Game No. 34: It’s not called “The Wheel”

They told me next game *I* get to center the fourth line.

When things go wrong for a hockey team, they say, no matter how much you want to, you can’t fire the players.

Brent Sutter is well aware of this fact, but things have gone so, so wrong for the Flames lately that he’s doing the next best thing: benching ’em. The problem, he’s found, is that you can’t play with too short a bench. They tried that a couple years ago for different Darryl-Sutter-is-an-idiot-related and it killed them, if memory serves.

So instead Brent has opted to send a constantly rotating conga line into and out of the team suite over the last few games. Backlund out, Backlund in. Conroy out, Conroy in. Glencross in, Glencross out. Kotalik out, Kotalik in. All to little effect, and for various reasons.

In Conroy and Kotalik’s case, it’s because what you see with them is what you’re going to get for the rest of their playing days. The latter is 39 years old, and despite time with Iginla out of some sort of nostalgic necessity last season, he hasn’t been anything besides a fourth-line pivot in a few years. The former 32 years old and was well past his use-by date when the Flames traded for him. He’d been a healthy scratch with the New York Rangers (only notable because they were about as bad as the Flames last year in a far worse conference) for about half the season and his contract is nothing but a boondoggle then as now. So when they sit, it can’t be because the move is going to be seen as a wakeup call, inspiring play reminiscent of their glory days if ever such a thing existed, but rather simply because you can’t dress 23 guys (not that the Flames even have 18 you’d want playing for you on a night-in, night-out basis).

In Backlund’s case, making him a healthy scratch won’t do anything because you can’t expect him to play much better than he has. He’s young, he’s a skillsy center being asked to play a third-line role. I understand the inherent value in instilling your only decent young prospect with the ideals of defensive responsibility and sound positioning, but to then bench him for not living up to whatever seemingly random expectations have been imposed on him after such-and-such a game doesn’t, to me (and I’m assuming most sane observers) at least, make the slightest bit of sense from a developmental standpoint.

So the Flames have the Wild tonight. At this point you have to hesitate to call games must-win, but if this team wants to be back at .500 by New Years, it better start picking up two points from mediocre opponents right this second. Backlund and Kotalik sit. You try coming up with the reason.