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Flames burned by salary cap, and more notes

The end is plainly in sight even if, with just days remaining, we don't yet know all of the teams that will join the second leg of the biathlon. But before we say goodbye to a marathon regular season that needed nearly all of its 1,230 games to eliminate slightly less than half the teams that thought they had a shot at the playoffs, a few items deserve your upright attention:

Let's start with the Calgary Flames, the franchise that most American hockey fans know only as the first family of hockey failure in Atlanta.

The Flames have been playing shorthanded for several games, including a crucial loss earlier this week to the surging Canucks that may have decided first place in the Northwest Division. Now, there are a number of reasons why that can happen. Penalties incurred during a contest is the one that comes most readily to mind, but there can be injuries or a called-up player not getting to the arena on time.

The Flames are shorthanded simply because they are out of money.

Well, not technically out of money, but hard against the $56.7 million salary cap. They have played their last three outings with 17 players, three short of the allowable 20, because several high-profile and well-paid individuals are on their injury list. The problem is that there's no room under the cap to add replacements.

Placing blame for that is tricky. Pundits who declared Calgary all-in winners after their trade deadline acquisitions of Olli Jokinen and Jordan Leopold not only missed badly in their prediction that the Flames would be greatly improved, they failed to point out that GM Darryl Sutter didn't send nearly enough money out the door to balance the new cash obligations that were coming in. So when a slew of players including top-four defensemen Cory Sarich and Robyn Regehr were out of the lineup with nine-regular season games remaining, Sutter had a Hank Paulson-like problem on his hands.

At that late a point in the season, NHL rules forbid teams to put players on the long-term injured list (otherwise a handy escape valve for cap relief because their salaries do not count against it). That meant Sarich and Regehr became toxic assets. The Flames had at least five other injured players on the books, so they were forced to play a game that would likely decide the division crown (and third place in the Western Conference) without a full roster. That will likely be the case later this week when they close their season with a home-and-home series vs. Edmonton.

Sutter has argued that this is not a cap issue, but an injury problem. It's a valid point. Teams have played under the roster limit in the past, most often because of injuries. Yet the Flames are open to the complaint that by mismanaging their cap and playing short they can more easily surrender points they might have won -- points that could impact a team that is trying to get into or stay in playoff contention. And some folks won't be surprised if the Flames use their current predicament to lobby later for getting that nine-games rule removed.

What's that you say? Position-picking is morally reprehensible? We couldn't agree more and we make no such charge against the Flames, but we're a little less certain about the Islanders.

The Isles looked to be getting something of an act together late in the second half, but they now seem hell-bent on collecting the most ping-pong balls in Tuesday night's draft lottery. They went 3-6-1 in their last 10 and punctuated their losing ways with a ridiculous 9-0 loss to Carolina this week -- a game in which they couldn't have played worse if they'd dressed 17 teenagers who hadn't yet learned how to skate backward.

No one expected the Isles to be a playoff contender, and former GM Mike Milbury's legacy still weighs heavily on the franchise, but being outshot 57-12? That's not Mad Mike's ghost at work. That's something that makes an argument for a mercy rule.

The Islanders have now made even the hapless Avalanche look like they were trying to avoid last place despite going 1-7-2 in their last 10, and they even out-hustled Tampa Bay, who made a push for the top pick with a closing kick of seven straight losses (or games in which they didn't win, but picked up only a smattering of loser points).

So we'll give kudos to the Maple Leafs for finishing yet another lackluster (and non-playoff) season by playing to win every game even though one has to wonder if they had any advance knowledge that the league was going to rule against them regarding defenseman Jonas Frogren's contract. The NHL fined the Leafs $500,000 and a fourth-round pick for signing Frogren while he was still under contract to a Swedish elite club. Ironically, the decision came after the Leafs had "purchased" a fourth-round pick from Tampa Bay at the trade deadline in exchange players who were not expected to play next season. The NHL has dismissed the acquisition of the pick -- now forfeited -- as "purely coincidental."

I have a relative who, through no fault of her own, once had the misfortune to lose four dogs almost in as many years. I mention this because Ottawa GM Bryan Murray removed the interim label from up-from-the-AHL coach Cory Clouston and gave him a two-year contract extension this week.

No knock on Clouston. Ottawa's playoff miss isn't his fault, but how secure would you be if you were the new puppy in either place? Clouston signed on with a franchise that has had four coaches since just before the start of the 2007 Stanley Cup Final and a GM who, in addition to losing that series while standing behind the bench, has coached the Sens twice. I'm not saying Clouston will be as quick to join the list of recently-departed Sens coaches as my relative's dogs were to join the row of crosses in her back yard, but I wouldn't count on him being around for a long time.

And finally: Keith Primeau, a good-to-sometimes-great player especially during his time with the Flyers, has agreed to join Pat LaFontaine and a growing number of former athletes in donating their brains to science -- after they leave this Earth, mind you -- in hope that it will help the medical community find answers to the widespread problems of serial concussions.

It's a noble gesture and it got me to wondering if the NHL could convince former or would-be owners like Peter Pocklington, Bruce McNall, John and Tim Rigas, William "Boots" Del Biaggio, Harold Ballard, Dennis Kozlowski, Greg Reyes, Henry Samueli, John Spano and even former NHL Commissioner Clarence Campbell to do the same.

Might not help in the battle against concussions, but it could provide a mother lode of information for anyone interested in studying the cranial physiology of real and alleged white-collar crime.

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