Commentary

As Flames continue to struggle, all eyes are on Iron Mike

Updated: November 12, 2007, 3:59 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Wondering how that Mike Keenan experiment is working out in Calgary?

With a desultory 4-2 loss Saturday night to arguably the NHL's worst team, the Edmonton Oilers, the Flames have now lost five straight games. They are 6-8-3 and sit 12th in the Western Conference, just two points ahead of bottom-dwelling Edmonton.

Mike Keenan
AP Photo/Jeff McIntosh,CPCoach Mike Keenan and the Flames are off to a 6-8-3 start.

Over the course of the five-game losing streak, the mighty Flames have managed just seven goals.

Guess everyone on the Red Mile can stop worrying about getting parking for the Stanley Cup parade.

Saturday's loss was particularly galling given that it came on home ice, where the Flames are a pedestrian 4-5-2. It's a stark departure from last season, when the Flames were one of the best home teams in the league.

When GM Darryl Sutter deposed Jim Playfair as coach after one season and installed Iron Mike, the thinking was that the Flames had to get back to the hard-nosed play that saw them advance to the 2004 Stanley Cup finals. Sutter, whose relationship with Keenan extends back to their shared days in Chicago, believed the old task master was just the man to do the job.

Now, with the team in a free fall, there are questions about its preparation, focus, drive, energy and desire. Those are all of the things, the intangibles, Keenan was supposed to bring to the table. Those are coaching issues.

When Keenan was hired by the Flames, his apologists noted that Keenan wasn't really a bad coach in his last three stops in Vancouver, Boston and Florida; he just had bad teams. Regardless, Keenan couldn't coax any of those bad teams into the postseason and has won just one playoff round, in St. Louis, since his New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994.

Keenan has been dining out on that piece of good fortune for more than 13 years, inexplicably finding team after team that thinks he can replicate the Rangers' success.

When he came to Calgary, the theory was Keenan would finally have a good team to work with. This, after all, was an experienced Flames team with terrific talent in Jarome Iginla, Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr. They had players like Daymond Langkow and Kristian Huselius, both of whom enjoyed breakout seasons in 2006-07 after posting more than 30 goals apiece. And, of course, Keenan was inheriting one of the game's finest netminders in Miikka Kiprusoff.

Guess what? Maybe it wasn't the teams in Vancouver, Boston and Florida that were the problem; maybe it was the coach.

The Flames' power play is 16th in the league, a few spots lower than last season when they finished 11th with the man advantage. They currently boast the 28th-ranked penalty-killing unit, even worse than in 2006-07 (they were 22nd).

Weren't these the areas in which Keenan was supposed to bring his considerable coaching talents?

Given the team's lackluster play, all the preseason talk that the Flames might actually be Stanley Cup contenders and that Keenan was the man to get them over the hump is ridiculous.

In hindsight, Sutter's most egregious error might have been two years ago, when he made the team's most pivotal coaching change, taking himself from behind the Flames' bench.

Who knows, maybe that's where he'll end up before this season is over, or, more to the point, before this season is lost.

Slap Shots


Modano

Good Week
This was a good week for American-born hockey icons; Mike Modano finally shed the monkey from his back and became the highest-scoring American-born player in NHL history with two points against San Jose. Modano passed Phil Housley and has 1,235 points. Now, if the Dallas Stars could start winning some games (they have just two wins in their past seven outings), Modano might get to enjoy the accomplishment. A few nights after Modano's historic moment, it was Jeremy Roenick's turn to reach a memorable milestone with his 500th goal. He is only the third American-born NHLer to reach the 500-goal plateau. Roenick, now with San Jose, scored the goal against his former team, the Phoenix Coyotes, on Saturday night.

Bad Week
How shocking is it to look at the standings and see the Buffalo Sabres tied with the Washington Capitals for the fewest points in the Eastern Conference (at 13)? The Sabres, the defending Presidents' Trophy winners as the NHL's best regular-season team, continued to stumble last week, losing three of four. Two of those losses came against Northeast Division foes Toronto and Boston, and the Sabres continue to struggle offensively. Offensive juggernauts the past two seasons, the Sabres are 15th in goals per game and are getting little production from Tomas Vanek, he of the whopper new contract (four goals in 16 games) and Maxim Afinogenov (three goals). Afinogenov is a team-worst minus-9 and was responsible for a costly giveaway that led to the winning goal in Boston's 2-1 overtime victory Saturday. It doesn't get any easier; Tim Connolly, who was tied for the team lead in points, is out with a rib/oblique injury and gritty forward Adam Mair is out indefinitely with an ankle injury.

