It was the day after the NHL lockout had come to an end and Jarome Iginla, the Calgary Flames' captain, was one of about 24 players who'd gone through a hard morning skate, harder than most mornings, because training camps were on the horizon.
Iginla is a focal point at any time, but this year, his status with the organization is slightly different than in the past. At the age of 35, Iginla is in the final year of five-year, $35-million contract that will expire at the end of the season. Unless he signs an extension in the interim, he will become an unrestricted free agent next summer.
In the past, the two variables - contract talk and Iginla - generally don't add up to a big story. Iginla usually re-ups with Calgary as soon as regulations permit, without much anxiety or acrimony. In fact, he's played on two virtually identical contracts over the past eight seasons that have paid him the same flat rate - $7-million per year – every year. No weird bonuses, no front or back-loaded tinkering.
But this summer, as many players rushed to get signed under terms of the last collective bargaining agreement, Iginla took a different path. He decided to wait and see what happens next in Calgary – to gauge the general direction of the franchise before he commits to what will likely be the final contract of his career. Now that the lockout is over, Iginla is potentially down to the last six months of his career with the Flames, depending largely upon how this season unfolds So when the matter of his future with the organization came up Monday, Iginla's first response was: "Wow, I didn't expect that question so early there."
But it really is the primary story line in Calgary – that and how both he and goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, the franchise's two most important players, can avoid the slow starts that have plagued them in the past. Slow starts can be a killer in any year, but they are especially dangerous in a lockout-shortened 48-game season.
First, Iginla's thoughts on the contract:
"It would be my preference to stay here for sure and play on a good team here, which I think we will be – and to win here. It is home. That's where my focus is – getting ready and having a great season as a team and to play well for this team."
Iginla went on to say that once the season starts, "I want the focus just to be on winning games … I definitely don't want there to be any distractions."
But if they're not a very good team, then at least Iginla is opening the door to a possible move elsewhere, which would then oblige the Flames to assess where they're at organizationally before the trade deadline – expected to come sometimes in early April – and see if they need to listen to offers for their captain. Trying to navigate those potentially rough waters will be the job of general manager Jay Feaster, who will need to be in constant touch with Iginla's agent.
The Flames hired a new coach in Bob Hartley and the change should be good for Iginla's offensive production, after he chafed somewhat under former coach Brent Sutter's approach. Iginla slipped to 67 points last year, after putting up 86 the year before that.
"For us, as players it's exciting," said Iginla. "We'll be ready to learn and get right at it. I'm sure there'll be a lot of teaching and camp will be about implementing that new system. There are no excuses. We'll just try to learn it as quickly as we can and go."