Hope and despair: A look back at the Flames season

By Taylor McKee

Being a Flames fan can sometimes feel as though one is in a long-term, emotionally abusive relationship. One week you can be over the moon and the very next week prowling through next year’s list of draft-eligible players looking for prospects. Throughout the course of a season, there are inevitably moments when you are quite positive that this team has what it takes, this year will be different, we have such solid goaltending, etc. Then you wonder why you ever thought things would change at all. The 2010-11 edition of the soap opera known as Flames hockey was simultaneously one of the most thrilling and heart wrenchingly disappointing 82 games I have ever seen. It was enough to make you want to buy a Red Wings jersey — almost.

Driving through Saskatchewan on July 1, 2010, I became acutely aware that this season might in fact be an interesting one. Listening to the evisceration doled out by callers via satellite radio, my friends and I were silent as we heard the Flames had re-signed Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay, apparently all but guaranteeing hockey misery for the foreseeable future. An uneasy dread spanned the remainder of the car ride and the summer leading up to October. Pre-season prognostications varied from 14th to sixth in the Western Conference for a team labeled too old, too slow and un-exciting — the Flames were left for dead. Game one of the season featured a humiliating 4-0 defeat at the hands of the Oilers in Edmonton. As it would turn out, this victory would be the most significant of Edmonton’s season. Nothing can make you question a whole season after game one quite like losing to the Oilers who, for perspective, have won 52 games out of the last 164 while Vancouver won 54 this season. The Flames were 17-18-3 going into January and seemed destined to vindicate their naysayers.

The well-documented recovery just before Christmas time is often attributed to a third period comeback during a road game in Dallas. Alex Tanguay beat Kari Lehtonen high blocker with an extra attacker to force overtime, later winning the game in the shootout for the Flames. The season was still in disarray at that point and the victory seemed meaningless, but the rhetoric surrounding the team suggested they still believed they could turn the year around, despite the fact that they were in 14th place in the West. After Christmas, the Flames were simply a different team. Daryl Sutter stepped down as general manager on Dec. 28, poetically, eight years to the day after taking the position in 2002. Jay Feaster replaced him as acting GM — a post he currently still holds on a provisional basis. The Sutter era produced stars through free agency trade and even occasionally drafting. Kiprusoff, Phaneuf, Bouwmeester, Bourque, Glencross, Cammalleri, Backlund and Tanguay all came through during his tenure. However, the success was cancelled out by Kotalik, Jokinen, the contracts of Staios and Stajan, the legacy of the Phaneuf trade and the inability to resist the temptation to trade away draft picks during an age when star talent is cultivated through the draft. Nevertheless, the Flames responded to the change of management by becoming one the NHL’s elite teams in the second half of the season, giving the Flames a hope of post-season hockey. January and February saw the Flames go 15-5-6, including a victory at the Heritage Classic against Montreal. The team was getting significant contributions from players expected to be bench warmers: Morrison, Jackman, Kostopolous and even Steve Staios, and anchored by the leadership of Iginla, Regher and Kiprusoff. A road trip to the Pacific coast and a home loss against Anaheim all but nullified their previous efforts — the Flames finished a disappointing 10th in the West.

So now what? The autopsies being conducted on this season point to the mind-numbingly blase performances early in the season. The question of individual performances also vexes as Curtis Glencross, Alex Tanguay, Brendan Morrison and Anton Babchuk all posted fantastic numbers and are naturally unrestricted free agents come July 1. The way that Feaster spends the little money available to him will determine if the aging Flames can avoid approaching future seasons without looking at scouting junior games for possible draf picks. Glencross’s performance this year will surely warrant a raise, but what Tanguay and Babchuk bring to the roster is far more valuable than Glencross’s speed and physicality. Babchuk’s heavy shot on the power play was instrumental in producing the eighth-ranked unit in the league and Tanguay was an invaluable part of another 40-goal season for Iginla with 47 assists.

After two consecutive seasons of April golfing, expectations are high and the margin for error slim as Feaster inherits a team with little cap space, seemingly ubiquitous no-trade clauses and serious consistency issues. This season was thrilling, frustrating and ultimately disappointing from a team that has found a new way to break the already bruised hearts of every Flames fan in yet another spring.

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