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Friday, September 28, 2007
Updated: September 30, 4:05 PM ET
2007-08 Team Preview: Calgary Flames

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Mike Keenan takes on his eighth NHL head-coaching position this season in Calgary.

The Starting Line

By Scott Burnside

Of all the personnel movements this offseason, perhaps none will have as big an impact as the Flames' shocking decision to hire Mike Keenan as coach. All that remains to be seen is whether that impact will be wildly positive or horrifically negative, because with Keenan, there is rarely a middle ground.

Keenan's arrival coincided with a remaking of the Flames' back end and stars Jarome Iginla and Robyn Regehr signing long-term contracts. Next, Flames GM Darryl Sutter will turn his attention to keeping all-world netminder Miikka Kiprusoff from becoming an unrestricted free agent next summer. Kiprusoff started training camp by saying he wants to remain in Calgary. Wonder if he'll feel the same way after being yanked by the mercurial Keenan a few times.

The key for Keenan will be in reinforcing the hard-nosed identity that characterized the Flames teams when Sutter was coach. The Flames stuttered their way down the stretch and nearly fell out of the playoffs altogether. They had the third-best home record in the conference, but were a dreadful 13-20-8 on the road and a symbol of the team's lack of cohesion. They were dismissed easily by Detroit in a six-game first-round series whose length flattered the disorganized-looking Flames.

OFFENSE
It seems almost heretical, but the normally conservative Flames ranked seventh overall in goals per game last season. Led by Iginla, who had 39 goals and 94 points, the Flames boasted three 30-goal scorers as both Kristian Huselius and Daymond Langkow enjoyed career years. Matthew Lombardi also enjoyed a breakout campaign with 20 goals. Dion Phaneuf followed up his stellar rookie season with 17 goals, 13 on a power play which ranked 11th overall.

There's no reason to suggest the Flames' goal totals should decline this season, especially if center Craig Conroy can bounce back after a disappointing 13-goal campaign in his return to Calgary. It will be interesting to see how Owen Nolan fits in after slowly getting his legs under him in Phoenix last season following an almost three-year absence from the game. Is it too much to expect Huselius, Langkow and Lombardi to replicate their success? Even if they slide back slightly, the Flames are deep enough up front to be in the hunt for the division crown.

DEFENSE
There have been significant changes to the Flames' defensive personnel since last season and Keenan is expected to infuse an attitudinal change as well. Adrian Aucoin, who played for Keenan in Vancouver, comes over after two miserable seasons in Chicago. Cory Sarich, a mainstay on the Tampa Bay blue line, will add size and physicality in place of Brad Stuart, who is now in Los Angeles, and Roman Hamrlik, now in Montreal. If Aucoin can regain his form, and another newcomer, veteran Anders Eriksson, eats up 15-20 minutes a night in ice time, the Flames should be significantly more difficult to play against in their own end. Regehr remains a rock, and along with Phaneuf, gives the Flames one of the best 1-2 defensive punches in the game. Regehr led the team at plus-27 when he went down after playing just 11:15 into their opening playoff game vs. Detroit. The newcomers should also help a penalty-killing unit that was ranked 22nd last season.

GOALTENDING
When it comes to Kiprusoff, it's all about degrees of greatness, and last season the stoic Finn was just a couple of degrees off. After claiming his first Vezina Trophy as the league's top goaltender in 2006, Kiprusoff saw his goals-against average jump from a league-best 2.07 to 2.46 last season. He still collected 40 wins, just two off the pace of 2005-06, and had seven shutouts, three fewer than 2005-06. Still, Kiprusoff was once again a Vezina finalist. There's no reason to suggest he can't once again be among the league leaders in most goaltending categories, especially with the Flames expected to play better defensively in front of him. With Kiprusoff likely to play in excess of 70 games, backup duties will once again be inconsequential, but they will fall to one of two newcomers: Curtis McElhinney and Brent Krahn.

COACHING
Keenan supporters (apologists?) will point to this Flames team and note it's the most talented Keenan has had at his disposal since the 1994 New York Rangers club he led to the Stanley Cup. Maybe. But one thing is clear: Keenan has not coached a team to a playoff round victory since that seminal run in New York. Worse, he has left most of the teams he's coached since in tatters, often feuding with management and players alike. Keenan's long-standing relationship with Sutter should keep things on an even keel at least for the first week or so.

And the fact that this is a veteran team means Keenan's rantings might not have the detrimental effect they would have had on a younger team (see the Florida Panthers in a previous Keenan performance). The belief, accurate or not, is with Keenan it will be either boom or bust, and there is no middle ground for the veteran hockey man. In a Northwest Division that once again promises to be as close as can be, the Keenan saga should provide some interesting story lines.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.

CALGARY FLAMES

EXTRA CREDITS
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LAST-SEASON REVIEW
• Record: 43-29-10
• Division: Third in the Northwest
• Conference: Eighth in the West
• Playoffs: Ousted in the first round by Detroit



PLAYERS TO WATCH

Kiprusoff

Goalie: Miikka Kiprusoff
The issue with Kiprusoff won't necessarily be how he plays (the expectation is he'll be great), but whether he signs for the long haul in Calgary. On the open market, a talent like Kiprusoff would fetch $7 million-plus.

Defenseman: Adrian Aucoin
The 34-year-old used to be one of the league's big-time minute munchers. Plagued by injury and inconsistent play in Chicago the past two seasons, the Ottawa native is looking to re-establish himself as a top NHL defender.

Forward: Owen Nolan
The former San Jose captain will bring some snarl to the Flames' third or fourth lines, but can he rediscover his scoring touch? He was much better in the latter part of last season in Phoenix.

MORE FROM BURNSIDE

Buzz Cut
The mantra "win now" has been bandied about in Calgary since Keenan's arrival. If the season goes bust as so many of Keenan's have in the past, what does that do to Sutter's credibility and future with the club?

Where They Will Finish
The Flames will finish third in the Northwest Division and sixth in the Western Conference.

ESPN VIDEO

SPORTSNATION

Where do you think the Minnesota Wild will finish this time around? Who will lead the Wild in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench? Vote now!

FANTASY TAKE

Iginla

Daymond Langkow and Kristian Huselius should ride Jarome Iginla to fantasy glory for another season, while Dion Phaneuf is a decent No. 1 defenseman. Miikka Kiprusoff is still a top-five goalie, but the absence of Roman Hamrlik could hurt his numbers slightly. Adrian Aucoin is a good gamble for most leagues. Aucoin still possesses a massive point shot and looks to be healthy for the first time in a while. Owen Nolan also represents a fantasy gamble in late rounds. -- Sean Allen

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