The 21-million-dollar question

A significant portion of the Calgary fanbase can’t stomach the idea of the Flames parting ways with Jarome Iginla.

Some think it would be a lousy idea to trade Iginla and others don’t get as far as the "think" stage, instead basing their feeling on sentiment and gut reaction. Considering how many of the franchise’s stars over the years finished their careers elsewhere — Gary Roberts, Theoren Fleury, Al MacInnis, Gary Suter and the guy for whom Iginla was traded way back when, Joe Nieuwendyk — it’s an understandable reaction. We’ll leave it up to you and your consciences if Mike Vernon qualifies as an exception to this rule.

On the flip side, at least some of the folks who have taken the position that Iginla has worn out his welcome at the Saddledome and/or that the franchise would be better served without No. 12 have done so out of anger and the primal blow-it-up instinct that typically follows an unsatisfying campaign for their heroes.

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In short, there’s so much emotion on both sides of the equation that it’s hard to sort out whether Iginla would best serve the Flames by remaining a Flame or by agreeing to be a King, a Bruin, a Blue, a Ranger or, ugh, a Maple Leaf.

Without pretending to be able to definitively answer that question, let’s take a look at the pointscoring history of 33-to-35-year-old stars and come up with a rough-hewn guess at how likely Iginla is to provide $21-million value over the remaining life of his contract.

In a previous entry, Kent Wilson drew from the example of Markus Naslund, whose career took a serious nosedive when his age matched Carey Wilson’s sweater number. In his 32-year-old season, Naslund produced 32 goals and 79 points in 81 games, figures that interrupted a string of four consecutive years in which the Canucks winger had managed more than a point a game. Naslund played full 82-game schedules in each of his 33-to-35 seasons but his point totals were only 54, 46 and 57. At age 36, he walked away from his contract with the New York Rangers and returned to Sweden.

Then there’s fellow Swede Mats Sundin, who between ages 26 and 36 turned in 10 seasons out of 10 that fell within the 74-to-83 point rage. It wasn’t until age 37 when Sundin hemmed and hawwed about conituning his career and wound up playing a mediocre half-season in Vancouver before deciding to call it a career.

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Or Iginla supporters could always hope for a Jaromir Jagr-like eruption at age 33. After being a 70-point man in his early 30s, Jagr exploded for 123 points at age 33 and followed that up with 96 points the next season. He dropped back to 71 points at age 35 and then headed for Russia.

How about Keith Tkachuk, a player who nominally falls into the same power-forward category as Iginla, even if in reality that label ill-fits the Calgary captain? Because of the lockout, Tkachuk didn’t have a 32-year-old season but he started his 30-something career with 138 points in 141 games. From age 33-to-35, he produced 36 points in 41 games and then a pair of 58-point seasons in more-or-less full campaigns.

Of course, this is hardly a major revelation as common sense dictates that the numbers can start declining at a certain age, but common sense sometimes takes a back seat in a fan’s opinion because of the aforementioned emotion issue. Iginla believers will also point to the fact that the right-winger is legendary for his conditioning and fitness results and will be able to cheat the aging process better than most.

In any event, here is the list of point totals from ages 30 to 35 for a group of star players. Just for the heck of it, and to demonstrate how much the concept of "old player" has changed in the last couple of decades, we’ve thrown Lanny McDonald, who was pretty much done at age 33, into the mix.

We’ve opted for raw point totals rather than point-per-game average because it would be counter-productive to use a methodology that removes the injury factor that is a significant part of the equation for aging hockey players. Lockout seasons (LO) are ignored for averging purposes.

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  • Grant F

    I have mixed feelings on the issue.

    I do believe there is value in having a guy spend an entire career in one sweater. It builds a culture, and a sense of history with your organization.

    But Iginla is now a diminishing asset – and a big question is can the Flames, who are already thin on valuable assets, afford to simply have #12 fade into the sunset.

    So I guess my short answer would be – if the return is right – then I think you move him. But if the only thing you can get for him is a bunch of question marks and draft picks – you pass.

    • Jean Lefebvre

      It’s a dilemma in a salary-cap world. Before the cap, teams could keep a face-of-the-franchise player indefinitely as long as they were willing to pay the money. Now there’s serious consequences if you choose to follow the “Flame (or Red Wing or Ranger or Canadien) for Life” script.

      Of course, for very different reasons, the Flames weren’t hanging on to their name players in the ’90s.

  • Well, it has been clear by watching over the last two years that Iggy is but a shadow of his former self.

    Still, points aren’t everything. Even if Iggy were elite it is more than possible, with a different team makeup, that he would be asked to play tougher minutes and thus diminish his point totals.

    The surface results aren’t everything, the context of his icetime when gets said results is much more telling.

    Unfortunately, it’s been pretty clear that he’s been playing easier icetime, overall, than he did in the first three post-lockout seasons, with worse results everywhere across the board.

    • “Unfortunately, it’s been pretty clear that he’s been playing easier icetime, overall, than he did in the first three post-lockout seasons, with worse results everywhere across the board”

      And that is the scary part about it. I don’t mind him being a role player, but he must be effective at it.

      On a tangent: I don’t think it is his salary per se that is the problem, the problem is everyone else on this team makes too much money for the value, which leaves you with no wiggle room when it comes to Iggy. The guy has to perform to his cap hit or the team is whooped because no one else on this team, save Bourque maybe, and Dawes, Glencross and Gio until he gets paid, is providing the value they should at the cap numbers they have.

      Personally, I don’t think it is fair to expect a 33, 34 year old guy to get you 100 points, and when he signed that contract I don’t think the fans should have expected that. It was a reward for a lifetime of service to the franchise. He played up to it most of the years and the last 2 he wont. That isn’t the end of the world, unless you have a GM who wastes precious cap space on Matt Stajan and Kotalik and Hagman and that stuff, and then it just might be. Compounding the problem is that Sutter built the team with the expectation that Iggy would continue to be a horse until the end of time, which was simply unrealistic.

  • Jean Lefebvre

    Yeah he’s going to look expensive for the next 3 years, but he was cheap for the first 3. It’s no different than the front loaded contracts guys like Luongo, Franzen and Zetterburg signed. I don’t know about you, but Jarome signed till he’s 36 looks a hell of a lot better than Luongo signed till he’s 42.

  • Jean Lefebvre

    Frontloading of contracts becomes relevant in pure hockey terms only in the event of a buyout situation. Otherwise, it’s pretty much an accounting issue for the owner(s) because the cap hit remains the same throughout.

    As for the matter of a contract being given with the understanding there would be declining value on the back end, that’s obviously not an argument for keeping Iginla. In fact, if you believe you’ve gotten the good or fair value portion of a long-term deal, it’s quite the opposite. Depending of course on the trade return, as Grant mentioned.

    Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see if anything will be done about those super-long deals with ultra-low salaries at the end (like Luongo’s) which some argue violate the spirit of the CBA.