The Calgary Flames exist in a strange limbo: Good enough to pretend to have playoff aspirations while finishing as repeat runners-up in one of the NHL's weakest divisions, but not good enough to realize those aspirations and make anyone think that finish meant anything.
Lately second place in the Northwest Division has meant nothing but runner-up to the Vancouver Canucks and outsider to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Flames missed the playoffs all three seasons of Brent Sutter's tenure at the helm.
The most pragmatic of Flames fans think aging franchise icon Jarome Iginla should have been traded yesterday -- or yesteryear -- to ignite a rebuild. The optimistic ones see Iginla as a still-vintage cornerstone to the Flames' revival, if only the rest of the team would fall into place like it's 2004.
Flames GM Jay Feaster has taken the approach of faith in what he inherited and in what he has added: Resisting the cynical lose-to-win approach of his Alberta rivals in Edmonton, Feaster has sought to retool rather than rebuild. To his credit, he secured an accomplished coach to replace Brent Sutter by hiring Bob Hartley.
No doubt this summer Feaster was encouraged by the success of the Los Angeles Kings under ex-Flames coach Darryl Sutter, the first eighth seed to win the Stanley Cup -- even if their underlying numbers entering the playoffs suggested they were much better than an eighth seed -- and a team that was in a dogfight for the playoffs with the Flames and others until the final weeks of the season.
I'm Jay Feaz I Got D-Men Galore / You May Have A Lot Of D-Men But I Got Much More
The assumption through much of the summer, particularly after the five-year, $26.25 million addition of Dennis Wideman and the rather over-extension of Cory Sarich, was that the Flames and Jay Boewmeester's $6.68 million cap hit would soon part. Perhaps that was the wrong assumption though. Certainly, it hasn't come true yet.
Maybe that's because Feaster never found an adequate offer for Bouwmeester, or maybe that's because he knows Bouwmeester is good (if overpaid) and getting rid of good defensemen is generally frowned upon if one is seeking to win. If Boewmeester stays put -- and the Flames do have 23 roster players signed with a little rainy day breathing room under the cap -- then he's a key anchor in some organizational depth at the position. The Flames have eight defensemen on one-way contracts.
Up front, the Flames have been active: Jiri Hudler was the big splash at four years, $16 million, while his countryman Roman Cervenka was coaxed over to these shores (or tar sands) at age 26 on an incentive-laden one-year entry level contract. Lee Stempniak was retained for two years at an average of $2.5 million, while waiver salvage Blake Comeau was also kept at a 50 percent discount to his formerly Stempniak-level salary.
Among the departures, Olli Jokinen is the most significant, but the Flames have strong hopes that Cervenka and Hudler more than make up for that loss.
Put it all together, and the Flames have tweaked but not overhauled their roster. The addition of a new coach may be just as important. While Wideman is an expensive UFA-priced addition, Cervenka is a low-risk wild card. It should be good enough for bubble work. It will not be good enough to imitate the Kings.
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