Stuck in the middle

Jean Lefebvre
January 19 2010 05:33PM

So the Calgary Flames are a not-that-nifty 50 games into the 2009-2010 National Hockey League season.

While Monday's debacle at the Shark Tank creates the impression the Flames are heading towards rock-bottom, a fairer bigger-picture view of the whole affair suggests that once they pull out of their current death spiral, they will once again be a club that barely makes or barely misses the post-season.

And therein lies the problem as far as some frustrated fans are concerned. Since the end of the era of Nieuwy, Chopper, Killer, Robs, Sutes, Vernie et al, the Flames have never been good enough to truly be considered an elite club, their 2004 trip to the final and 2005-06 division pennant notwithstanding. They've also never been rotten enough to land a real plum draft pick who theoretically could provide assistance in the goal to achieve true greatness.

Since the start of the 1998-99 season, the Flames are one of only four clubs that have never finished either in the top 5 or the bottom 5 of the overall standings. Two of those clubs come with asterisks — the Minnesota Wild didn't open for business until 2000 and the Edmonton Oilers tied for 26th palce in 2006-07 but got the bump up to 25th spot because they had one more win than Chicago. The New York Rangers are the only other team that has never been among the handful of best or worst clubs in any give season.

No fewer than 10 teams — one-third the current membership — have made at least one appearance at both the top and the bottom of the overall standings in the 1998-2009 period: Boston, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Carolina, Tampa Bay, Washington, St. Louis and Anaheim.

While mediocrity can be fatal, there are benefits to being goshawful. The Penguins are a classic case example as they parlayed several years of lousy hockey (and a fortuitous lottery win) into four straight top-two selections and landed Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal.

The Capitals picked among the draft's top five three times in a four-year stretch and wound up with Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Karl Alzner.

The Blackhawks picked third of better three times in four years and picked up Cam Barker, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.

The Flames? Even in the 1997-98 season when they were in the bottom five of the cumulative standings, they were nudged down to sixth in the draft order because of the arrival of the expansion Nashville Predators. Their draft prize that season was Rico Fata, although it must be pointed out that the guy who went fifth overall — Vitaly Vishnevski to Anaheim — will continue to have to pay his own way into the Hall of Fame for the foreseeable future.

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Lefebvre is in that awkward stage of hockey following -- old enough to fondly remember the Cleveland Barons and too set in his ways to accept charity points and games where there's a winner but apparently no loser. As a long-time ink-stained wretch, he's also a firm believer in the old Bobby Knight quote about journalists: "All of us learn to write in second grade, but most of us go on to better things."
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