(We finish the FN contributor search with Marty Clarke’s novel of a post.)
By: Marty Clarke**
So, what the hell am I talking about with my combination antagonistic and Dr. Seuss-ian headline? Well, many of you in your work, sports team, or academic pursuits have either consciously or subconsciously done a SWOT analysis which simply means assessing the Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats of your company or team at a point-in-time so you can assess them and then plan to move forward to (hopefully) be more successful. In my view, the Flames are better off in some ways than many Calgarians believes but perhaps worse off in other areas. So let’s have a gander at the Flames as of August 15, 2011, shall we? I will keep this concise by focussing on the top 2 items in each category while trying to use the English language with some creativity and perhaps humor.
1. Improved Attitude and Yes…Attitude Does Mean Everything:
I hate to be cliche but I know this to be true from both personal experience (many years senior sales experience in an-ever changing company) and from years of watching the turnaround that NHL teams can make after a change in coaching or management – including the Flames one that started on December 27, 2010. I observe that to be successful is vital to have a management that is able to energize, motivate, and support its key human resources whether that be hockey players or salespersons in a business.
Recent Flames changes under the Jay Feaster-Brent Sutter era has infused the Flames players with an attitude and atmosphere that seems to say: We will learn from the past, commit to do better, improve skills that are lacking…and have a good time doing it". To support this argument, I give you end-of-year comments from players like Iginla and Kiprusoff plus coach Brent Sutter. "I think we’ve gotten to be a better team. We’ve learned some things and come a long way … We’ve learned a lot as a team. I think we’re a good team. We can still get better but we’re a good team. I am definitely optimistic that we are getting better." from an article you find here and others on the team echoed these sentiments in quotes such as "Me included, we didn’t play well enough over 82 games," said goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff. "It’s disappointing to not make the playoffs. The last few months we have played well. It wasn’t enough. We didn’t play well enough before that. But I think this team showed, in the last two or three months, that we are a top team. Inside the room we believe if we play the we should, we can beat any team." From the same article, found a this link, the coach makes it clear what the plan is for the future "There’s a lot of work to do here," said head coach Brent Sutter. "Just because we had a run like we did…we’ re still not in the playoffs. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done in different ways and everyone will be committed to dig in and try and get it done."
Secondly, player moves to retain good offensive talent (Tanguay, Glencross) and keep a different type of defenseman (see below) give this idea further credence. Third, the coaching moves to bring in successful ex-player coaches like Craig Hartsburg (to presumably teach his own past playing style of all-around-skilled-defensive-player) and Clint Malarchuk (a guy who never stops improving – even after a hellish skate-to-the-throat accident – to help Flames goaltending). And finally, earlier this year we plainly heard from Mr. Feaster phrases along the lines of "the rink needs to be a place players enjoying coming to, they need to have fun while workind hard"…and that even the ever-serious Brent Sutter has mixed up practices with some fun activities to keep the job enjoyable even while working on improving the team.
2. Changing the Focus and Skill Set of the Defense:
The "Everjolly Bunny" Jay Feaster (I have so named him because he energetically and joyfully hops into media scrums) is doing whatever he can to mitigate poor past decisions on player acquisitions and signings. The first big move was the trading of Regehr to clear salary and still obtain a potentially well-rounded D-man in Chris Butler and a young skilled forward prospect. So while coverage of related weaknesses (sloppy seconds effect) are below, it appears obvious to me that Mr. Feaster and company is doing one thing well already which is signing and keeping more young strong-skating, puck-moving, and offensively-adept defenseman to help the Flames have some depth in becoming a more mobile defense-troop.
This change in type of defenseman employed will hopefully see the Flames using skating skill to win puck races and get out of their zone quickly rather than have to continually defend the fort for long periods in their own zone. While the Flames recognize basic defensive skill is vital by adeptly adding Scott Hannan, they realize top teams are more mobile on defense. Thus should an injury or player move see the team lose a Bouwmeester or Giordano (God forbid unless an amazing trade happens) then players retained or signed for "current and future usage" should help the team continue to be a more mobile defense…specifically I mean both big-club guys like Chris Butler, Brett Carson, and potentially Anton Babchuk and minor-league prospects like TJ Brodie, Derek Smith, Clay Wilson, and even Chris Breen. Having these NHL players and prospects around give Flames supporters some hope that the team adopts to a smoother-skating-and-better-first-passing-with-strong-positioning-focussed-defense which has been adopted by many recently-successful NHL teams.