Stuck in Neutral
There might not be a streakier team in the NHL than the Tampa Bay Lightning. It wasn't long ago that GM Jay Feaster was being called on to quash rumors that coach John Tortorella's job was in jeopardy and that he was trying to peddle one of the Big Three (Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards or Vincent Lecavalier). But after dropping five straight, the Lightning turned around and won three games last week, all against Southeast Division opponents, including a dominating 5-1 win over division-leading Carolina. Where does all this leave the Bolts? Well, pretty much where you'd expect a streaky team to be, right in the middle of the pack. The Bolts are 8-8-1 record with 54 goals scored and 54 goals allowed, and sit ninth in the East.

Our top story lines of the week


Kovalchuk
1. Don't look now, but the Los Angeles Kings are playing some pretty decent hockey. They are 7-3 in their last 10 games after starting the season losing five of six. Led by Mike Cammalleri's 11 goals, the Kings have the eighth-ranked power play and are fifth in goals per game. Still, the goaltending remains a bugaboo. J.S. Aubin came on in relief of Jason LaBarbera on Saturday night and got the win in a wild, 6-5 affair against Dallas, which held an early 4-0 lead. LaBarbera, who had a four-game winning streak in late October, is winless in his last three starts. If the Kings can stay competitive, it will increase speculation that GM Dean Lombardi will make a move to acquire a more seasoned NHL netminder.

2. Ilya Kovalchuk is on a torrid goal-scoring pace with eight goals in his last five games. His 14 markers lead the NHL and Kovalchuk's play has been instrumental in Atlanta's comeback after an 0-6-0 start cost coach Bob Hartley his job. But anyone who suggests that Kovalchuk suddenly turned it on when GM Don Waddell took over as interim coach hasn't been watching. Even when he wasn't scoring and the Thrashers were losing, Kovalchuk was the team's best player. When Hartley was fired, he embraced his coach and, with tears in his eyes, thanked him for making him a better player.

3. The Philadelphia Flyers, a team that knows a thing or two about the evils of concussions, have another potentially significant problem on their hands with star forward Simon Gagne. After missing four games, Gagne returned to the Flyers lineup without having practiced and played twice last week before being listed as out indefinitely with concussion-related symptoms and dehydration. Gagne has eight points in 10 games and a long-term absence from the lineup would be a huge blow to a team that appears poised to rejoin the playoff field after finishing dead last in the league last season. After enduring problems with Eric Lindros, Keith Primeau and Jeremy Roenick in recent years, you'd think the Flyers might have a better protocol for dealing with these issues.

4. Speaking of the Atlantic Division, the team many expected would be atop the division standings, the Pittsburgh Penguins, continues to flounder. The Flyers dumped the undisciplined Pens 5-2 on Saturday night. It was the fifth loss for the Penguins in their last six games, which will undoubtedly spark another round of "What's wrong with the Pens?" debate around the hockey world. Chief among the concerns, although there are many including discipline, penalty killing and scoring depth, is the goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury. As coach Michel Therrien told reporters after Saturday's game, "The kid's pretty fragile right now." With the team at 7-9-1 and in 10th place in the conference, GM Ray Shero faces his first real crisis since taking over before last season. Does he deal for goaltending help? Does he stick with Therrien, who was so dynamic a season ago in getting the young Pens into the playoffs? Does he ride out the storm and hope the team gets it together on its own? Stay tuned.

5. Plans for the NHL to return to Europe at the start of the 2008-09 regular season are still pretty fluid, but it looks like the plan may be to go bigger next season. Sources confirmed that the NHL is looking at sending four teams to two different European cities to start the regular season. We're guessing Prague and Stockholm would be the likely destinations. Many believe if a team goes to Stockholm, it will be the Swede-heavy Detroit Red Wings, but the NHL isn't likely to send teams from different conferences since it represents a competitive disadvantage. It's more likely the four teams will be from the Eastern Conference, and perhaps even from the same division, because the L.A. Kings and Anaheim Ducks, two Pacific Division teams, opened this season in London. Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay are two teams that appear to be ready to make the journey overseas. It would also make sense, from a media attention point of view, to have at least one Canadian team in the mix to ensure broad-based coverage of the games.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.