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Flames, Oilers ready to battle for Alberta

There is a telling moment early in the documentary Oil Change, which chronicles the ongoing rebuilding of the Edmonton Oilers, that also says something about the challenges facing their provincial rivals, the Calgary Flames, in the months and years ahead.

It is only October, but a caller to the local Edmonton radio station expresses his frustration that - six games into the season - he hasn't seen more progress from this young and much-hyped team of Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and all the rest. Six games into a multi-year reconstruction of the organization's foundation and for some anyway, the bloom was already off the rose.

This, of course, represents the dilemma at the root of any NHL rebuild, large or small: They generally don't come equipped with a magic wand that the new general manager can wave and presto, undo all the sins of the recent past.

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Whenever an organization makes a significant change at the top, as the Flames did this week, there is always that cathartic short-term adrenalin rush in the community - that better days are ahead and maybe even just around the corner. Then the snow falls the next morning again, and the actual work begins - of sloooooooowly changing a culture, a line-up, a development system; in short, of making all the other various and sundry adjustments needed before an organization can get back on the right track.

It is a slow and imprecise process and many times, requires a franchise to take one step backward in order to move two steps ahead. Too often, the transitional regime doesn't ever get the necessary time to effect real change - and pays the price because of the prevailing what-have-you-done-for-me-lately ethic that permeates professional sport (and isn't limited to just impatient radio audiences).

It can be a thankless job and requires someone to go into the undertaking with his eyes wide open - which is where the new interim Calgary general manager Jay Feaster finds himself now.

The Flames play the Oilers Saturday night in Edmonton, and it'll be the second game under Feaster's watch. This past week, the new man spent the first days of the post-Darryl Sutter era outlining his philosophy, which he insists will not involve going all scorched earth in the manner of the Oilers' reconstruction project. That, said Feaster, was not his "MO" and "not the history of the way I've managed."

His message was straightforward and clear and delivered in such a way so that there could be no misunderstanding: The Flames nucleus - consisting of right winger Jarome Iginla, goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff and a decent defence corps of Jay Bouwmeester, Robyn Regehr and Mark Giordano - will stay put for now.

Once Giordano's new contract kicks in next year, the quintet will collectively gobble up around $28-million in annual salary-cap charges, almost half of what a team can spend nowadays. It means that if Feaster plans to hang to all five long-term, his options for change are limited to excising all the peripheral players, also earning too much money, that aren't contributing to their salary levels.

Good luck making that happen.

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In terms of what comes next in Calgary, usually a good indication of how someone will act in the future involves digging into their past behaviour - and Feaster's past involved a long and mostly successful run at the helm of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Indeed, Feaster faced a crisis - of a slightly different variety - coming out of the NHL lockout, which came immediately on the heels of the Lightning's 2004 Stanley Cup championship.

Feaster had a nice core in place - Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards, Vinnie Lecavalier plus goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin. Unhappily for the Lightning, they were the first victims of the hard salary cap that emerged from the 04-05 collective bargaining negotiations - a tight $39.5 million limit on spending that probably hit the Lightning harder than any other team.

With four star players to satisfy in negotiations, Feaster just couldn't shoehorn them all in.

In the end, Feaster made the decision to let Khabibulin leave; signed St. Louis at a fairly attractive hometown discount (considering he was coming off an MVP season); but overpaid to get Richards committed for five more years (a $7.8-million contract that expires following this season, making him a free agent again.

Tampa stayed competitive for the next two years (92 and 93-point seasons) until they got into an ownership jam and then the bottom fell out.

The new guys, Oren Koules and Len Barrie, were decidedly hands on - Lecavalier got essentially a lifetime contract extension for wildly inflated dollars, Dan Boyle was also signed and then jettisoned almost right away and things degenerated to the point where they were bad enough to draft Steven Stamkos as the first overall pick in 2008.

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Feaster raised the Tampa example on his own this past week when asked about his managerial philosophy, noting: "We all build our teams differently and we do it for different reasons."

Interestingly, Feaster conceded that investing all his resources in the so-called 'Big 3' "wasn't necessarily what we believed in. It was the situation we found ourselves in.

"That's important. You have to go into any situation, look at it, evaluate it and then make your decisions."

Which is to say, in the beginning, the most important part of the job is playing the cards you were dealt, even if it is not a particularly attractive hand.

