New general manager Craig Button's first order of business last
summer was to get help in goal, which is why he acquired two-time
Stanley Cup champion Mike Vernon. Vernon, 37, became the Flames'
third new-old goalie in three years, and his acquisition was
tinged with irony. It was Calgary's decision to trade Vernon in
June 1994 that created its goaltending woes. Nevertheless, Button
believes that Vernon can do what injury-prone Ken Wregget and
over-the-hill Grant Fuhr failed to do before him: get the Flames
back into the playoffs for the first time since 1996.
Vernon, who finished last season with the Panthers, is eighth on
the NHL's alltime wins list (371), but more important, he's
durable and coming off a campaign in which he had the same save
percentage (.917) as Vezina Trophy winner Olaf Kolzig. "My
numbers in the last couple of years are respectable," says
Vernon. "I'm a better goalie now than I was five years ago. I
butterfly more, I don't challenge as much, I even put my paddle
down once in a while."
Vernon may take his paddle to the team's defensemen if they don't
give him better support than they did his predecessors. While
it's easy enough to point to the Flames' pitiful popgun attack as
their primary shortcoming (they scored only 211 goals last
season, tied with the Stars for 11th in the Western Conference),
you can't overlook the fact they've also finished among the NHL's
bottom-feeders in team defense for the last three years. Injuries
last season decimated what was, on paper, a competent back line,
led by revitalized 36-year-old Phil Housley and precocious Derek
Morris, who finished 17th in the NHL in ice time. Morris, who
missed the start of this season because of a contract dispute,
was the only 21-year-old in the league to average more than 24
minutes per night.
New coach Don Hay, 46, is considered more of an innovator than
the man he replaced, Brian Sutter. Hay, who guided Tri-City of
the Western (junior) Hockey League last season, has installed an
up-tempo forechecking system, designed to revitalize the offense.
"I don't expect us just to squeak into the playoffs," says right
wing Jarome Iginla, who played his junior hockey for Hay and
endorsed his selection. "We may have struggled for a few years
and had to go through some growing pains, but we're ready to take
a big leap forward."
Unless the Flames find some scorers to take the pressure off
Iginla and Valeri Bure, however, don't be surprised if they're
still taking small steps a year from now.
Last season forward Jarome Iginla ran up a 16-game point-scoring
streak, the NHL's longest of the year. In that surge he had 12
goals and 14 assists.
CATEGORY SI RANKING SKINNY
FORWARDS 24 Lack of depth at center hurts
DEFENSE 23 Thin unit; Lydman needs to make impact
GOALTENDING 18 Adding veteran Vernon was a good move
SPECIAL TEAMS 20 Power play is solid, but penalty killing
may be poor
MANAGEMENT 25 Young staff, led by Hay, brings positive