The plan -- or more accurately, the hope -- this season in Calgary is to take offense.
As often as possible, and definitely more frequently than last year, when the Flames scored a paltry 201 times. It was an embarrassing total for a team with a high-end scorer like Jarome Iginla on it, and to make matters worse, the NHL's lowest output.
|Iginla led the team with 32 goals last season. Can he top that this year? (Getty Images)|
Maybe it shouldn't have come as a surprise, because Calgary has been trending down since reaching the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals. The Flames got to the playoffs four times in a row after the lockout, but with older, physical rosters that have often seemed ill-constructed for the new NHL, they lost in the first round each time.
Last season, though, there were hopes for more with Brent Sutter coming in to coach for his brother Darryl, the general manager, and bringing the family mindset about tight defense to the troops. And it seemed like a good idea, because Calgary finished 23rd in defense the year before even with one of the league's best goalies in Miikka Kiprusoff.
For his part, the new coach succeeded in getting his message across, with the team ending up among the leaders in defense. However, any upside was negated by a 50-goal decline from the season before.
"We put a lot of emphasis on being a better team defensively last year, and we definitely were," Brent Sutter said. "But there was a lot of focus on improving that, and maybe it hurt us on the offensive side. Now that we understand what we have to do on the defensive, we have to find ways to create more offense."
Easier said than done, of course, although the Flames showed plenty of, er, spark during the preseason with a 7-0-0 record, the only perfect mark in the league. Calgary was scoring more than three goals a game in the exhibitions, helped along by a bit of a stylistic change that saw defensemen like Jay Bouwmeester, Mark Giordano and Robyn Regehr getting more involved on offensive than last year.
"We're looking for the defenseman to jump into the rush more and maybe turn three-on-twos into four-on-twos," Regehr said. "The forwards are sometimes fairly covered down low. If you can get the puck back to the point, get some movement and get the opposition moving a little bit, maybe open things up and create chances that way."
|2010-11 Season Preview|
So far so good, especially since Iginla clicked nicely with reclamation projects Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay, linemates he has had middling success playing with during their previous tours in Calgary. Iginla scored a team-high four goals, while Tanguay picked up five assists and Jokinen, despite missing a little time with a strain, didn't hurt the flow when he played.
"I think we're all a lot more comfortable working together now, but there are a lot of things about the way we play now that's making a difference," Iginla said. "I think right now we have something to build on."
It might even be better if the Flames are pretty banged up heading into their opener against Edmonton on Thursday.
Calgary has five players on the shelf, including centers Daymond Langkow and Matt Stajan and winger Ales Kotalik, who had a productive training camp. It left the team desperate enough to sign veteran center Brendan Morrison, who wasn't offered a contract this summer and failed to make Vancouver on a tryout.
"We think he's a guy who can be very versatile for us," assistant GM Jay Feaster said. "Morrison can play in top six, but he can center the third line, too, if you need, and he's a good faceoff man, which we need.
"We don't have anyone who is ready now to step in and be able to play in the top six, so we wanted a veteran presence because it's critical that we have a good start."
That might be as essential as an offensive uptick, because Calgary will play five of its first eight games against teams that didn't make the playoffs last season. It's an opportunity to pick up points they'll need later on, particularly if the Flames want to give Kiprusoff more of a breather this season.
Kiprusoff played 73 games last season, which was his lowest total since the lockout, and since he's 34, Calgary would like him fresher for the playoffs if they get there. The Flames have a 27-year-old Swede named Henrik Karlsson set to be the backup this season, and if he can spell the starter say 15 to 18 times, he'll make a big impact for Calgary.
Especially if the rest of the team does what it has to. "We need to score more goals," Sutter said. "It's that simple."