With Feaster unwilling at the moment to even ponder the idea of trading Iginla, it means that the status quo will probably remain in Calgary at least through the trading deadline - at which point, they'll have a clearer idea of whether they can go on a miracle run in January to get back in the playoff picture, or will fall into the category of sellers at the trade deadline.

In recent years, sellers have done pretty well for themselves, if only because there have been so few of them around. This year, with the gap between the top nine and the bottom six in the East getting wider every day - only Carolina appears capable of making a playoff push from the also-rans, it may well be that there will be more players offered into the market than usual, which would dampen demand for the commodities that Calgary and others might potentially put into play.

Once again, deadline day in the NHL figures to be a fascinating time, but maybe for different reasons this time around.

ETC ETC: Had a good chat with Dallas Stars' GM Joe Nieuwendyk just before Christmas about all manner of topics, including the difficulty he has managing a team chugging along at the top of the NHL's most competitive division, with no real owner in place. Nieuwendyk then signed defenceman Trevor Daley to a long-term contract extension this past week and with the sale of the team not imminent, it looks as if he'll get the green light to do more - including open negotiations with Richards to see if they can come to terms on a contract extension. "We're going to try and sign Brad Richards," said Nieuwendyk. "It makes it a challenge though. Brad drives the bus on this. He has the no-trade no-movement, so we'll see how it plays out. It could be a tough call again, but ... that's all right." In the Hockey News' annual list of 100 People Of Power and Influence, Nieuwendyk came in at No. 24. Among NHL GMs, only Ken Holland (Detroit), Steve Yzerman (Tampa), Brian Burke (Toronto) and Lou Lamoriello (New Jersey) came in higher - heady company considering he's only been in the job since May, 2009. Nieuwendyk's long-time childhood friend, Gary Roberts, also cracked the list at No. 54, for his contributions in training some of the NHL's emerging young stars, including Tampa's Steven Stamkos and the Stars' own James Neal. This past year, Nieuwendyk hired Roberts as a consultant to work with the Stars' young players - and according to Nieuwendyk, it means the two are in closer touch than they've been in years, texting each other back and forth, running ideas past each other.

THE GOALIE WATCH: Philadelphia goaltender Michael Leighton finally made his regular-season debut Thursday - and it was a wild one: a 7-4 Flyers' victory over the Los Angeles Kings in which all the rust that you would expect to see in his game was on display, especially early. Leighton gave up a bad-angle goal to Ryan Smyth to start the game, but the Flyers - who'd been outscored 11-2 in their previous two games - rallied from behind and eventually drove Leighton's counterpart, Jonathan Bernier, out of the net, by pumping four second-period goals past him. Philadelphia is capable of that sort of offensive outburst on any given night because of its scoring depth, but the fact that they did it in support of Leighton in his comeback was a telling development. Chris Pronger always talked about this last spring: How Leighton was an extremely popular figure in the Flyers' dressing room last year - and that is was his arrival, on waivers, from Carolina, that essentially saved their season. Leighton ended up with an 8-3 playoff record and helped get the Flyers to within two wins of the Stanley Cup. In fact, Leighton's last appearance was that overtime game back in the finals back in June when Patrick Kane's bad-angle shot clinched the Cup for the Chicago Blackhawks. Leighton had been sidelined ever since after undergoing back surgery in October.

SHARK ATTACK: Many will remember how Chicago advanced to the final last year by sweeping the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference final. This year, the Sharks have completely turned the tables on the Blackhawks. Their 5-3 victory over Chicago Thursday night means San Jose is 3-0 against the Blackhawks this season, with only one game remaining between the teams this season - Mar. 14. San Jose has had two epic collapses in its previous outings - the first of which cost them a 5-3 win over Minnesota Wednesday night. But after giving up two late second-period goals vs. Chicago, team captain Joe Thornton rallied the troops at the start of the third and produced the winning goal himself, his 10th of the year.

AND FINALLY: New Jersey's Martin Brodeur gets the day off today against Atlanta, but is scheduled to get back between the pipes for a New Year's Day tilt against Carolina. Brodeur has only one win in nine tries since returning to the Devils' line-up after recovering from an elbow injury - and needs the start of 2011 to be far better than the finish of 2010, if the Devils have any hope of salvaging something from this season.

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