Defining elite, and also using the word

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If you are a fan of hockey or-- at the minimum-- a fan of the Calgary Flames, you have by now no doubt heard the story: since a 6-1 beat down by the San Jose Sharks at the HP Pavillion on Nov. 13, the Flames have surged to a remarkable 18-6-3 record.

Counted among those wins are victories over the Rangers, Canucks, Ducks, and two incredibly solid efforts against those same Sharks. To anyone who watches hockey on a consistent basis, there is no denying that the NHL is a class based system. At the bottom exists such proletarian franchises as the New York Islanders, Atlanta Thrashers, and (the surprisingly mediocre) Ottawa Senators.

At the very top, you find the exclusive troika of Boston, San Jose and Detroit. Somewhere in between is every other team in the NHL circuit. Given the Flames scorching hot mark over their last 27 games, the debate over whether or not Calgary is in the same class as the aforementioned elite has heated up from a slight simmer to rolling boil. After last Thursday's convincing 3-2 win over the Sharks, no less an authority than Don Cherry asserted that the Flames were indeed among the best in the league; this sentiment has been echoed by scores of fans and other talking heads in the media as well.

If the popular media has taught us anything about the NHL playoffs, it's that once you get in, anything can happen. This is a little bit of a misnomer; this does not mean that anything will happen.

The best team usually wins-- and although upsets do occur-- this maxim usually holds true. The national media framed the 2004 Flames playoff run as some sort of aberration, a heroic David versus Goliath story that played out over the course of two glorious months.

I would disagree.

On paper the Flames "upset" the Vancouver Canucks in the first round because they were the sixth seed, while Van City was the third by virtue of winning the Northwest Division. But hockey is not played on paper, it is played on the ice, and with the Canucks missing Todd Bertuzzi and their starting goalie Dan Cloutier, the Flames were the better team. Kiprusoff was head and shoulders above any of the three goalies Vancouver threw in the net during that seven game set, and Flames captain Jarome Iginla outplayed Markus Naslund and Brendan Morrison.

When your best players (especially your goaltender) are the best players on the ice, you usually win. The case against Detroit, and admittedly to a lesser extent, San Jose, in 2004 holds true as well. Kiprusoff was better than Curtis Joseph and Evgeny Nabokov in both those series, and coach Darryl Sutter used a system that maximized his team-- not just a constellation of talent, as was the case with the Red Wings. The Flames were a better team than those that they faced in the playoffs that year, and that can be said for most of the victors in a seven game series.

Based upon my above premise, I would argue that the current incarnation of the Calgary Flames would need to be able to consistently beat Boston, San Jose and Detroit to be considered elite in the league.

Elite means being a legitimate contender for the Stanley Cup, and the road to the cup almost surely will pass through at least one of those three cities for any team vying for the top prize. The Flames have demonstrated that they can beat San Jose (the current season series sees the Flames hold a 2-1 edge), but the jury is out on Boston (Calgary lost 3-2 in the 10th game of this season), and Detroit has gone 2-0 so far against the Flames this year.

To me, the Flames reside in the next tier of teams right beneath those three powerhouses. They are more in the class of Chicago, Montreal, Washington and the Rangers: viable contenders, but they would all need the planets to align correctly with injuries and lucky bounces to outlast an elite team over seven games.

So if the Flames are not yet elite, but consider themselves primed to make an extended spring run, what should they do? Given his past history, we know general manager Darryl Sutter likes to tinker but not overhaul leading up to the trade deadline. It has paid dividends in the past (2004 and the acquisition of Simon, Nieminen, and Nilson), but it has also burnt him (Mike Leclerc, Brian Boucher, Brad Stuart, anyone?).

Logically, one would think that depth on defence and goal would probably be high on the team's list of priorities, with maybe another winger thrown in for good measure.

The Flames have some pieces that could potentially be moved, although the market place for players such as noted prospects Matt Pelech, Kris Chucko or Dan Ryder remains unclear (and this, of course, assumes the Flames would be willing to part with young players).

The Flames may be better off using their farm depth to bolster the energy heading into playoffs, recalling the likes of Jamie Lundmark and Kyle Greentree in the hopes of pushing themselves into the same orbit of the Bruins, Red Wings and Sharks.