- Associated Press - Thursday, September 29, 2011

CALGARY, ALBERTA (AP) - The Calgary Flames were experienced and expensive the past two seasons.

And it didn’t work. An older team at the top end of the salary cap missed the playoffs both years.

Calgary got younger and gained space under the cap in Jay Feaster’s first offseason as general manager. The former Tampa Bay Lighting GM had the interim tag removed from his title in May.

Feaster took over managing duties midway through last season, when Darryl Sutter was asked to resign and Calgary had a 16-18-3 record.

Calgary went on a 25-11-9 run to finish the year, falling three points short of a playoff berth in a tight Western Conference race.

A 41-29-12 record wasn’t enough to return to the postseason, but the way the Flames finished makes them optimistic.

“The main thing with us as a group is believing in ourselves,” defenseman Mark Giordano said. “We all do right now.”

The Flames open the regular season at home Oct. 8 against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Calgary’s Stanley Cup win came in 1989. And the Flames lost in seven games to Tampa Bay in the 2004 final.

After the 2004-05 lockout, the Flames were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs four straight seasons before falling short in 2010 and 2011.

Was the departure of Darryl Sutter the difference in Calgary’s late surge last winter?

“It was pretty clear to everybody that we needed a philosophical adjustment,” Flames president Ken King said when Feaster was made full-fledged GM.

“One of the things Jay had said was he had never seen a team that liked winning less, or had enjoyed it less.”

Captain Jarome Iginla, 34, and goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, who turns 35 in October, are the backbone of the Flames.

What’s concerning for Calgary to start this season is Iginla’s health. The franchise scoring leader experienced back spasms during his first skate of training camp and sat out a large portion of camp. Iginla skated Thursday for the first time since then. He skated for about 20 minutes, but took no contact.

The Flames got 20-plus goals from Curtis Glencross, Alex Tanguay and Rene Bourque last season, while Olli Jokinen and David Moss also provided secondary scoring with 17 goals apiece. Calgary will need that output again.

A question mark for the Flames this season is the defense. Feaster traded defenseman Robyn Regehr, who had spent his entire career in Calgary, along with forward Ales Kotalik to Buffalo in exchange for defenseman Chris Butler and forward Paul Byron.

Regehr is considered among the best shutdown defensemen in the league. Butler’s game is less punishing than Regehr’s, although he has more finesse.

“Don’t underrate where Butler is at,” said coach Brent Sutter, who is Darryl’s brother and returns to Calgary’s bench for a third season.

“He was playing with (Tyler) Myers in Buffalo, playing against the other team’s top forwards from Christmas on. He’s a mobile guy, a guy who can jump up in the play and create some offense for us, too.”

The Flames‘ defense also has Giordano, one of the best shot-blockers in the league, Jay Bouwmeester moves the puck well and Cory Sarich provides muscle.

As Kiprusoff has gotten older, the Flames have vowed to reduce his workload. Until now, it hasn’t happened. Calgary couldn’t afford to sit him in the push for a playoff berth.

So Kiprusoff has played more than 70 games for six straight seasons. The Vezina Trophy winner in 2006 has said he’s open to playing fewer games and Feaster says he will, which would mean more work for Henrik Karlsson.

Feaster kept some experienced players by re-signing 31-year-old winger Alex Tanguay and 36-year-old center Brendan Morrison as free agents.

The two veterans meshed well with Iginla during Calgary’s hot streak last season. Iginla ended the season with 43 goals, which was the first time he’d passed the 40-goal mark since scoring 50 in 2007-08.

Morrison tore ligaments in his knee in March and required offseason surgery. He’ll have to ease into the season. The Flames will likely audition 22-year-old Mikael Backlund, their first-round pick in 2007, on the top line with Iginla and Tanguay.

Brent Sutter’s strategy involves taking care of defensive responsibilities first and exercising offensive creativity second.

“Obviously when you’ve got some offensive-minded guys, creativity is a big part of that,” Sutter said. “You’ve got to allow that, but when you don’t have the puck, you need structure.

“You need to have everyone on board with that and doing the details involved with defensive hockey.”

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