January 17 2013 10:48AM
Well it’s finally
October January, and we are just about ready for the start of the 2012- 2013 NHL hockey season.
Depending on your level of contempt for the league (the players or some combination of the two) you might be ready as a fan to take a look at this year’s edition of the Calgary Flames and decide where you stand on what truly matters: the hockey. How will this year’s band of brothers fair on the icy battlefield? Are you looking back in anger? Looking forward with optimism? Or are you stuck somewhere in the middle just shaking your damn head - not really sure about how to feel about any notion of direction?
Over the past week, as Flames fans, we have seen the numbers from various sources. Let’s face it folks, the “odds” don’t look all that great, do they?
Does that mean we should just throw in the towel now? We’ve seen Kent break down the two ways this season could go for Calgary. We’ve seen Lambert describe how, if the stars all align perfectly for a little over three months, the Flames might find their way to the right path; albeit, even if they do, it will be due to flat out dumb luck, and still to the detriment of the team in the long run.
With all due respect to Doubting Thomas, it’s pretty easy write the Flames off before they play their first game. Let’s face it, historical performance makes it a lot easier to justify those claims than hope and speculation. This team hasn’t gotten the job done. They haven’t gotten into the playoffs for the last three years, and they have done little to change their modus operandi.
While I’m not a believer that all the stars need to be aligned, I do think there are some integral things that need to happen in order for some degree of success this season...
While the core of this team remains the same, for some, it is the problem. There are a lot of variables that weigh on this edition of the Calgary Flames; too many factors that lead to different outcomes. In the end, all the forks in the roads may eventually lead to the same path anyways. However, I think it deserves mentioning that there are some very key areas that might leave you guys, and the fans, pleasantly surprised.
IF I Only Had A Brain
When it comes to coaching, there are many opinions as to just how much the coach affects the overall fate of the team. This is a very interesting topic for conversation, especially regarding the Flames, in that it’s not just that we have a new Head Coach, but rather a whole new coaching staff. Comments have ranged from, “It’s not the coach that is out on the ice, so how can he affect the game?” to “No, but it’s the coach who decides who is on the ice.” Then we have those, like our very own Kent Wilson, who in his recent piece on The 2012-13 Flames – The Good and Bad, said,
”I am agnostic on the effect of most coaches in the NHL. My feeling is that outside a few outliers at either end, most of them reside in a big, squishy middle area. Meaning, I have low expectations for a Hartley induced turn-around.”
For the most part, I agree with Kent, but in the case of Hartley and the Flames, I think it’s going to be situational circumstances where Hartley has the potential to be a difference maker in Calgary.
Shift after shift, game after game, we saw the comments come like a Gatling gun on the live chat, “Why does Sutter keep playing Iggy against the other teams’ best line???” or “Why doesn’t Sutter know how to match lines properly?” And let’s not forget the night when Sutter sent out Matt Stajan, Lee Stempniak and Blair Jones for the shootout after blowing a 2-0 lead to the Wild. When those three didn’t score (surprised?) and Devon Setoguchi did in the 4th round, Brent then sent out Blake Comeau to keep us in this thing o.O … So… yeah, we ALL know how that turned out.
My point here is that if Hartley holds true to this notion of increased (and a more effective) offense, then we are going to see a shift in how key players like Iginla are used, who plays with him, and how creative Hartley can be in creating situational success. If he can find a way to move a guy like Backlund around to generate some “good” luck (instead of leaving him mired in a hole of “bad” luck) then, by default, Bob will have had a dramatic influence on the overall performance of the team.
IF I Only Had The Nerve
This condition isn’t so much honing in on any specific player, the team as a whole is going to have to play above their heads to some degree and, more so, above expectations. Does that mean they are going to have to play above their skill levels? No, I don’t think that is vital to their success this year… even though it would be nice.
Two players that I think best represent this category are currently playing together in training camp. Mikael Backlund and Sven Baertschi are going to have a lot of attention on them in this shortened and intensified season.
Backlund will be looking to redeem himself after what many considered to be a disastrous season last year. The fact that the Flames renewed him for only one year means that he is definitely under management’s microscope, and the shortened season means full magnification on the fourth year Swede. That being said, he looks to be making the most of it by being pro-active in showing Feaster et al what he is truly capable of. He scored 30 pts in his 23 games with Vasteras. And although he found himself 13th in league scoring, he was only 10 pts behind the leader and played 14 fewer games. His 1.30 PPG pace led the league and eclipsed second place Henrik Bjorklund who held a 1.16 PPG with 36 pts in 31 games.
Does this mean Backlund will step on the ice Sunday afternoon and play every shift like this?
Well ya, obviously… I mean, no. None of us should expect that of him. But to a large degree, Flames fans want to see Backs take more than one step in the right direction. Call it maturity, dedication, pride or perhaps, nerve, but Backlund needs to show that he wants to be here, and that he deserves to be here. The success he had over in Sweden during the lockout is going to show dividends in his play here in the NHL. It’s an opportunity for him to get off to a quick start because he is already in game shape, while the opposition he is usually lined up against may not quite be there just yet.
