours about Jokinen's imminent addition were swirling, he steadfastly denied anything was happening, until he actually pulled the trigger on the deal. So everything he says - or doesn't say - should be taken with a grain of salt.

He will let people know his intentions on his own schedule, which is to say when - or even if - he makes something happen.

Like a lot of GMs, Sutter may be laying the groundwork now. But pulling the trigger on anything significant?

That won't occur until he knows if this current downturn is just a temporary blip - or the first hint the bottom is starting to fall out on a team whose potential for greatness might have been a little oversold this season.

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