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Thursday, September 28, 2006
Updated: October 2, 12:34 PM ET
Calgary Flames season preview

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STARTING LINE

By Scott Burnside, ESPN.com

There is a commonly held theory that the Calgary Flames, in spite of being unceremoniously dumped in the first round of the playoffs last spring, are Stanley Cup contenders by virtue of the team's acquisition of the skilled Alex Tanguay from Colorado. We do not hold to that theory. Tanguay scored 29 times last season and is a fine hockey player, but even if you added 35 goals to the Flames' 2005-06 total, it would still only put them in the middle of an offensive pack that is also getting better. The Flames were a freak of nature last season, finishing 27th in goals scored while winning the Northwest Division. The team, quite simply, does not have enough offensive juice to be a Cup contender in a conference where 10 of the NHL's best 15 teams reside and where most of the conference contenders have upgraded their firepower. And no disrespect to Daymond Langkow, but a team whose top center is under the 60-point plateau is a team that is lacking one of the crucial tenants of a champion: strength down the middle.

Offense: Unless the team can find a secret weapon among a group that includes Kristian Huselius, Jamie Lundmark, Chuck Kobasew and Marcus Nilson, the Flames will continue to have to grind out 3-2 wins. They can do it, but as was revealed in the playoffs against Anaheim, such a strategy (or in this case a way of life) can wear a team down. New coach Jim Playfair, a Darryl Sutter protégé, will need to devise a scheme that allows for those players to thrive and gain confidence offensively. Roman Hamrlik will need to stay healthy after playing in just 51 games and posting just 26 points. His return to the 40-point range or more is important, because it may be unrealistic to expect Dion Phaneuf, the Flames' sensational rookie defenseman, to again reach the 20-goal mark. The feeling is that bringing in Tanguay gives the Flames a proven point producer and playmaker that can reignite Jarome Iginla, who slumped to 35 goals last season and finished 54th in NHL scoring. He is the team's heart and soul and his return to top-10 form is crucial to the Flames' success. Tanguay should help a power-play unit that was surprisingly efficient last season (12th).

Defense: Even after giving up Jordan Leopold, who had fallen into disfavor in Calgary, the Flames boast a physically imposing, deep blue line led by Norris candidate-in-waiting Phaneuf and the rock-solid Robyn Regehr. The two were paired together early in training camp, and wasn't that nice for opposing forwards? Hamrlik and Rhett Warrener provide a nicely balanced duo, and newly acquired Andrei Zyuzin and Andrew Ference are both capable. Given Playfair's intimate knowledge of the Flames' systems, there should be a seamless transition on the defensive end of things.

Goaltending: What else is there to say about defending Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Miikka Kiprusoff? Anyone who thought the Finn's sterling play in 2004 was a flash in the pan was sorely disappointed after he led the league with a 2.07 GAA and 10 shutouts, was second in wins (42) and third in save percentage (.923) in 74 games. One wonders if Playfair will want to scale back Kiprusoff's workload. Of course, after Jamie McLennan, there really isn't anywhere else for Playfair to turn, so that ends that discussion.

Coaching: Jim Playfair will have two main challenges: hold the fort defensively (the Flames were the only NHL team to give up fewer than 200 goals) and coax more offense out of his charges. Sutter ran the team with an iron fist, so it will be interesting to see whether Playfair takes a more relaxed approach or tries to replicate the Sutter mentality. What do they say about a change being as good as a rest?

WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
7th The Flames are still a playoff team, but their lack of finish will cost them the division. Look for the Flames to finish third in the tight Northwest and seventh in the West.

BUZZ FACTOR
Stock Up
Stock up. Expectations are running high in Cowtown, especially with the arrival of forward Alex Tanguay, so expect another season of sold-out Saddledome crowds.



FANTASY AND THE FUTURE
TRISTAN COCKCROFT'S FANTASY SPIN
THE HOCKEY NEWS' TOP PROSPECTS
When you have a goaltender (Miikka Kiprusoff) and defenseman (Dion Phaneuf), who make strong cases for No. 1 fantasy status at their positions, and a former Art Ross Trophy winner (Jarome Iginla), you're in good shape. Beyond that, Calgary's roster is thin on elite fantasy talent. Newly added Alex Tanguay should help Iginla's case for a rebound season, as well as help pad his own scoring totals. The Hockey News' Top 5 Prospects for the Flames:
1. Eric Nystrom, 23, LW, Omaha (AHL)
Statline: 78 GP, 15 G, 18 A, 37 PIM
2. Brent Krahn, 24, G, Omaha (AHL)
Statline: 26-20-9 record, 2.50 GAA, .912 SV%
3. Andrei Taratukhin, 23, C, Yaroslavl
Statline: 40 GP, 9 G, 15 A, 85 PIM
4. Kris Chucko, 20, LW, Minnesota (WCHA)
Statline: 33 GP, 4 G, 9 A, 40 PIM
5. Dustin Boyd, 20, C, Moose Jaw (WHL)
Statline: 64 GP, 48 G, 42 A, 34 PIM
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Calgary Flames
When We Last Saw Them ...
Record 46-25-11 (103 points)
Division Finished first in Northwest
Conference Finished third in West
Playoffs Lost 4-3 to Anaheim in second round

Who To Watch Now ...
Center: Jamie Lundmark
As mentioned, the middle is a problem area for the Flames. Lundmark, the former New York Rangers prospect, has bounced around, but as the de facto second-line center, he'll have to make good on the promise he showed late in the season, when he registered 10 points in 12 games as a Flame.
Winger: Jarome Iginla
This season will go a long way in determining whether Iginla can return to elite status or whether he was better suited to the old NHL.
Defense: Dion Phaneuf
In any other NHL season, Phaneuf would have been the runaway rookie of the year winner. Instead, he was overshadowed by Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. Still, there were many who believed Phaneuf was a times the best defenseman in the NHL. A drop-off in the playoffs was disappointing, but he's the real deal.
Goalie: Miikka Kiprusoff
Until further notice, he is the standard bearer for all NHL netminders.

Key Moves
The Flames cleared out some dead wood in the form of Bryan Marchment and Chris Simon. The single biggest adjustment to the team's dynamic was swapping out Leopold for Tanguay, a move that, on paper, looks to benefit both teams. Jeff Friesen comes in, but you can lump him in with Tony Amonte as a player whose best days are long past.

SportsNation
Rating the Flames
The Calgary Flames finished third in the Western Conference last season, but what is the team's outlook this time around? Who will lead the Flames in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench?
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