The Flames have been playing shorthanded for several games, including a crucial loss earlier this week to the surging Canucks that may have decided first place in the Northwest Division. Now, there are a number of reasons why that can happen. Penalties incurred during a contest is the one that comes most readily to mind, but there can be injuries or a called-up player not getting to the arena on time.
The Flames are shorthanded simply because they are out of money.
Well, not technically out of money, but hard against the $56.7 million salary cap. They have played their last three outings with 17 players, three short of the allowable 20, because several high-profile and well-paid individuals are on their injury list. The problem is that there's no room under the cap to add replacements.
Placing blame for that is tricky. Pundits who declared Calgary all-in winners after their trade deadline acquisitions of Olli Jokinen and Jordan Leopold not only missed badly in their prediction that the Flames would be greatly improved, they failed to point out that GM Darryl Sutter didn't send nearly enough money out the door to balance the new cash obligations that were coming in. So when a slew of players including top-four defensemen Cory Sarich and Robyn Regehr were out of the lineup with nine-regular season games remaining, Sutter had a Hank Paulson-like problem on his hands.
At that late a point in the season, NHL rules forbid teams to put players on the long-term injured list (otherwise a handy escape valve for cap relief because their salaries do not count against it). That meant Sarich and Regehr became toxic assets. The Flames had at least five other injured players on the books, so they were forced to play a game that would likely decide the division crown (and third place in the Western Conference) without a full roster. That will likely be the case later this week when they close their season with a home-and-home series vs. Edmonton.
Sutter has argued that this is not a cap issue, but an injury problem. It's a valid point. Teams have played under the roster limit in the past, most often because of injuries. Yet the Flames are open to the complaint that by mismanaging their cap and playing short they can more easily surrender points they might have won -- points that could impact a team that is trying to get into or stay in playoff contention. And some folks won't be surprised if the Flames use their current predicament to lobby later for getting that nine-games rule removed.