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Calgary Flames captain Jarome Iginla takes a shot that scored a goal during the third period of their NHL pre-season hockey game against the Vancouver Canucks in Calgary, September 21, 2010. REUTERS/Todd Korol


In the dressing room, with his jersey off and shoulder pads put away, you can tell Jarome Iginla has slimmed down. He still sports an athlete's physique but it has been redefined for what he needs most.

Quickness. To get to loose pucks so he can fire off more pucks. So he can curb a disappointing trend in which he has scored fewer goals and points two seasons in a row, a matter that has some wondering if the captain of the Calgary Flames is now caught in a downward spiral.

He doesn't believe that. You'd scoff at him if he did.

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But there are questions and observations as Iginla begins his 14th season with the only NHL team he has played for. In a league in which youth is undeniably vital, where every contending team has an elite force up front, an Ovechkin, Crosby, Toews, Richards, Stamkos, Getzlaf, no team is as reliant on a 33-year-old forward as the Flames are on Iginla.

They need him at the peak of his game. They spent their off-season once again trying to find the right linemates for him. Their hope is that back-in-the-fold Alex Tanguay can do what he did three years ago: help Iginla score 50 goals. It's an expectation the team is counting on.

"We need Jarome healthy and scoring. We need his presence," said defenceman Robyn Regehr.

The Flames need it all from Iginla to make the Stanley Cup playoffs, which is why this is a telltale season on so many levels. Does Iginla rekindle his offence or does downgrading continue? At some point, do the Flames do the once unthinkable and explore trade options for their captain? Because isn't it always best to move a veteran a little too soon than too late?

Last season, a frustrated, sometimes flummoxed Iginla finished 31st in league scoring with 32 goals and 37 assists. Of the top-30 scorers, only three were over the age of 30 (Tampa's Martin St. Louis, Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson, Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk). Henrik Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks, who won the scoring title with 112 points, just turned 30 last month.

Being young isn't everything. But being good and young is paramount in today's NHL.

"He's still an outstanding player," an opposing team official said of Iginla. "But he doesn't come through the neutral zone with the same speed as he used to."

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Iginla has played it the hard way on the ice. He's one of the few, true power forwards in the NHL; someone who can score, hit, drive to the net and fight when necessary. (Ovechkin can do the first three but rarely does he drop the gloves.) Traditionally, power forwards are so worn down by their mid-30s that they lose their effectiveness. Iginla understands that but doesn't see it happening to him this year.

"One of these days there might be a drop but I don't feel that yet. I feel better than ever," he insisted. "This summer I didn't work so much on my fitness as on my puck work and stickhandling. I want to keep improving because I see how many young guys step into the league and play their game and they look great. It shows you it's not just about strength."

Those who know Iginla as teammates and rivals believe he had an off-season in 2009-2010 because there was no one to take the pressure off him. Centre Olli Jokinen was traded after a so-so run with Iginla. Matt Stajan wasn't the right fit, either. With no one to feed off, Iginla was easily defended and, with him shutdown, the Flames fizzled completely.

"Has he changed? There are subtle changes but the things that make him successful are the fundamentals," Regehr said. "Maybe he fights a little less, which is usually a good thing for us. We don't want him hurt."

Mike Cammalleri spent a season in Calgary as an Iginla linemate before signing with the Montreal Canadiens. His take is that Iginla needs to be surrounded by players who share his intensity and level of dedication so they can push him. Asked if he had noticed the Flames' career leading scorer losing anything, even slightly, Cammalleri answered he didn't see enough of his former teammate last season to know. But this much he was certain of: "… let's say Jarome is the power forward who has lost a step due to age, regardless of how well he takes care of himself," Cammalleri said. "He's still better than 95 per cent of the power forwards in the league anyway. So what's that really saying? Jarome losing a step; he's still like six steps ahead of everyone."

Iginla is aware that his lack of production last season had an enormous impact on the Flames. The top line didn't connect; the captain didn't score enough when it mattered. Worse, the top line from the opposing team ate up Calgary night after night.

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"We were outplayed by the Sedins [Henrik and Daniel] by [San Jose's Joe] Thornton. It had an effect on our team," Iginla said. "Last year people said we'd be a great team and we had an off year. We're still that solid team and we've added some real good players and we didn't lose anyone, and now [people say]we're not so good. We'll see."

We'll see, too, how Iginla responds with Tanguay feeding him the puck. Not much is riding on their partnership, only the Flames' season, a playoff berth and the answer to a most pivotal question: what next for Jarome Iginla - revival or regression?

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Sports writer

Allan Maki is a national news reporter and sports writer based in Calgary. More

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