Whatever can be said about this Flames season, it’s certainly never boring. Here are some thoughts on their on-going playoff chances, Feaster, Kipper and more:
Flames, Feaster – Rock, Hard Place
– The win over the Oilers kept the Flames dim playoff hopes theoretically alive, but their performance didn’t fill me with much hope. Calgary has been playing just okay hockey for several weeks now and their mediocrity has obviously been compounded by a few injuries recently. They haven’t beaten anyone of consequence in the western conference for over a month and are starting to stumble even against the featherweights of the league. I mean, without some favorable reffing Saturday night and Jim Vandermeer playing like a double agent, the Flames lose to a pale facisimile of the very worst team in the entire league. Lose legitimately that is, because they were outclassed for 45-50 minutes of that hockey game by just about all measures.
– Calgary’s crash back down to earth displays in vivid detail the dilemma Jay Feaster faced at the trade deadline. There was a sense at the time whether selling a few UFA’s would be the better long-term strategy and in light of the most recent 10-game downturn there’s little question that it probably was. That said, if Feaster (acting in his capacity as the "interim" GM) had sold the likes of Glencross, Babchuk etc. only to see the club go into it’s current tailspin, there’s no question folks would be readying their torches and pitchforks. In many ways, it was a lose-lose situation for the guy and I have some sympathy for him. That said, I’d like to note that I warned against being seduced by the Flames hot streak at the time.
– Don’t take the previous as either an indictment nor endorsement of Feaster’s work in Calgary thus far. The only grade I could assign the guy is "incomplete". His actions in the big chair bear the semblance of a man who is either unwilling or unable to rock the boat. This could be due to the unenviable position he was left in by both his predecessor, the implicit sword of Damocles hanging over his head due to that "acting" GM tag or perhaps because he was restricted from acting in the fill capacity of an NHL GM.
I was about 50/50 on the possibility that the Flames owners were going to go shopping for someone else this off-season with Feaster just minding the store in the mean time and I’ve seen nothing so far that makes me shift from that position. The Calgary organization has been very measured and non-committal in it’s operations since Darryl was given the boot, which suggests to me the money-men are riding out the 2010-11 season before making any real decisions.
– I’m normally not a big booster of former players getting into the media after their retirement, mainly because the position can be a perfunctory one bestowed due to their celebrity rather their abilities. That said, I am enjoying Rhett Warrener on the FAN960 these days*. I was tough on Rhett during his last few years as a Flame – his cap hit was high but his utility in the post-lock-out NHL was marginal, particularly due to all the chronic injuries he was perpetually playing through.
Beyond his "insider" type stories**, which range from interesting to hilarious, Warrener is refreshing in that he is fairly honest about his assessments of past teams, players and even the current iteration of the Flames. One of the issues with former players – especially recently retired guys – is that they’re loathe to offer frank assessments on the air, but that doesn’t seem to be much of an issue for Warrener so far. He’s also not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom and/or emergent narratives when they are proffered by the media as easy explanations for things.
The FAN has some big shoes to fill now that they’re without the antics of Mike Richards, but Warrener is a step int he right direction. Thumbs up.
* Full disclosure – Flamesnation obviously has a relationship with the FAN, but this in no way informed my opinion of Warrener or the morning show
**For example – this morning, Warrener’s anecdote was about the 2005-06 Flames. He said the club was laid into by Darryl Sutter…shortly after they won the first game of the playoffs in double-OT over the Ducks. Apparently Sutter was livid that it took the Flames till overtime to win the game. Really.
Kipper and a Crumbling Regime
– Miikka Kiprusoff’s SV% fell to .904 on the season after the game in Edmonton. Despite a nice run mid-season, Kipper has fallen off the horse a bit again recently and is likely to finish with a sub-.910 SV% for the third time in the last four years. His ES SV% of .914 isn’t anything to write home about, so it’s not like he’s merely suffering from an outrageously low SV% on the PK (which can be largely luck driven).
After his revival last year, I had hoped that Kipper’s mediocrity under Mike Keenan had been mostly coach driven, but his performance this season puts a big hole in that theory. I think Kipper is still a capable starter in this league and his durability certainly has some value to be sure, but the notion that he’s an elite goaltender should be put to bed. Elite goalies don’t have great seasons once every four years – no matter what kind of club is playing in front of them. Matt Fenwick and myself both appeared on Nations Radio this weekend and we agreed that if the Flames decide to deal a "cornerstone" player in the near future, they should start by exploring the market for Kiprusoff. Paying $5.8M in cap space for a just-okay 35-year old goalie is extremely inefficient given how cheaply puck-stoppers can be had in the current environment. Of course, the challenge in dealing him is that other GM’s probably realize this too – although managers can be somewhat irrational when it comes to paying goaltenders, so…
– On the topic of dealing major pieces like Miikka Kiprusoff or Jarome Iginla: the primary battle, particularly for fans, is to differentate between what a player is and what he was. For example: Kipper was a vezina winner and one of the best goalies ever to play on this team. That’s true and what’s more, it will always be true. But reputation does not reflect the current reality as evidenced by the above.
The Flames organization is very rapidly approaching a crossroads, one in which difficult decisions will have to be made about the core and direction of the club. The players around whom the previous regime built around are on the down-slopes of their careers. The club has precious little cap space and the prospect pool is shallow. As the money players continue to near obsolesce, Flames ownership, management and fans will have to cleave sentimentality from their decision-making and be ruthless in their assessments of the true current value and worth of their on-ice assets. At some point, tinkering around the edges won’t be a worthwhile strategy. Heck, we might be there already.