Almost to a man they were asked if they could imagine the Calgary Flames without their captain. Could they honestly envision Jarome Iginla in a different jersey next season?
And virtually to a man, Iginla's Calgary teammates replied no. It was, according to defenceman Cory Sarich, "A difficult one to wrap your head around."
Wrapping their heads around an Iginla departure was very much the buzz as the Flames departed the Scotiabank Saddledome having missed the Stanley Cup playoffs for a third year in a row. Although Iginla's future has been debated the past two years, his tone following Calgary's season-ending weekend win over the Anaheim Ducks gave the matter a strong sense of possibility.
On Monday afternoon, after meeting with general manager Jay Feaster for a quick discussion, he affirmed his stance.
"I don't know what direction everybody [in management]is going. If they choose to go a full rebuild, at this point, that's not [for him]" Iginla told reporters. "Probably my ideal situation, yes, would be to be here, reload and go for it … Ideally, I believe we had a chance to win this year. I don't believe the teams that beat us [for a playoff spot]are better. I really don't."
Iginla turns 35 this July. He has a year remaining on a contract that will pay him $7-million (U.S.) for next season. While he has never been one to seek brighter lights on a bigger stage in another city, the truth is time is running out on his career. If he wants to win a Stanley Cup, it can be easily argued he may have to switch jerseys to do it.
Beyond young Sven Baertschi, there are few hotshot prospects in the Flames' farm system. Six players are bound for unrestricted free agency; four others are restricted free agents. In other words, change is coming. Even if the Flames' management opts to rebuild on the fly – as opposed to an Edmonton Oilers-like tear down – the question is: does Iginla believe the Flames are capable of getting it right before his career ends?
"Can you win here?" he was asked.
"You want to be in the playoffs and have that shot," he answered. "I genuinely believe we had a shot to be in that. We had a solid team. We didn't come up big when we needed to be. I played a role in that ... I look at myself – it's worse this year. I thought we were going to make it."
Iginla's teammates, as expected, stood up for their captain. Mike Cammalleri was asked if he was willing to take on more of a leadership role next season and replied with a pro-Iginla take.
"I don't read the papers but some guys have said people have been asking, 'Is it time for him to move on?' I want to make if clear," Cammalleri said. "He's a great leader for this team. I like the added leadership responsibility; I'd rather do it alongside him. I like to win and I think our best chance of winning is with him there, in that role."
Iginla wants to win, too. He said he didn't care if he scored "587 goals or 602, it doesn't matter to me. I want to win a Stanley Cup.
"I want to be on a good team, absolutely. I thought we were on a good team this year that didn't make it."
How the Flames become that much better is another debatable point. Head coach Brent Sutter has no contract for next season. He and Feaster are slated to meet with the media Tuesday to talk about what's next for the team and Iginla, too, who has a no-movement clause in his contract. (Iginla said the clause gives him "a little more head's up" but doesn't mean he alone controls his fate.)
Every Flame was asked Monday what they felt should be done to secure that elusive playoff berth. Most, like Alex Tanguay, said, "There are different ways to win. With this group, it's find the best way possible for us."
Sarich, a pending UFA, was a bit more open saying Calgary needed more of a defensive commitment. Centre Olli Jokinen pointed to the team's penchant for sluggish starts.
"Good teams, in the first 50 games, they put themselves in a good position. They almost clinch [a playoff spot]" Jokinen said. "The last time we made the playoffs, at about the trade deadline we knew we were going to be in the playoffs. The last two years we keep putting ourselves in the hole. It's really hard to come back after that."
As for the Iginla, who said he wouldn't be playing for Canada at the 2012 IIHF world championship, coming back to Calgary is no longer the great certainty it once was. Both he and management need time to think. Right now, Iginla noted, this business of missing the playoffs is getting old and decidedly monotonous.
"We're out of the playoffs. We're all tired of it. We'd like it to change."