For evidence, look at defense rosters of 9 of last year’s top teams, you will see the mobile defense troops in teams such as Stanley Cup Winners Boston (with Chara, Ference, Seidenberg, Boychuck, and Kaberle), Cup Finalists Vancouver (with Bieksa, Edler, Ballard, Ehrhoff), Detroit (with Lidstrom, Rafalski, Ericsson, Stuart), Philadelphia (with Timonen, Meszaros, Carle, Pronger, Coburn), San Jose (with Boyle, White, Vlasic, Demers), Washington (Green, Wideman, Carlson, Alzner), Pittsburgh (with Martin, Letang, Michalek, Niskanen), Anaheim (with Lydman, Visnovsky, Fowler, and Beauchemin), and Chicago (with Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, Campbell).
1. Still Stuck with Sloppy Seconds:
We are not talking about the infamous Sean Avery-Elisha Cuthbert-Dion Phaneuf event (sorry to disappoint) but instead define "sloppy seconds" being past player acquisitions and/or expensive contract signings of overrated or underperforming players by previous Flames management that Mr. Feaster has inherited. What is most hurtfully importantly is that he will find difficulty in arranging their disposal (either financially or return-wise in trades) or arranging mitigation of these players performances given they were rated higher than their recent performances would lead you to conclude now. The obvious underperformers will remain anonymous but may have names rhyming with words like:
a) That guy who is your best buddy before you get married because he throws the best parties (Stag-man)
b) What the steroid-induced guy is always doing when he gets disciplined for unsafe work habits at the factory (ragin’), and
c) A rough English term used in Cuba when you go on a low-budget snorkeling trip ("…we have boat-a-leak")
And besides those 3 fellows, one of whom was rather expensively but thankfully discarded to Buffalo, a person can argue that at least one other player from each position needs to be much better in 2011-12 for Flames to have success.
At forward, the lengthily-signed Rene Bourque needs to drive possession and scoring chances and show some passion – he was an underperformer as evidenced by his corsi/60 number (dropped from +5.19 in 2009-10 to -3.87 in 2010-11), his scoring-change ratio (down from 0.525 to 0.479) and goals and assists down 13% from 58 to 50 versus previous year, and I observed he often just appeared to be lacking confidence or interest when I watched him on the ice.
On defense, Mr Bouwmeester could stand to provide more offense (only 4 and 3 goals scored in last 2 seasons versus 15 each in previous 2 years) and stop looking like a scared kitty-cat when he has a chance to rush the puck. Finally – and I struggle to do this since my wife admires him in a somewhat disturbing fashion – Flames need the formerly amazing and well-paid Miikka Kiprusoff to pick up his game and play better (last year he was an unacceptable 25th place in Goals-Against-Average and 30th place in Save Percentage) and get more rest.
So, perhaps Flames fans can realistically expect 2 of the 3 above players improving significantly to pick up the fortunes of the team, but I also surmise it’s a tall order to expect all 5 of the remaining underacheivers (adding back Rhymes-with-Bagman and Did-you-say Cajun?), to all have big turn-arounds in their game. Given Bourque, Bouwmeester, Kiprusoff, and Sounds-like-Pagin’ are all in long-term-contract-heaven (due to the brilliant CBA structure with guaranteed NHL contracts) they have no big financial incentive to really pick up their games. And let’s face it, while players have various motivators, many of them really do play to earn the "big bucks". Not sure about that, then just check out a few of the crazy UFA signings in 2011 of players who changed teams primarily to get bigger bucks and you will see James ($33m over 6 years) Wisniewski, and Erik ($18M over 4 years) Cole, and Christian ($40M over 10 years) Erhoff, and Ville ($27M over 6 years) Leino….and let’s not forget our friends in Florida who arguably overpaid almost everyone they signed on July 1st. And thus, the sloppy seconds of having at least a few of the underperforming and/or overpaid players on the team may truly haunt and anchor the Flames for at least another year – making it a truly large weakness at this time!