Backlund also has the opportunity to show that he could thrive in a more offensive role, which relates back to the belief that Hartley wants to see a more skilled offensive club. Could it be? Might we be seeing the coach and Backlund on the same page when it comes to how he is utilized in the organization? For the first four days of training camp we have heard how well Backlund has played on a line with the Flames hopeful phenom, Sven Baertschi.
Speaking of the Svensational one… okay do I even have to continue with this?
Okay. If it’s not enough that Sven will have management watching him like a hawk to see if he is ready for the show, Baertschi can also look forward to twenty thousand plus watching him night in and night out to see if he will be the one to lead us out of mediocrity. In the meantime, the media will be taking every opportunity to thrust him into the Calgary spotlight, hoping to either crown him the Saviour of the Flames, or to write him off as just another example of failure in the system – a thrill for every pessimist out there who is sitting idly by, hoping he’s a failure, so they too can declare him a bust.
(Yes, I mean you Andrew Walker!)
Even with the large potential for pressure on the young Swiss Svensation, the Flames higher ups (eg. Feaster and Conroy) have raved about Baertschi’s poise and maturity. After watching him in his brief five game stint last year, I would expect that his energy paired with the excitement he’ll inject into this roster will over-shadow that pressure by a fair margin. If, as fans, we think or hope that he is a contender for the Calder trophy, then I think that is just fantastic. But if, as fans, we think that he is going to come in, grasp the wheel of this ship and sail off into the sunset, then I think we all need to take a deep breath.
What are your expectations for Baertschi?
In attending some of the training camp sessions, I can tell you that it has been quite exciting to watch Backlund and Beartschi working together. On top of the rejuvenated play of Mike, you can see this sly grin on his face when he comes to the bench. Peter Loubardias described it as a “swagger” to his attitude. Is it possible that Sven’s enthusiasm is magnifying the play of Backlund? It’s been said that when you are having fun, you tend to do your job a lot better. Well, these two definitely look like they’re having some fun out there.
IF I Only Had A Heart
I want to preface this by saying in no way do I think that Jarome Iginla lacks heart in any measure. Rather, it’s quite the opposite. We all know, and if we don’t the players and management have told us ad nauseum, that Iggy is the heart of this team; and to some, this city.
That being said, Iggy’s heart is going to have to be big enough to once again carry this team through the cavern of doubt and disbelief for the Flames to be successful in this sprint to the playoffs. They are going to need him to come out from game one, full speed, and not take his foot off the gas for as long as his body will allow it.
That doesn’t sound too difficult now does it? Iginla is always in the top 2% of fitness on the team, and we are all too familiar with what the captain can do when he gets a burr under his saddle. So we are basically going to see Hartley ride him like Seabiscuit to see if the Flames can get where they need to be and get Iginla to where he wants to be.
Despite what some think (or say) about the core, this is a different team this year. We’ve seen the departure of many whose air of complacency led to the mediocrity and in their place are the new, potential, breaths of fresh air… even if they are surrounded by doubt.
Has the excitement of bringing in a player like Cervenka been doused by his recent issues with blood clots? If so, then it shouldn’t be because the problem doesn’t seem to be career threatening and the Flames still feel he will play (and play well) for them this season. Is Hudler honestly expected to repeat what he did in Detroit last year? Probably not, but it’s just as unrealistic to think that he will fall flat on his face. Are we getting too excited about Mikael Backlund, only to regress back into a season of “What IF’s”?
The funny thing about Flames fans is that we are so polarized. It’s one extreme or the other and sometimes we are so blinded by faith or vitriol that we forget that somewhere in the middle, there just may be a solution, or another path for us to travel.
Maybe Hudler doesn’t produce offensively like he did last year, but maybe he gets two thirds of those points and helps boost the production of his linemates. Maybe Baertschi isn’t a Calder finalist, but he scores at a 30-35 point pace and helps Backlund turn his career in the right direction… maybe.
As I said from the beginning, there are too many variables on the team this year to be able to nail down how they will perform and where they finish. They may not be where we all want them to be, but they may also not be where we think they are. Individually, brains, heart and courage may be enough to see them fall just short of the post-season again. Together, and if this team can use what strengths they have to pull together, then they may just surprise us all; and wouldn’t that be a nice change?
If we look back to the captain, we should recognize that there is a hell of a lot of reasons for Iggy to drive himself like never before. It’s a contract year, and if he really wants to stay as a Flame then he realizes that he is going to have to make an awful lot of hay this year to justify it. He also has a streak of eleven straight 30 goal seasons going. Can he get 30 in 48 games? Who knows, but I’m sure a lot of you are saying, “VF, are you serious???” (I know I am, - ed.)
If I said it was a joke, would it be funny?
A little bit of incentive can go a long ways, and Iggy has a ton of it right now. As skeptical as some (all?) are, I think it’s going to be exciting to watch him go for it and to see his teammates rally behind him to try and help get him there. If they only have the heart.