Taking Steps

As we settle into August we’ve had a good while to digest the moves made by the Calgary Flames since the season ended and Jay Feaster was named the permanent General Manager.  There may be moves to be made yet, but it seems like the 2011-12 version of the team is starting to take form as Feaster continues to put his mark on the franchise.  There’s no question the Flames have taken steps, both forwards and backwards, with the moves they’ve made this summer.

I took a little bit of a FlamesNation hiatus, letting Kent and Robert carry the mail for a few weeks as I banked a number of different story ideas; just for all the FN faithful, I’ve graced you with New Kids on the Block upon my return.  I believe the Flames have taken steps forward this offseason, or at the very least, potential steps forward when looking at them long term.  However, the team looks to have taken a significant step back for the immediate future, as the 2011-12 group isn’t as good as the one that finished the season on April 10th.

Back Step

The Flames roster, especially at the top end, is very much the same as it was when the team ended their season with an overtime loss to the Vancouver Canucks.  The same, of course, minus arguably their most important defenceman in Robyn Regehr.  His loss, as has been well documented on the Nation, might be replaced by a body on the roster, but his actual role on the team cannot be replaced by anyone on the current Flames blueline.

I’m cautiously optimistic on Chris Butler, looking at his underlying number with the Sabres last year, as Lindy Ruff put him in some tough defensive spots.  He’s also played top shutdown minutes before, seeing time with Tyler Myers to start last season before being removed from that spot when things weren’t working out.  That said, he’s not carrying the mail like Regehr did, or even close to it.

Last year, the Flames had precisely three top four defencemen, which was a math issue to begin with.  Heading into this season, unless something changes, things are no better, if not worse.  If Butler were to improve his consistency this season, I can conceivably see him as a second pairing defender, however, where it stands right now neither Cory Sarich nor Anton Babchuk qualify as top four ES defenders.  And even if there are three guys worthy of the "top four" billing, they won’t be as good without Regehr as they would be with him.

Babchuk along with Alex Tanguay, Brendan Morrison, Brendan Mikkelson were all re-signed by Calgary this summer after a year where the team missed the playoffs.  The team has 13 healthy forwards under contract right now, none of them new faces, making it less likely (but by no means impossible) we’ll see a name like Paul Byron crack the big team from training camp.  I’m not saying Flames forwards didn’t score last year, because they did, but this team was absent from postseason competition for a second straight year.  An unchanged forward corps doesn’t scream "step forward" to me.

So let’s look at the forwards.  There are six under the age of 30, a number that will shrink to three by late December when Tim Jackman, Rene Bourque and David Moss all enter their third decade.  I don’t buy the age argument most of the time, and certainly not in every case.  I believe Moss will be just as, if not more, effective this season while 34 year old Jarome Iginla put up 43 goals last campaign.  It’s just a pointing out of the facts, because with an unchanged group of forwards and a blueline lacking depth, I see this team a few paces behind the Flames that finished their season in April.

Forward Ho

It’s fairly clear my outlook for the coming season is not overly positive.  And that’s just fine.  My outlook for the longer term future of this team is much more rosy, meaning a "running in place" 2011-12 season isn’t the worst thing in the world.  I’ve actually been a pretty big fan of some of Feaster’s work this summer, starting with his draft in Minnesota.

Calgary’s selections at the Draft were just fine, adding some skill and potential to the Flames system, as I really didn’t have any issue with any of the picks.  But Feaster also accomplished two other things at the draft, both stemming from the deal that sent Robyn Regehr to Buffalo.  Not only did the Flames bring in a defenceman with potential in Butler, but they added a very promising prospect in Byron.  The organization believes, with some reason, Byron is knocking on the door for an NHL job right now.  He’s quick, skilled, and confident, and I’m really excited for him in the next few seasons.

The second thing it did was give them flexibility, something they needed for this season, but something they needed for years beyond as well.  As much as I hated seeing Regehr leave, the positive is (along with offloading Ales Kotalik) more cap space available for the summer of 2012.  We all know how many contracts expire next July (9), which counts for a ton of free space; big money pacts like Langkow, Sarich, Jokinen and Hagman all expire.  Add in another $2.775 of salary space (Regehr subtracting Butler)and it could prove to be very helpful.

In fact, the largest reason why I’m somewhat excited for the future is because for the first time in a long time, it looks like there is a plan.  Feaster obviously has big plans for next summer, even with extensions for guys like Tanguay and Babchuk, and he’s identified a glaring need in the system as well, adding skilled players through drafting and trades.  There’s plenty of cap space available to start reshaping the team next summer and beyond, and there’s nothing saying the team will have to take a massive competitive drop to do it.

