By Mike Smith
To all you bandwagon hoppers out there, it’s time to get back on the Calgary Flames buggy. With a big off-season and new, highly-touted prospects in camp, the Flames will be a force to be reckoned with in the always tense race to top the Western Conference.
Coming into the pre-season, it looked as if the Flames were going to tough it out with the same roster that earned them non-playoff status last year. The team was first in the whole NHL at the regular season half, but then suffered a nine-game, almost month-and-a-half long losing streak. A losing streak that they could not re-group from. The Flames continued the losing trend for the remainder of last season, putting the occasional game in the win column.
Well Flames fans, if you are thinking a sports revolution is needed, Flames general manager Darryl Sutter is considering it. Almost halfway through training camp, many prospects and youngsters are still with the big club. The Flames pre-season even produced the slogan “jobs are on the line.” Sutter isn’t going to rely on the same team as last year, the one that missed the playoffs for the first time since the Flames’ run to the cup in the 2003/04 campaign. He is showing his roster regulars that there are guys in the system who would be more than happy to take their spot.
This is a great move by Sutter for many reasons. For one, it puts pressure on guys who disappointed the Flames last year. Also, it gives new prospects the opportunity to actually make an NHL team, kind of like hanging a carrot in front of a rabbit. Prospects will come into every training event going their hardest in the hope of claiming a full-time position with the Flames.
Two prospects have a very high chance of making the Flames squad this year. They are centre Mikael Backlund and offensive defenseman T.J. Brodie. Backlund is expected to make the squad as a shoo-in as he has over 20 games of experience from last season and has been impressive throughout training camp. Brodie, a fourth-round pick back in 2008, seemingly came out of nowhere. He has done everything at this year’s training camp to impress the scouts, coaches and whoever else was watching. Brodie knows how to play in both ends of the rink and he showed it during his first home game this pre-season. Putting two past the goaltender and making an amazing, veteran-like block should alone be enough to earn him a spot on the third defensive pairing this coming year. Along with an outstanding performance in a game setting, he has a tremendous work ethic on and off the ice.
After a huge controversial trade, Ales Kotalik silenced haters after playing a consistent game and putting a goal on the board against Tampa Bay on Sept. 25. More important, it shows he is happy to be here and is going to put in an effort to help the team win. Adding the icing on the cake, Kotalik played hero and won the preseason bout versus the Tampa Bay Lightning in a shootout on a perfectly placed snapshot right under the arm of Lightning goalie Cedrick Desjardins.
Expected to be the back-up to Mikka Kiprusoff, Henrik Karlsson showed he deserves that spot during an exhibition game in Vancouver. Posting a perfect 1.000 save percentage in his first ever NHL game, this shows he is ready to step in between the pipes when given the nod by head coach Brent Sutter.
The decision to go with the same looking team on paper as last year, in my opinion, is a good one. People don’t remember when the Flames were atop the league, sittin’ pretty at the halfway point of the season before a tragic series of events brought them back to earth. The Dion Phaneuf era has rightfully ended in Calgary, as he was a cancer in the dressing room and something had to be done. With three of the four guys returning from the big blockbuster trade last season, the Flames will have gelled nicely and be ready for war by the start of the regular season.
My prediction? A northwest division title and a second place conference finish. As for the playoffs? I will say they have the ability to win the cup. We’ll all have to wait and see. The road to glory begins Oct. 10.