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The day they hired Craig Button as their general manager, the Calgary Flames spoke optimistically of getting one of the bright young minds in hockey, a man who would grow with the organization and learn the job on the job.

The Flames understood there was a risk attached to this approach; that there would, of necessity, be a learning curve involved for Button. And they were prepared to live that.

As promised, Button made his share of miscues and errors along the way, but in the last half of this season, he seemed to be figuring it out. His trades were receiving good reviews (Chris Drury, acquired from Colorado, looks as if he'll be the team's No. 1 centre under new GM/head coach Darryl Sutter's regime), his free-agent signings, Martin Gelinas and Bob Boughner, introduced some important veteran stability to the lineup.

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Once the Flames got past Christmas and installed Sutter as their new head coach, the team played above .500 hockey and looked to be heading in the right direction.

Which is why yesterday's decision -- not to exercise the option on Button's contract, effectively firing him after three years in the job, and handing the GM's duties to Sutter -- made little sense.

Nowadays, successful National Hockey League teams primarily need stability -- something that has been in short supply in Calgary for the better part of a decade, ever since Cliff Fletcher resigned in 1991 and subsequently joined the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Fletcher's replacement, Doug Risebrough -- now in charge of the Minnesota Wild -- struggled in his first turn as a general manager, too (trading away, among others, an in-his-prime Doug Gilmour for Gary Leeman, who scored all of 11 goals in 59 games for Calgary).

Risebrough's replacement, Al Coates, had his share of ups and downs as well and eventually lost his job, largely because of drafting errors. Button's strength was player development (he cut his teeth as an NHL scout) and the general sense was that the team had started to put some prospects back into the organization the past two seasons.

None of which mattered much yesterday morning, when the club -- clearly looking for someone to push overboard to pay the price for another year of missing the playoffs -- made Button the target.

The case against Button largely revolved around a move made early in his tenure: the decision to trade away goaltending prospect Jean-Sébastien Giguere before the 2000 expansion draft.

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Giguere made a record 63 saves in his NHL playoff debut Thursday night for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, during a 2-1 win in triple overtime in which he was the game's No. 1 star. Giguere has developed nicely after landing in Anaheim and getting a chance to work with François Allaire, one of the top goalie coaches in the league.

Calgary hasn't had much of a record in developing goaltenders, dating back to Risebrough's regime. They were the first of three NHL teams to give Minnesota's Dwayne Roloson his outright release (in July of 1998, they replaced him with an over-the-hill Ken Wregget, mostly on the urging of Sutter's brother Brian, then the team's head coach). Roloson's goaltending was the primary reason why the Wild knocked off the Colorado Avalanche 4-2 Thursday night in another opening-night upset.

Button thought he'd settled the team's goaltending down, once and for all, early last season, when Roman Turek came over in a trade from St. Louis and played spectacularly for the first two months.

A pending unrestricted free agent, the Flames moved quickly to lock up Turek, signing him to a four-year, $19-million (U.S.) contract extension in November of 2001. Sadly, Turek's play immediately tailed off, to the point where it was the single biggest contributing factor to the team's struggles since.

Lanny McDonald, the executive assistant to hockey operations, resigned yesterday, and Dan Stuchal, assistant to the GM, was also let go. Without that trio, the Flames will be forced to significantly revamp their front office.

The club's new GM, Sutter, has no experience in negotiating contracts and the Flames have 14 restricted free agents (Drury and defencemen Toni Lydman and Robyn Regehr being the most important), plus two unrestricteds (Dave Lowry and Craig Berube).

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Sutter indicated that he would handle the bulk of contract negotiations, with an assist from Michael Holditch, Calgary's new vice-president of hockey operations, and Michael Burke, who handled contracts in Coates's regime and now will get back some of his former responsibility.

The team plans to hire a player-personnel director, who will move in as the No. 2 man behind Sutter in the hockey operations department, shortly.

Interestingly, team president Ken King spent most of yesterday's press conference praising Button's work, saying that he left the organization in better shape than when he arrived three years ago.

"This is about the future," King said.

"This is not about where we were, it's about where we're going to be."

For more than a decade now, the pattern in Calgary hasn't varied much.

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Every time it looks as if the organization is about to take a step forward, it reverses field and takes two steps back.

For long-suffering Flames fans, yesterday's purge just look likes more of the same old, same old.

Eric Duhatschek writes a daily hockey column for globeandmail.com.

eduhatschek@globeandmail.ca

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