The proof will clearly be in the pudding, and we won’t be able to judge that pudding for a number of seasons, but I get the feeling there is a plan in place.  I’m not huge on the coming edition of the Flames, but under previous management, it was all about right now and the current season with seemingly little foresight.  Lessening the importance of "right this instant" for the long term good of the team is the way to go, and I’m hopeful that’s what the team is doing now.

  • Flamester

    This is what I can not understand with how this off season went. 1. We are all 1 year older and a little slower 2. We have the same playes that failed to really beat any team ahead of us in the standings when it counted the most (in Feb and March)3. And finally we missed out on using one of are three biggest assets (Regehr – I am from Edmonton and always loved the thought that if we were to ever start a rebuild or something like what the “City of First round Draft Picks” is doing we would be better of from the get go – Mainly because anybody can tank and get good picks, but we would also have more coveted assets that teams would give for – However Butler and Byron are ok – It is not what I had in mind)to bring back a substantial prospect or pick. Getting to my point is that we are wasting another year of asset management – Iginla is the face of the franchise, my favorite player, and the only reason we should be trying to win a stanley cup, when he is able to do so. Anyone can say what they want about hope and waiting for rebound years “Like we all said last offseason” but the reality of it is the Flames are most likely going to miss playoffs, let alone win the cup. This to me is simple – We either do it with him now, or why bother? I would like to see Backlund get a chance, but do we actually believe he can center a line that puts together points and takes us into the playoffs? There is no easy answer, but as flames fans are we really going to wait until next offseason when Iginla is even older, and Mikka probably wont be able to play more than 50 to 55 games as he is worn down, just to wait for change. I just get down as all I see when I look around are hopefull (Yet starange) Oiler fans who have a much brighter future then we do, and yet in Calgary everyone seems fine with that.

    • joey joe joe jr shabadoo

      I think this off season is pretty easy to explain.

      Firstly, I think the idea that the Flames could’ve gotten more for a Regehr+Kotalik package is misguided. They essentially moved out 7+ million in salary and brought back what should be 1.5-2 million in Butler (someone can correct me if I’m wrong on what his cap hit is this year) Byron, in all likelyhood, will be with the Heat this year due to the glut of one way contracts we have up front, unless Feaster is able to move Hagman at some point (which is possible, but I suspect Byron would have to beat out Bouma and Niemsz to get that roster spot). Furthur more this fantasy that the Flames could’ve dealt Regehr to (just an example here) Washington for Karl Alzner is just that, a fantasy. No way George McPhee makes that move.

      Secondly, as Pat and other commentors here have pointed out, this is more or less a transition year for the Flames. They’ll be given the chance to show that they are a legitimate playoff team (I’m not holding breath here) and hopefully come trade deadline time there is a clear enough indication as to what/where this team stands. If we’ve fallen out of it it’ll be interesting to see what the likes of David Moss might get us. If Chicago can get a late first rounder for Troy Brouwer, I would like to think the Flames can get something similar (Late 1st or early 2nd).

      Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is the true test for the re-modelled hockey ops department for the flames will likely begin shortly after Christmas when they should be preparing for the deadline and the end of season. I’m sure people were hoping for some fireworks this offseason, but the reality is the Flames will be in a better position to shake up this roster in 2012.

      EDIT: and at that point I expect Pat to use this youtube clip to introduce his analysis

      • Hey Joey! The only thing I dont agree with on your post would be the return on Regehr. Yes, it would be a pipe dream to score Alzner for Reg. But, are you telling me a 4.02Mill Reg for 2 more years couldnt have gotten us a late 1st rounder in this years draft from Detroit who paid huge for Erickson & signed Commodore. Or a 1st round from Wash who spent over 4.0Mill for Hamrlik. Yes trading Regs, Kotalik & yuccch a 2nd rounder!!! for a couple of mid level prospects seems like a poor return to me as well. Obviously the owners were not prepared to eat Kotalik’s 3.0 mill & thats reality & not for debate as none of us are writing the 3.0Mill cheque for Kotalik to play in the AHL.

  • ChinookArchYYC

    It’s pretty clear that the Flames will be another middle of the row team, and at best the team might sneak into playoffs next season. In my view, Jay Feaster needs to be – in search of constant organizational improvement. Balancing the needs of today with long term improvement. Looking to the past provides very good 20/20 vision, and we see now what happens when a GM trades away future prospects for the “win-now mentality”. Feaster has a big job that will definately take several years and will, at best, simply put the team back on track.

