(This article is the first submission in the FN contributor search. Please add your cheers and jeers in the comments. Make sure to keep things impersonal and constructive, however. Personal attacks will not be tolerated).
By Scott Lepp**
The title of this blog represents two different ways of looking at the Calgary Flames heading into the 2011/2012 campaign. On one hand, the team was hotter than a two-dollar pistol during much of the 2nd-half of the season and some poorly timed injuries hurt that push late in the year, leading to the team falling just short of the playoffs. Had they continued at that torrid pace, they might have been a difficult team to face in the 1st round. They enter this year with a similar lineup; itching to make that push to the post-season.
On the other hand, despite a late-season push, the Flames blew very winnable games down the stretch and weren’t able to come through when the games counted the most. The team missed the playoffs for the second straight season, with a veteran-laden squad, and the newly appointed head honcho, Jay Feaster, was unable to add pieces to the team to make it better. They enter this year with a similar lineup; expect similar results.
The argument from those fans (and possibly Flames management) of the former belief is that the return of Daymond Langkow, the continued growth of Mikael Backlund and a full Darryl-less season will prevent the early season meltdown that the boys experienced, leading to a nice spot in the five to eight range of the Western Conference and a chance to make a run at the Cup.
Those fans with a more pessimistic look at the upcoming season will contend that neither the slumping early-season team nor the white-hot, guns a-blazin’ squad we saw, are the real Calgary Flames but, rather the fair-to-middling boys we saw down the stretch. A team is generally not as good or as bad as their streaks will try to tell us.
So – who’s right? Or, who’s more likely to be right?
There are two significant roster changes for 11/12; Daymond Langkow returns after a handful of underwhelming games last season and a full off-season to recover. And, Feaster made Robyn Regehr the sacrificial lamb and shipped him out of town in return for a downgrade on D. Langkow will slot somewhere in one of the top 3 centre spots on the team, likely with Bourque/Morrison, and will be expected to face very difficult competition with a tough zone start %. He’ll be counted on to kill penalties and make the hustle plays… he’s expected to be the Langkow of the past. However – returning from a major injury will more than likely prevent Langkow from assuming that role; a role I often argue he wasn’t even doing that good of a job at prior to his injury against Minnesota late in ’10. Langkow’s goals, assists and points have all steadily declined since his 77-point campaign in 06/07 (you’ll remember that season as the year the team stopped playing defense) and he can’t win a faceoff if his life depended on it (43.7%, 46.9%, 43.5% 07-10 seasons). He barely makes a mark on penalty minutes; so either he’s one of the smartest two-way players in the game (Pavel Datsyuk), or he likes to keep the puck at a distance and reach with his stick. Should the return of Langkow result in anything more than an increase of one or two wins – I’d be surprised, and at 4.5 million, I’m crossing off the days on my calendar until his deal comes off the books (What? It’s at this seasons end? Can you say “trade deadline?”).
Now, don’t get too hasty in adding one or two wins to your Flames projection – we have to factor in the loss of Robyn Regehr first. Maybe Mark Giordano is ready to play the REALLY tough minutes like Reggie – and, let’s say he is, well – who’s ready to take over Gio’s minutes? And on down the line? The problem is that shipping Regehr to the Sabres and replacing his minutes with some sort of combination of Brett Carson/Chris Butler/Anton Babchuk causes a serious downgrade in the Flames defense 5 on 5 and on the PK. The Flames were one of the stingiest teams in shots allowed, which is one of the main reasons they even had a shot at the playoffs. The downgrade that comes from trading Regehr will hurt this and I will argue that the loss of Regehr will have a greater impact than the addition of Langkow. On that note – imagine Cory Sarich paired with J-Bo, trying to make up — … you know what, don’t, let’s not cause ourselves any Sarich-induced head-trauma before the season even starts!
Further to the Flames downgrade on defense comes the relative effect it will have on the goaltending. Robert Cleave did a fantastic job of breaking down Miikka Kiprusoff’s season in an earlier post. That article explains that even with the Flames stinginess last year, they still let in too many important goals in 5 on 5 tied situations. That’s WITH Regehr on the team. And even worse, I think we could all agree that on the outside, it appeared that Kipper had somewhat of a bounce-back season. In reality – he didn’t. And, the loss of Regehr will only compound that problem.
Which brings me to my final point… Jay Feaster. He jettisoned Reggie, along with Ales Kotalik-wrapped-in-a-2nd-round-pick, in order to dump salary with the intent at taking a blind shot at the biggest fish on the market, Brad Richards. This is straight out of the Jay Feaster historical hand-book. Feaster loves him some re-treads. Feaster also enjoys overpaying his stars. Feaster is known to pleasingly deal draft picks as if they have no bearing on the future of an organization. Jay Feaster was handed a Stanley Cup-calibre team when he took over the Tampa Bay Lightning. He made some nice moves to push them over the top and led them to the cup victory, only to drive the organization into the ground with terrible contracts, even worse trades and a draft record that would make Darryl Sutter look like a – if I may quote Ken King – “genius.”
Ok – so he deserves some credit in bringing back Alex Tanguay and Curtis Glencross at cap-friendly (but term-heavy) deals – but I’ll ask FN readers a couple simple questions: “What would you expect of the GM of your hockey club during the off-season?”… I’d say we’d all agree it would be something along the lines of: IMPROVE. THE. TEAM.
Now, final question: “Do you think Jay Feaster, as GM of the Calgary Flames, improved the team during the off-season?” … That answer is easy: NO.
Taking all of these factors into consideration, how can we reasonable expect any significant improvement from the Flames? We never even talked about how several of the Western Conference playoff competition crazily went out and improved their team during the off-season. I won’t say the playoffs are out of the question and I won’t ever rule out bounce-back seasons – but, exactly how much is there to bounce back from? And, who will provide the bounce? When Kent emailed me earlier in the week as part of the shortlist to be the new FN contributor, he said we could be either an optimist or a pessimist when it comes to our general perspective of the Flames.
Well – Kent, I prefer to use the term “realist” when describing myself and my general take on the Flames. And, to be honest, all this realism is bumming me out.
**Scott is a long-time Flames fan living in Okotoks. After spending time working for peanuts in radio/tv, drinking away memories while toiling in the Alberta oil and gas industry and finishing film school in Vancouver, he’s finally settled on television production and works on the Calgary-shot CBC series, "Heartland". Scott is a die-hard sports junkie with a passion for writing – and when he’s not blogging about the Flames or the NFL or the NBA or MLB or about what was on TV last night – you can find him deep into a 24 of pil. Self-described as a slightly fatter and whiter, but equally agile, version of Ozzie Smith.