Saint John Flames hopes fading

By Chris McCluskey

Due to what can only be described as an embarrassing
year on all accounts for the parent Calgary Flames,
their Saint John AHL affiliate was given very little
chance from the beginning and is quickly seeing its
playoff hopes burn out for good.

The franchise,
struggling both on and off the ice, currently sits at
the bottom of the Canadian Division and 12 points
behind the Worcester Ice Cats for the eighth and final
playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. With 25 games
remaining, the goal of reaching the playoffs after a
year absence is not insurmountable. However, the
beleaguered Baby Flames definitely have their work cut
out for them down the stretch if they hope to be
considered legitimate playoff threats in what could be
Calgary’s farm team’s last push in the industrially
based New Brunswick city, where the poor economy is
reflecting at the box office with poor ticket sales.

The port city has not seen their club compete since
their Calder Cup championship team in 2001 which was
disassembled by newly hired General Manager Craig
Button immediately after. Citing the fact the players
who were dealt would be happier in an environment
where they could prosper, Sergei Varlamov (trade),
Marty Murray (not offered new contract), Daniel
Tkaczuk (trade), Derrick Walser (not resigned), Darrel
Scoville (not resigned), Dave Roche (not resigned),
Rico Fata (waivers), Miikka Elomo (returned to
Finland), Martin Brochu (not resigned), Chris St.
Croix (trade), Doug Doull (not resigned), Benoit
Gratton (waivers)* and Gaetan Royer (not resigned)
were lost during the off-season.

However, these key
departures were never really replaced and only eight
from that championship team would see any ice in Saint
John the following season. This is testament to the
fact Button overlooked a farm club in dire need of a
good season to maintain local interest in the team.
Compounding the fact that Calgary has been farcically
mismanaging its team, one may recall that a stunned
Martin St. Louis saw his contract bought out by former
GM Al Coates 8 months earlier. St. Louis later went
on to become an NHL all-star this season following yet
another absurd transaction by the Calgary
organization.

After a disappointing 2001/02 hopes were high that
Saint John could rebound, bolstered by the return of
talented Russian Oleg Saprykin and leading scorer
Blair Betts along with newcomers veteran Dave Lowry,
former first rounder Robert Dome, rookie Matthew
Lombardi, defenceman Micki Dupont, and former Baby
Flames favorite Ladislav Kohn fresh off a Stanley Cup
win. The chances looked good that last season’s
nightmare was in the past. It was expected that Saint
John would get back to its winning ways despite
Calgary’s decision to carry several extra bodies up
top which may have not only helped their AHL affiliate
get off on the right foot, but benefited the
development of prospects like Jordan Leopold and Chuck
Kobasew as well. This was a blunder that was realized
much too late.

Flames in-term Head Coach Al MacNeil correctly
scrutinized the 20 year old Kobasew’s play by saying
that, “He looked a bit in awe yet, like a deer caught
in headlights. He’s got to find himself a little
more, get a little more push to his game.” This is
something the 2001 Team Canada member has rectified at
the AHL level, seeing his game drastically improve
since his December 17th demotion. The “feel” MacNeil
stated that Kobasew was lacking in the NHL looks to
have been found with his on-ice work ethic slowly
resulting in him materializing as a standout amongst
the rest of the players on the ice within a two month
period.

The case of Leopold is similar, only the parent Flames
have once again seen their blue line depleted with a
rash of injuries necessitating his services up top.
The Hobey Baker incumbent has benefited from some time
in Saint John which saw him put up 3 points in 3 games
indicating to himself that he can play at the NHL
level. This gave the young defenceman some valuable
confidence. This demotion took almost five months to
occur after Leopold spent time sitting in the stands
for part of the beginning of the NHL season, where he
could have spent playing with the big club’s eastern
associate.

In addition to this, the underachieving Lowry and
offseason acquisition Martin Sonnenberg did not help
matters. Goaltending has also been a question mark
with former junior stand-out Levente Szuper failing to
solidify himself as a minor-pro number one. Then
there are the injuries to the parent club which
inevitably plague all AHL teams. This resulted in
Steve Montador as well as Oleg Saprykin, who left
Saint John because he felt he was above AHL caliber,
graduating to the NHL and several others spending time
out West as well. Dome, Kohn, and Betts have also
missed significant amounts of time each due to wounds
suffered in the AHL. All of this has resulted in
numerous player tryout signings just to fill roster
spots to play on a particular night.

The recent acquisition of former AHL all-star Mike
Mottau, who like Leopold was also a Hobey Baker Award
recipient, from the New York Rangers was a step in the
right direction. But if Button hopes to prove to
Saint John that it is committed to having hockey in
the port city he must learn from prior mistakes and
seek to correct them as soon as possible. The reasons
for the baby Flames’ mediocrity are obvious. It is
impossible to the measure the impact of head coach Jim
Playfair leaving to take an assistant’s job in
Calgary, and Saint John is by no means out of it yet,
but one has to wonder how good their chances are this
late in the season.