    While, I didn’t like all the moves Feaster has made so far, I’m (like Pat) satisfied with his draft picks (that’s a first in years!) and the key players signings have been reasonable. The biggest improvement from an organizational standpoint however has been the moves with the Heat. While, I was initially confused with his number of defensemen he was stockpiling in Abottsford, I’m now impressed with what he’s beginning to do. I beileve Feaster has begun to stock the shelves with bonified NHL prospects. While the moves seem to be minor today, they illustrate that Jay Feaster does have plan. What I really like is that, while he has had his hands tied with the big team (read: NTC and bad un-moveable contracts), he has begun to bring in good young talent that has definitely improved the the Flames depth.
    My bet is that he will do his best to move out the bad contracts, when opportunity knocks during the season (say when a player goes on a tear, and pushes his stock value up).

  • ChinookArchYYC

    You spend time away, and come back to us with NKOTB? What did we do to deserve that Pat??? I think overall expectations will be down this year. Like you Pat, I am hoping next year (or trade deadline) is when we’ll really see what Feaster’s plan for the future is going to look like. However, the “average” Flames fan tends to look at the product currently in front of them and I cvan’t help but think they’ll be very impatient if this year’s version plays just like last years…which is what we expect since it’s almost identical (minus Reg). I am disappointed that Feaster basically has the starting roster all signed up as I am curious to see if guys like Brodie and Bouma have improved and are better prepared to challenge for NHL spots. But maybe Feaster still has a move or 2 to do before the season begins (Hagman???).

  • doubledown

    I’m not convinced that just because the flames will have cap space next year, that they will be able to use it well. What valuable free agents are going to want to come here? Who wants to come to a team thats missed the playoffs 3yrs in a row, and has an aging core?

    • ChinookArchYYC

      Firstly, I didn’t know we had a “core” left in Calgary to begin with. With Reggie gone and the Flames showing interest in moving Kipper this off-season and probably in the foreseeable future, that leaves only Iggy as the remaining cornerstone of the post-lockout era. Bouwmeester and Giordano are undoubtedly considered the new heirs to the throne, but neither hardly classifies as a truly elite player (and I like them both, despite the fact that we overpay JBO)

      However, when free agency looms next year, we will hardly have an “aging” roster. Most of our senior citizens in relative terms (i.e. those on the wrong side of thirty) -Langkow, Morrison, Sarich, Kostopolous, Hagman, and Jokinen -will be free agents. I surmise Langkow may be resigned for a couple more years at a very reduced price if he plays to expectations this year, but the rest are gonzo.

      The Flames will thus have it in their power to reshape the roster as Feaster and company see fit through free agency, trades and prospects. Hence, I hope the start of the 2012 season will see the likes of Brodie, baertschi, Byron, Reinhart, and maybe even Howse and Wahl, push for permanent roster spots.

      Additionally, there are some quality free agents to be had next year, although there is only one true superstar available: Parise.

  • doubledown

    Yeah Pat, Bob is right, what did we do to get NKOTB? They give me the dry heaves. I dont know about any steps back or forward, I think we just stood still watching the NHL pass us by. Nothing we have done this summer tells me we are better or worse off than last year. That may be good or bad. Personally, I think this year will not be as schitzophrenic as last year but the bottom line is we will be a 10 or 11th place team by February. And standing still the way we have this summer sealed the fate of our pending rebuild commencing in February at the trade deadline.

    • Which I don’t think is necessarily the worst thing in the world. If this team can get some good value for attractive pieces in February, they should do it, especially if they are sitting 10th or 11th in the conference.

      Having a season where they don’t take a giant step forward is fine if they make sure they’re standing still to make sure they start moving in the right direction.

  • joey joe joe jr shabadoo

    Here’s a question I’ve been wondering about and wonder what others would say. With the amount of cap space the Flames should have next summer, which high-profile free agent should we go after: Shea Weber, or Zach Parise?

    • Vintage Flame

      Without question, I would back the money truck up for Zach Parise.

      Weber is a great D-man and don’t get me wrong, I would take both of them if possible. But if I’m only allowed one, then it has to be Zach.

      Parise is just a great kind of kid and player to build a team around. I love his style of play and the grit he shows. The guy works like a dog and can still fill the net. Plain and simple the guy would look great in a Flames jersey next year.

    • doubledown

      Ditto with Vintage. Parise bar none. I think with Gio & JBO, you cant commit any more $$$ to your blueline. Now if we could package JBO +++ to get Weber, then that’s a different story, dont think we have the assets to do that.

      • RexLibris

        One problem, Nashville would be making the trade to save money as well as get a decent return and to be frank, they do neither in trading one of the best defencemen in the league for Bouwmeester (and the Flames don’t have enough ++++’s to sweeten the deal enough for Nashville). He’s very nearly as expensive (they’d save just under $1 million, not exactly a bargain) and about half as effective.

        VF is right, Suter might be a better target, but isn’t talking about 2012 UFAs in the summer of 2011 getting a little ahead of yourselves? The entire UFA landscape could change in 6 months. As SinCity 1976 said, looking to rebuild through free agency is too expensive and risky. At this point for the organization there is every reason to go this route, nothing ventured nothing gained, but in the end I’m left thinking that all that will be accomplished is that for every mediocre player moved out in 2012, another will be re-signed, although hopefully to better terms, and that no real progress will be made.

