- George Johnson, NHL
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Of the seven long, desolate years Calgary Flames' fans have been forced to make do without so much as a single playoff game in return for their loyalty, the one just passed was quite probably the bleakest.
In other seasons found wanting, the Flames at least had the good sense to piece together a spirited run at the postseason at some juncture -- usually in the Christmas-to-February blah days when other, better teams annually let down their guards -- only to burn themselves out in the attempt. In 2001-2002, they tinkered with the by-now familiar script a bit, storming out of the gate, losing only two of their first 21, only to fade into the distance, and then out of sight.
Last season, though, their fate had been sealed by December. All left to them was to sleepwalk through the remainder of the schedule. No one in town could drum up much bitterness or despair over what has become as annual event as the Calgary Stampede, just a sense of resigned inevitability.
The subsequent casualties, predictably, were high, and high-profile: Head coach Greg Gilbert lost his job. So did assistant Brad McCrimmon. After the melodrama had concluded, general manager Craig Button's contract was not renewed.
Enter Darryl Sutter. First to coach. Then to manage.
One of the first family of hockey in Alberta has been left the unenviable, some most say impossible, task of resurrecting a once-proud franchise. As Sutter surveyed the wreckage of last season, given the benefit of first-hand knowledge when he assumed the coaching reins from Gilbert, he was left to ponder a question many before him had wrestled with: What in blazes went wrong?
Well, what didn't?
The Flames couldn't score, for starters. They finished 27th in team offense and 29th on the power play, largely because of stuttering starts from 51-goal man Jarome Iginla and center Craig Conroy. Iginla would end the season with 29 less points than in 2001-2002, when he claimed both the Art Ross and Maurice Richard trophies. Conroy, meanwhile, contributed 17 fewer points. On a team paper-thin of offensive catalysts, that spelled doom.
Chris Drury, acquired from the Avalanche in exchange for defenseman Derek Morris, opened brightly enough, then flat-lined. Button earmarked underachieving centerman Rob Niedermayer as the key to constructing a productive second attacking unit (an obscene 100 of 202 goals scored during the 2001-2002 season came via the Iginla-Conroy-Dean McAmmond line). Niedermayer, predictably, flopped and was eventually dealt to the Mighty Ducks where -- surprise! -- he enjoyed a terrific playoff as Anaheim missed out on an improbable Stanley Cup run by one win.
And the Flames? They missed out on an improbable playoff berth (again), by 17 points.
Looking ahead to next year
The largest single factor in Calgary's continuing downslide was goaltender Roman Turek. Turek's numbers -- a 2.57 goals-against-average, .902 save percentage and 27-29-9 record -- weren't bad, on the surface. But his maddening inconsistency, penchant for starting games slowly to put the Flames behind the 8-ball right off the hop, and surrendering stoppable goals at critical junctures in games doomed a fragile team to the scrap heap.
To contend for the playoffs, this team needs quality goaltending on a nightly basis. Since signing a new contract a year and a half ago, Turek hasn't held up his end of the bargain. Sutter isn't keen on him, but given the goalie's salary and nosediving reputation around the league, he's stuck with him. Whether Sutter, an acerbic, can draw more out of the laconic, hard-to-read Turek will determine whether or not the Flames can even put in a cursory bid for the postseason.
The prevailing feeling is that Sutter might have Turek pinned to a wall by Christmas, or that Turek could very well be in psychotherapy.
Sutter, as he did in San Jose after taking over, has begun to prune and patch, to mould the team in his image. There's a decided western Canadian flavor to the Flames this season, but the difference between Sutter's new job and his old one is that the budget in Calgary isn't even close to what it was in the Silicon Valley. Defenseman Jesse Wallin from the Detroit organization and Rhett Warrener from Buffalo are in, reliable old hand Bob Boughner -- shipped to Carolina for next to nothing due to age and salary -- is out. Pesky Steve Begin, a spare part, is gone, too. Krzysztof Oliwa, meanwhile, has arrived to lend muscle that was sorely lacking last season.
Rather than go to arbitration with Drury, Sutter chose to offload his most creative player to the Sabres in exchange for Steve Reinprecht. A good move. Reinprecht is averaging 44 points a season in the NHL, Drury 55, so the drop-off in production should be negligible. Drury never seemed happy to be in Calgary in the first place and Reinprecht, Edmonton-born, could be in for a big season being close to home.
On defense, Robyn Regehr found that mean streak and was rewarded with an unprecedented five-year contract in the offseason. He gave every indication of continuing that improvement this year. Former Hobey Baker winner Jordan Leopold grew in confidence in the latter stages and, as hoped, may one day replace the power-play void left when Morris was traded.
The Flames can rely on rebound seasons from Iginla and Conroy (still in Calgary despite numerous trade rumblings) and, yes, the team did respond better after Sutter had taken control from Gilbert. He's definitely not someone to be trifled with. But there's only so much blood anyone can pull from a stone.
The Minnesota Wild's unbelievable success has all the have-nots in hockey convinced that a modicum of talent and an emphasis on work ethic, combined with decent goaltending and superior coaching, can produce miracles.
Alas, there are only so many miracles to go around.
The personnel in Calgary may have changed somewhat, the prospects have not. Why, those loyal fans, must be asking themselves again, should this year be any different than the last, or the other before that, or the ...
George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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