The Defense Rests

By David Glaz

When the Calgary Flames came out of the gates like gangbusters, hockey fans alike were waiting with baited breath to see if this team was for real. Fans were apprehensive, and the citizens of Calgary decided to wait out the team, to see whether or not the hot start was an anomaly or if this team had finally turned the corner.

Calgary had a tremendous October and did some of the same in November. Jarome Iginla was setting the league afire and has yet to be dethroned as NHL leading scorer. Roman Turek was a fortress and provided stability in the net the likes of which Calgary hadn’t seen for years. Derek Morris was playing a solid all around game, the young defense core was stepping up, and the acquisitions of Craig Conroy, Dean McAmmond, and Bob Boughner were paying off.

Then the team hit the toilet. Roman Turek missed a few games, but the Flames managed to hang on with solid team play. Turek also signed a contract extension and saw his game suffer for a while, but he since played admirably, but not as he started the year. On the 29th of November, Morris went down with a wrist injury of undisclosed severity. Morris was logging close to 30 minutes a game and quarterbacking a vaunted powerplay that was striking consistently in the 20% range. That was a month ago, and since then Calgary has gone 3 for 66 when on the man advantage. The penalty killing, while anemic at the start of the year, has actually gotten worse. At the time of this writing, Calgary has given up eight powerplay goals in the past five games. Morris is expected to miss another month.

So what is the problem? It was obvious to all knowledgeable hockey fans that the likelihood of the Flames ending the year atop their division and as the top seed in the West was slim. However, Calgary has slipped to eight in the West, and there are many theories as to why. This author is a subscriber of one such theory: it?s not the lack of scoring, lack of depth, inexperience (which are all problems), but, rather, it is the absence of Derek Morris.

The aforementioned reasons are all factors, but the Morris injury is the most pressing issue. Derek Morris, in the opinion of this author, has and always will be the undisputed MVP for Calgary. While it?s easy to blame the Morris injury for this prolonged slump, it stands to reason that his absence is really the chief reason. With Morris in the lineup, Calgary can compete with any team in the West. He logs a ton of minutes a game, quarterbacks the powerplay, sees time in all situations, and is always on the ice in the dying minutes of an important game. His mobility and all around ability make all those around him better.

Robyn Regehr, Denis Gauthier, and Bob Boughner are all stalwarts defensively, but with Morris in the lineup, they don?t see much time on the powerplay and can concentrate on their respective games, thus increasing their effectiveness. Igor Kravchuk, a popular scapegoat, has seen his game go even further south in the absence of Morris and it’s clear why. Kravchuk now sees ALL two minutes of most EVERY powerplay and it renders him less effective. Morris’ cannon from the point always gave him another option, but without Morris, Kravchuk has to make more plays that he bungles, and is still hesitant to shoot the puck. The Russian defenseman, while possessing undeniable skill, suffers when he sees his time increased in important situations.

Without Morris, the defense has to step it up and without a go to guy. Morris is out for a month, but there still is hope. Calgary has to keep it simple, rally together, and play Coach Gilbert’s system (a problem in recent weeks). The recent 3 week injury to Denis Gauthier will further serve to force the team play solid defensive hockey. Calgary will be given a great boost at the end of the month as both young defenseman should return around the same time. Marc Savard has been tried on the point and that has resulted with a little success. Calgary is experiencing a slump like all teams, and while the team is far from being a legitimate contender, defenseman Derek Morris is Calgary’s most crucial piece to the puzzle and that’s beginning to come the forefront.

In the meantime, any questions, comments, or death threats you may have are certainly welcome.