    • Vintage Flame

      That’s a big point too. Flames are still not in a position to give up the draft picks for an RFA anyways.

      However Ryan Suter is a UFA next year.. He might be a more accessible target.

      • However Ryan Suter is a UFA next year.. He might be a more accessible target.

        Personally, if Nashville isn’t able to keep him, I think he’ll be traded prior to the deadline. That said, if he’s available in July as a UFA, I’d love to see the Flames take a run at him.

        I see Suter on the same level as Weber, personally…while Weber is a little better on the powerplay, Suter plays tougher minutes and I like him a little more on the kill.

  • Vintage Flame

    Well said Pat. People keep arguing that we kicked butt in the last half of the season and therefore are playoff contenders. However, optimism only brings us so far. We are running in place, as you put it.

    I just did the numbers. The Flames won 3 of 22 games against the top 4 seeds in the W and E conferences. They maintained a 30% win percentage against playoff teams. These rates were consistent before and after Dec 23. Those aren’t numbers from a contending team.

    I am looking forward to next off season. Parise is by far the big ticket for us. I would also like to see them get a crack at Semin. Having Parise, Semin, Iginla, and Tanguay as your top 4 wingers would be pretty spectacular. I am worried that the trend continues though and the top guys are locked up prior to July 1. Building through free agency is just too expensive and risky. Though we may be out of options.

    I am not a big fan of going for the big name D-men. There are exceptions like Lidstrom. However, a 7-million dollar D isn’t a big enough upgrade on a couple of 4-million dollar guys. Maybe I have just been put off by Phaneuf and Bouwmeester, but I would rather have four 4-million caliber players in your top 4 supported by a decent bottom pairing.

    If the Flames can get a UFA or two, trade for a top centre, and round out their top 4 D then we are set. Easy right.

  • RKD

    Feaster really hasn’t done anything unpredictable. Most people knew if the Flames were going to shake up the core, the first guy to be moved would be Reg. I’ll give him credit for going after Richards.

    The only thing that can save this team from another tenth place finish is a strong start.

    No more tanking until December to get it going.
    Start with the win 2/3 mentality from day one.

    Don’t dress all veteran players in pre-season games and have half a dozen guys injured in October.

    Were hoping a lot of guys can ‘rebound’: Stajan, Hagman, Langkow, Bourque and Bouwmeester. Expecting a new guy Butler to fill a massive hole on d. Too much hoping for everything to align is a very risky proposition.

    • Were hoping a lot of guys can ‘rebound’: Stajan, Hagman, Langkow, Bourque and Bouwmeester. Expecting a new guy Butler to fill a massive hole on d. Too much hoping for everything to align is a very risky proposition.

      That’s why I see them as taking a step back for this season. Remember, we were hoping for rebound seasons for certain guys this year and we got them…Jokinen, Iginla, Tanguay, Moss, and Morrison all had statistically strong years and the team still missed the playoffs.

  • Vintage Flame

    The discussion should not end with Parise and Semin. I believe we have as good a chance of landing either of them as anybody, but there may also be other good fits our there as well. Suter, Brayeden Coburn, and Josh Gorges would consolidate anybody’s top four, while Tuomo Ruutu, Boyes, Umberger, Stoll and others may be a good fit on our second line.

    However, Parise and Semin, admittedly, are the only genuine first line forwards available next year.

  • I just did the numbers. The Flames won 3 of 22 games against the top 4 seeds in the W and E conferences. They maintained a 30% win percentage against playoff teams. These rates were consistent before and after Dec 23. Those aren’t numbers from a contending team.

    Great. I was working on a post addressing this very subject. Thanks a lot.

    (BTW – feel like submitting a post for the FN contributor contest? 😉 ).

  • Welcome back Pat but stick to guns and girls for intros. LOL Mostly joking.

    I’m hoping Stajan and Hagman have bounce back years, but really can it get any worse than last year for those two?? I sure hope not. I really like Bourque but his consistancy is like the weather here in Calgary, changes every hour.

    Iggy and Tangs will have as good years as last year because they have the familiarity back and the chemistry will be better from day 1. We all know that Iggy slumps in the first month or three of the year so that is a given. The only thing to hope for there is a shorter early season slump as he gets his legs, lungs and hands in working order.

    I like the AHL tweeks Feaster did but this year, barring any future trades, for the big club is another middle of the road 7-11 finish for our boys in red. Lets hope because as fans and supporters that’s all we can do. Positive attitudes all around. 🙂

    Great work FN team for all the summer work. Keeps my Flames addiction topped up.