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.
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.
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.