Tuesday, February 10, 2009 Updated: February 11, 10:28 PM ET
Cammalleri making wave$ in Calgary
By George Johnson Special to ESPN.com
For what seems like the first time since a man of pioneering spirit erected an oil derrick and hit a Texas tea gusher on the undulating land, someone other than Jarome Iginla is threatening to top the Calgary Flames in goal production.
Understand, this is a big deal in southern Alberta, where Iginla has held an unassailable lock on power longer than the provincial Tories. Or, at least, it seems that way.
Yet right now, Captain Fantastic, the face of the franchise, trails sidekick Michael Cammalleri by eight goals with 29 games left in the regular season (Cammalleri has 28, Iginla has 20, with the former having played one less game). This is all quite out of protocol. "Flaming C" scholars need dust off the old testament of the franchise record book and trace back all the way to the 1999-2000 season to unearth the last man to score more than Iginla in a season.
Michael Cammalleri, left, and Jarome Iginla have combined for 48 goals in 53 games this season.
That man would be wispy Valeri Bure, who notched 35 to the right winger's 29. At the time, Iginla was a mere babe at age 22, only hinting at superstardom and upcoming Olympic glory in his fourth full NHL season.
Since then, and until now, it's been all Iggy all the time.
"I always knew Cammy could score goals," said Flames center Craig Conroy, who also played with Cammalleri in Los Angeles. "But he's going better than I've ever seen him. He just seems to have more confidence right now. Everything he touches turns to gold. He turns, and the puck's there, at his feet. He could pick corners blindfolded. It's one of those times you can't explain or don't want to think too much about. You just ride the wave.
"And he feeds off Iggy. We both do. His mere presence opens up so much space for us. Cammy's not a large man, but he's extremely competitive. The size of the heart means more than the size of the body."
For Cammalleri, the shift north from L.A. has proved an invigorating tonic.
"I'm having a great time," he said. "Our line is clicking, we're winning games. Iggy, of course, does it all. And Conny's just so responsible defensively. He lets us go out and do our thing.
"I like it here. I enjoy the city. This is a contending team and should be for quite a while. What'll happen? I guess we'll have to wait and see."
Cammalleri is being coy. But the Cammy Quandary is the hot topic in Calgary these days. It seems as if he has just arrived, yet already is preparing to become an unrestricted free agent July 1. On short notice, the University of Michigan product has become one of the most popular players in a town that reveres its hockey stars like Aztec gods.
But there is bad that goes with the good. He should by all rights turn in that 13 stitched on the back of his sweater for a "$$." Every time Cammalleri scores another goal, the sound you hear in the distance is his personal cash register going ka-ching!.
That bittersweet sound must be driving GM Darryl Sutter slightly mad.
Will the Flames have enough cap space, or enough room in their own budget, to re-sign the left winger? Unless Sutter is adroit at creative bookkeeping, the odds are on the side of Cammalleri's stay being sweet but short.
"There doesn't seem to be much wiggle room," Conroy conceded.
How much? Try to envision Zdeno Chara stuffed into a Smart car.
With $23.5 million of cap space tied up in his big four -- Iginla, defensemen Robyn Regehr and Dion Phaneuf, and goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff -- Sutter will have to whittle and pare to find a sizable bump from Cammalleri's current $3.6 million salary. The Flames already are nudging the maximum cap level of $56 million, and they have surprising Todd Bertuzzi and breakout left winger David Moss, among others, to address this offseason, too.
The Cammy Man is on pace to eclipse personal highs in goals (34) and points (80), so you can safely guess he will command a minimum $5 million annually. Being from Richmond Hill, a move back to Ontario with the retooling Maple Leafs would be a nice fit. But even if he isn't Toronto GM Brian Burke's cup of tea, any number of teams would be queuing up to add a 26-year-old armed with the diverse offensive weaponry Cammalleri has pulled out of his arsenal this season.
He and Iginla have executed an unexpected about-face: It's the two-time Maurice Richard Trophy winner acting as set-up man for the playmaker who was supposed to keep the other guy happily housed in the high-rent 50-goal district. That's quite the switch (imagine Paul McCartney on the drums and Ringo Starr up front doing lead vocals or Lou Costello playing straight man for Bud Abbott).
If Iginla is the home run king, Cammalleri -- listed generously in the NHL Official Guide and Record Book at 185 pounds -- is the prince of paper cuts. A nick here, a cut there, and voila! He's sitting sixth on the NHL goal-scoring list, keeping company with the likes of Art Ross Trophy front-runner Evgeni Malkin, San Jose Sharks captain Patrick Marleau and Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier.
"[Cammalleri] seeks out offensive positioning well," Flames coach Mike Keenan said earlier this season. "I had another player that was particularly good at that -- Brett Hull. Goal scorers can find those seams. You're looking at Jarome, wondering about the scoring. But he's found a way -- and he has right from the beginning of the season -- to find Michael in that position quite often, and it's paying off."
Oh, it'll pay off all right. In the summertime. When the bids start rolling in.
"The good thing about Cammy is, he's not impulsive," said Conroy, ever the soul of optimism. "You can be sure he'll take the time to make the right decision. He'll weigh all the variables. It won't be just ... say 'Yes' to whoever offers the most money the fastest. He's going to the playoffs with this team, and that's something he's never done before. Once he gets a taste of it
"So, I'm keeping my fingers crossed. Somehow, Darryl always seems to find a way. He wasn't supposed to be able to re-sign Iggy, [Regehr], Dion and Kipper, was he? But he did. This is such a great place to be, such a great hockey market. Cammy's really had a good time playing here, and the people here in Calgary, well, they really enjoy watching him."
By all means, Flames fans, enjoy.
But a word of warning. Don't let yourselves get too attached.
George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.