Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Calgary Flames 2011-2012 Preview

The Flames have missed the Stanley Cup playoffs in back-to-back seasons and GM Jay Feaster has vowed to return to the playoffs this season. Given that the top five goal scorers last season were over the age of 30 and goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff will turn 35 this season, Feaster has to win now or usher in a new crop of young talent to rebuild around.

Calgary’s roster has talent. Forwards Curtis Glencross and Rene Bourque both set career-highs in goals last season with 24 and 27 respectively. Even Colorado Avalanche castaway Alex Tanguay enjoyed a career resurrection playing alongside captain Jarome Iginla tallying 69 points in 79 games. Iginla, after only scoring two goals in his first fifteen games, was still third in the NHL in scoring at the end of the year with 43 and had a spectacular season captaining the Flames in all three zones.

Unfortunately for Calgary, forward Olli Jokinen had a disappointing campaign last season in which he returned to the team that dealt him only a few months previously to the New York Rangers. Perhaps it was the lack of trade rumors involving his name that took the wind out of the Fin’s sails (the 32-year-old was traded the previous two seasons), but the 54-point pace was what led the Flames to trade the forward to New York the season before last. With no significant changes on the Flames roster going into next season, expect much of the same from Jokinen.

Joining Jokinen on the “disappointing” list is top defenseman Jay Bouwmeester. The six-foot-four workhorse defenseman has the highest amount of regular season games played among active players without ever making the playoffs. Hopefully for Calgary, that streak ends after this season for the $6.6 million defender. He has the talent to anchor the blueline and will be asked to this year following the departure of Robyn Regehr to Buffalo.

Calgary does have some players to look out for this season. Kiprusoff should be in the top-tier of goaltenders again this season after another solid season last year with 37 wins and 6 shutouts. Due to the trading of Regehr, Calgary was able to sign promising defenseman Anton Babchuk to a two-year extension. The six-foot-five defenseman was one of the few bright spots on the Flames blueline tallying 35 points (13 on the power play) and a positive 14 plus/minus rating. Babchuk’s size and shot should more than live up to his new two-year, $5 million contract.

The question surrounding the Flames this season will be their mostly unchanged, veteran roster has what it takes to make a playoff push this year. If not, look for Calgary to be very active at the trade deadline to create some cap space and get younger as it recently did by acquiring forward Lee Stempniak and $2.5 million in subsequent cap space from Phoenix for aging veteran Daymond Langkow and his $4.5 million cap hit. Can the Flames catch fire this year? If not, the province of Alberta may be in for another cold, uneventful winter with both of its teams struggling.

Carolina Hurricanes Preview

Carolina had to wait until the end of its 82nd game to learn that they missed the playoffs by two points. Despite the disappointment, the Hurricanes did have some successes. Eric Staal had another solid season tallying 33 goals en route to a 76-point season in 81 games played. There are very few guarantees in the National Hockey League, but the six-foot-three center's career performance has been, in a word: consistent. In the past six seasons, Staal has scored at least 70 points in all of them. Although Staal has never had an elite plus-minus rating, his solid play in all other categories validates his standing as one of the best centers in the NHL and can be counted on repeating such success in the year to come.

Although the Hurricanes have sputtered since goalie Cam Ward won the Conn Smythe trophy for the postseason’s MVP in 2006, the cornerstone goalie has not. Ward posted another impressive season totaling an NHL-high 74 starts and 4,317.35 minutes between the posts (not to mention his sparkling .923 save percentage). Even though Ward probably won’t lead the NHL in minutes and starts with the signing of Brian Boucher, expect the former Conn Smythe winner to post another solid season that the Hurricanes have come to expect from the veteran goaltender.

The Hurricanes, also, received a stellar breakout performance from 18-year-old phenom and Calder Trophy winner as rookie of the year, Jeff Skinner. Carolina’s 2010 first-round selection (7th overall) burst onto the scene with a 63-point season showcasing both his goal-scoring ability (31) with his playmaking ability (32 assists). Skinner was a refreshing source of youth on a roster that is mostly littered with veterans that should be avoided like newcomer Alexei Ponikarovsky and the resigned Chad LaRose.

GM Jim Rutherford’s offseason was a busy one filled with drama surrounding his pending free agents. It was thought, through most of the offseason, that most of the key free agents like Erik Cole, Chad LaRose, Joni Pitkanen, and Jussi Jokinen were likely to leave. In reality, only Cole departed via free agency and was replaced by former Maple Leaf standout Alexei Ponikarovsky. The only other key departure was that of defenseman Joe Corvo via a trade that saw the higher-prized Tomas Kaberle come back to Carolina in return from the Stanley Cup champion Bruins.

With neither a significant addition nor subtraction to the Hurricanes’ roster, the debate begins on whether Carolina is doomed to the same ninth place finish in the eastern conference or if the continuity and familiarity will create a better synergy next season. The catalysts for success or failure will be the development of the younger talent in Carolina. Expect 23-year-old Jamie McBain on the blueline and 26-year-old Anthony Stewart up front to become a more integral part of the Hurricanes’ plans. Alternate captain Brandon Sutter, 22, also has to continue to develop as a two-way forward or else he will risk losing the “A” on his jersey. Carolina, overall, has the cornerstones in Staal and Ward, to be competitive every night, but do they have the extra push from its younger talent to get into the playoffs? Stay tuned to find out.