In part one of this series, we established that Iginla’s performance this past season fell short of his expectations and pay grade.
In part two, we saw that the dip in performance was in line with a trend of decline which has been in evidence since Iginla peaked four seasons ago. The decline is also congruent with the career arc of skaters in general, and Marcus Naslund in particular.
In this article, I’ll look at what this all potentially means for the organization going forward.
It’s an unpleasant thing for Flames fans to consider trading Jarome Iginla. He’s been the organization’s best player for a decade, the author of some of the team’s best moments in recent memory as well as a gregarious and well-spoken spokesperson for the club and city in general. Sutter’s ability to attract and sign notable free agents during his tenure can likely be directly linked to the captain’s quality as a hockey player and as a person. He is truly an iconic figure in town and the accolades are well earned.
It is diffcult to coldly regard such players as on-ice assets without sentiment. But the responsibility of general managers is to balance what is and what is going to be against against what was and make the best bets possible in order to maximize gain and ice the best team possible.
At this stage of his career, Jarome Iginla looks like a bad bet to provide value for his contract. He’s a diminishing asset, albeit one with pedigree and clout around the league. Those will both fade as Iginla ages and his play drifts gradually from peak to valley. The task at hand, therefore, is to weigh his perceived value across the NHL (how much will teams pay to acquire him?) versus his probable value as a Flame (his performance versus price). If the former is greater than the latter, it obviously behooves Sutter to move Iginla now.
There are only two ways the Flames can garner value fromt he Iginla $7M/year contract through it’s remaining years:
1.) He rebounds back up to pre 2008-09 levels. I would say this is possible though not probable. Unless Iginla is hiding some sort of infirmity that could be corrected with restorative surgery (like, for example, Teemu Selanne), his decline looks to be simply the wear and tear of age. This is basically a "hope and pray" strategy, although one that admittedly worked out (in the short term) with Kipper this season given his bounce back up to a pre-Keenan level of performance. So it can happen I suppose, although it’s not something I’d bet my money on personally.
It’s also the riskier move. Should Jarome continue to decline, his stock will fall in the eyes of the NHL in general, as will any potential return the Flames could demand in trading him. Or, to put it another way, this may be Iginla’s peak trade value from this point going forward.
2.) The club acquires an elite talent to carry the mail. Iginla remains a useful player and probably one that can still put up points at a decent clip at both ES and on the PP. He doesn’t appear to be a driver of results anymore, however, and given the fact that the club has built around him as if he were, there is a general lack of other elite talent on the team to help shoulder the load. There’s a lot of good-to-very good support players to be sure (Bourque, Langkow, Hagman, Glencross, Moss, Dawes, etc.), but there’s no one on this team I would expect to reliably face the other elite forwards in the league and win even half the time. Assuming the goal is to compete for the Stanley Cup (and not merely for the final playoff spot), that’s not good enough.
As such, an elite, playmaking center is probably required for the Flames to leverage their investment in Jarome (unfortunately, Matt Stajan doesn’t cut it). Ironically, I never subscribed to the notion that the club needed a "true #1 center" before this point given the quality of Iginla’s results over the years with reasonable facsimiles (most notably, Daymond Langkow), but here we are. Many note that Iginla’s play seemed to elevate on Crosby’s wing during the Olympics, to which I say…no kidding. Crosby is likely the best center in the world right now, if not the best player. He and Jarome, when paired, were deployed by Babcock in purely offensive surroundings (o-zone draws, power play time), while feeding guys like Bergeron and Toews the tougher assignments. To put it bluntly, if that’s what it takes to elevate Jarome’s play up to previous levels, it’s simply beyond the Flames organization to do so.
Not only because they don’t have the cap space nor the trade assets to acquire a Sidney Crosby or anything remotely resembling him at this time, they also don’t have a team of Toews and Bergerons to feed to the wolves (few do. That’s why the Olympics are fun).
That said, this may be why it makes sense for a club already possessing the likes of Crosby or Bergeron to acquire Iginla presently – they already boast the pieces to effectively shelter Jarome and therefore leverage his contract to something approaching full value. Of course, it’s never ideal to have to carefully manage the ice time of a guy making top-15 money, but it’s a lot easier to do when you boast Crosby and Evegeni Malkin as your top 2 centers, for example.
Let’s also be clear that Iginla’s trade value is of pressing concern to the organization presently. Sutter has gambled heavily on the roster over the last two seasons, his betting chips the franchises future assets. The club now lacks cap space, draft picks and quality prospects (especially at forward) and the pillars of the franchise around whom Sutter has built the team are all past their peak seasons (with the possible exception of Jay Bouwmeester). Unless Sutter – or Sutter’s replacement – can orchestrate a bit of budgetary/signing/trade magic this offseason, the club is poised to sink deeper into the middling murk of the Western Conference.
As such, a strong return for Iginla could go a long way to righting the ship, assuming an appropriately attractive package of young, established player + quality prospect + draft pick. And since Sutter spent the Flames other notable trade asset on veteran roster players in a vain attempt to salvage the season *cough* Phaneuf *cough*, Iginla likely represents the next best avenue of return. We can’t be certain without canvassing the other GM’s in the league of course, but it’s defensible speculation at the very least.
Whatever happens, I’d like to state emphatically that nothing that occurs from this moment forth can sully what Jarome Iginla has accomplished as a Calgary Flame. Whether a trade this summer or graceful ride into the sunset a few years from now, Iginla will forever leave an indelible mark on the organization and city as a whole. His play sustained the club through dark times and his personality both off and on the ice will always be remembered with affection and pride. He’s arguably the greatest Flames player of all time there should never be another Calgary skater to wear #12 once Jarome takes it off for good. Don’t mistake my current evaluations of the player to be indictments of his character nor an admission of animus towards the man. Like Nieuwendyk, Fleury and MacInnis before him, Jarome Iginla will always remain a Calgary Flame, wherever else he may end up.