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Flames foundation strong, but changes loom for supporting cast

CALGARY - The Calgary Flames filed out the doors of the Pengrowth Saddledome on Friday and some of them for the last time.

The backbone of the team - captain Jarome Iginla, goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff and defencemen Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr - are all under long-term contracts for the next five seasons and Kiprusoff and Phaneuf another year beyond that.

A veteran team with a veteran coach was expected to do better than finishing seventh in the Western Conference and losing in the first round of playoffs, even though it was a hard-fought, seven-game series with San Jose.

Changes are in the offing for Calgary's supporting cast.

Head coach Mike Keenan has two years left on his contract and will be back next season.

"We've got some of the great pieces you need to have a championship team in place," he said Friday.

His relationship with Kiprusoff is up in the air after pulling the Vezina Trophy winner twice in Calgary's seven-game series and the second time in Game 7.

Kiprusoff didn't speak to the media Friday and Keenan said he would meet with Calgary's starter and all players under contract in a few days.

"Do I want to speak to him? Yes, but I want to speak to all of them," Keenan said. "Is he unhappy? I'm sure he is because every one of our players in there today are unhappy with the results."

General manager Darryl Sutter, who coached the team to the Stanley Cup final in 2004, did not second-guess Keenan's decision to give Kiprusoff the hook.

"He's an elite coach and there's only a handful of them," Sutter said. "He's our coach absolutely."

Of the players scheduled for free agency this summer, winger Kristian Huselius, centre Daymond Langkow, winger Owen Nolan and goaltender Curtis Joseph are the notable names, although Sutter is negotiating with Langkow to re-sign Calgary's No. 3 scorer.

Calgary had a payroll of just under US$50 million this season. Finding room under a salary cap projected to be between $53 million and $56 million next season to sign free agents isn't Sutter's biggest challenge.

"The tough decisions are the guys who aren't earning what they're making," Sutter pointed out.

Winger Alex Tanguay, who by his own admission did not have a good season, tempts Sutter to dump his $5.3 million salary for a cheaper second-line winger.

The trade rumours that dogged Tanguay until the trade deadline Feb. 26, will likely resurface heading into the NHL draft in June.

"I've got to find a way to get my game back in order," Tanguay said. "Get my timing and my confidence back."

Phaneuf, Regehr and Cory Sarich are the mainstays on the back end. Sutter said he wouldn't mind getting younger still on the blue-line, which could spell the farewell of either Anders Eriksson, Adrian Aucoin or Rhett Warrener.

Huselius was the Flames No. 2 scorer behind Iginla the past two regular seasons yet scored zero goals in both Calgary's first-round playoff ousters.

It wouldn't be a surprise to see the Swede gone. He was occasionally unhappy with the amount of minutes he played some nights and when asked if he would play for Keenan again, Huselius replied: "It depends where that situation is going to be at. We'll see about that one."

Joseph, who turns 41 next week, chose to start the resurrection of his NHL career with the Flames and was a high-end backup for Kiprusoff after joining the team in January.

But Sutter is unsure the former all-star would be satisfied with not much more than 15 starts behind Kiprusoff next season.

Nolan, 36, provided veteran leadership, grit and a few timely goals, particularly in the playoffs. Sutter made no secret of wanting Nolan back if he could afford him and if the winger wants to keep playing.

"I'm going to take the summer and see what's going to happen, whether I continue to play," Nolan said. "Calgary is an option."

Phaneuf, a Norris Trophy candidate, continued to develop into one of the NHL's top defencemen with his hard-hitting brand of hockey and a slapshot that generated much-needed offence for his team.

It was a banner season for Iginla, who followed up a 50-goal season with an inspiring playoff performance.

"To get to 50 goals was fun," Iginla said. "As a group of players and an organization, we can be proud of making (the playoffs) four years in a row.

"But saying that, we do have to find a way to take our team from making the playoffs to that next level of being a more powerful team."

The Flames were the model of inconsistency and that cost them the division title and home-ice advantage in the post-season.

"Everyone has talked about it until they're blue in the face here,' Sarich said. "It's consistency and that comes on an individual level to make sure you're prepared every night. I think we had a few too many nights where we didn't have all 20 guys going and that hurts.

"There's definitely good leadership in our room although that can be improved upon. You can't have the same guys talking all the time."

While Sutter and Keenan spoke positively about the future Friday, the players were still wondering what if?

"It's painful," Aucoin said. "Any level of sports, it's one of those sayings that kicks you in the butt. Do I think we could have won? Of course.

"The last few days, you think once it's over you sit back relax and sleep but it hasn't been that easy."

Others headed for unrestricted free agency include winger Craig Conroy, forward Eric Godard, defenceman David Hale, defensive forward Stephane Yelle, defenceman Jim Vandermeer, forward Mark Smith and winger Eric Nystrom.

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