May 11 2012 12:00PM
Last off-season, we looked at why the Flames were mediocre in a series of posts. This year, I plan to discuss what significant challenges face them in their bid to stay competitive and not be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the dreaded rebuild.
The title image for the post comes from a study by Gabriel Desjardins, looking at the age at which production tends to peak in professional hockey players. Anyone familiar with the Flames roster should instantly recognize why this is bad news for Calgary heading into the new year.
To make the problem more explicit, I put together the club's roster from the recent season, including ages, cap hits, point totals and ice time:
As you can see, a large proportion of the team fell outside of the professional peak age. The 28+ year olds (that's the bad end of the curve) scored 83% of the points, ate up 73% of the cap budget and accounted for more than 70% of the ice time. In contrast, players near or entering peak age accumulated about 19% of the ice time and scored a paltry 14% of total points accounted for.
Unless something major happens in the summer, things aren't going to change drastically for the club next year. Roman Cervenka may help fill the big hole in the middle of the roster, but the only guys at or within two years of peak pro age are Mikael Backlund, Blake Comeau and Blair Jones (the latter two are both RFA's and no guarantee to be retained) up front. Of the three, only Backlund has a fair chance to play in the top-6.
On the back-end, the peak agers end with Butler and Smith, with Smith at 27 close to entering the decline phase (and a support player at best anyways).
What it Means
Obviously points-per-game isn't an exact proxy for player value. There are many highly functional guys who are 28 or older and frankly if the Flames were an elite club, this sort of accounting wouldn't be all that relevant.
The issue is the Flames most certainly are not elite and one can't reasonably look at Calgary's roster and expect significant improvement given the way it's constructed. Most of the money guys are beyond their peak years (some well beyond). It's unlikely that group will all suddenly devolve in lock-step, but the good bet is that they will get worse in aggregate. Time waits for no man and all that. And keep in mind, Calgary's #1 goalie is also 36 years old.
Only a small contingent of the club's roster is on the good side of the age curve and, unfortunately, many of them are bottom rotation guys at best. Cervenka, Butler and Backlund are the only three current players who might take a real step forward as impact pieces in 2012-13, while guys like TJ Brodie, Lance Bouma, Roman Horak and (likely) Sven Baertschi are youngsters who are probably a few years away from playing really meaningful ice time or producing meaningful results.
It's a tough situation to be in, with no obvious solutions. Doubtless this is the reason a portion of the fan base wants to clear the decks and rebuild. If Feaster and company don't want to take that route and still seek to keep the club competitive (or, even more difficult, make real improvements) the challenge they face is to somehow collect more top rotation players who are at or near peak age.