2. Inadequate Collection of Young High-end Skilled Players:
While I hate to agree with the Flames-haters, some song lyrics do come to mind when thinking about this topic…specifically "I wish that I had Jessie’s girl" as the Calgary pro hockey team cannot brag the existence of a Ryan Nugent-Hopkins/Taylor Hall/or Jordan Eberle-type prospects like the blue collar boys from the capital city many of us love to abhor. While time will tell, Backlund may become a good 2-way centre one day, and "skill" has possibly improved given prospects like Max Reinhart, Ryan Howse, TJ Brodie, and Sven Baertschi. But we know that not all strong junior or AHL players turn into strong NHL-ers and thus we are left wondering "who is it or where do we find the next Iginla, Fleury, Nieuwendyk, McDonald, Suter, MacInnis, Tanguay, or Cammalleri". Further, even if those 4 prospects mentioned comprise the top forward line and top defenseman positions in a few years, then where is the 2nd forward line for scoring, the 3rd line, and the other offensive and top-pairings defensemen? Nowhere to be found, one might say!
1. Trade Bait Variety:
When fishing in unfamiliar waters, it helps to have different types of bait. Thus, depending on the early-to-mid-season performance of individual Flames players, the team should have some variety to offer to other teams. Whether they are willing to offer dependable or improving players from their reliable or sloppy seconds lists, or if they consider parting with a cornerstones like Iginla or Kiprusoff, the Flames could improve the team significantly before the trade deadline if either a) They are tanking and thinking "let’s prepare early for next year" or b) This guy can make a huge difference for years, let’s give up what we must to get him.
Being a willing partner could bring in more skilled youths or a superstar, so it’s possible the Cowtown boys could bring in some great talent. Perhaps they could trade a few players like Bourque and Bouwmeester to snag a disgruntled or signing-becomes-doubtful-for-2012-13-year star (Shea Weber?) or some skilled young talent in a trade similar to the Mike Richards-for-Brayden Schenn-and-others trade by parting with Iggy or Kipper or even Bouwmeester should he be playing in a "starring" way. In any case, it seems apparent the Flames do have talent to offer should a chemistry change or another mini-rebuild become imminent unless the entire team performs like Oilers during > their 20+ game nearly-winless streak in 2009.
2. A Good Start Makes Other Teams "Smart" (as in feel pain):
Given the lack of major changes in the lineup and by replacing the one big player loss (Regehr) with a very similar player in Hannan plus a bonus player (Butler), and replacing injured and marginal Ivanans with marginal Letourneau-Leblond, the Flames (with only 3 truly new players added in) do have an opportunity to get off to a good start to their season given the chemistry and familiarity the players have with each other versus other teams in the league. Further, having the same head coach and experienced assistants with a similar outlook plus the clearly communicating GM, the team has no reason to flop in early season games and can thusly be dominant in their first 15 games (games up to November 11, 2011). In viewing rosters and counting the amount of new NHLers after trades and free-agent signings among teams the Flames play in the first 15 games, I observe that the other teams chemistry changes are more significant and thus could cause those teams to be weaker in early games. To give credence to the idea the Flames have a chemistry advantage, I simply used major Canadian sports websites to see that other teams to be played before November 11 have heavy changes as listed here:
Pittsburgh (signed 4 new free agents), St. Louis (signed 7 free agents from other teams, Flames play them twice in first 15), Montreal (4 new FAs, 2 new from trades), Toronto (3 new from trades, 2 FAs signed), Edmonton (6 new FAs), Colorado (4 new FAs, new goalie from trade), Nashville (3 new FAs, 1 marginal player left from Toronto trade), Minnesota (3 new players plus top prospect Coyle from trades), Detroit (3 new FAs), Vancouver (7 new FAs but several maybe marginal NHLers), Buffalo (4 new players including Regehr and Kotalik), and Chicago (6 in from trades or signings). Thus, the opportunity for a strong start lessens the need to have a gargantuan run in mid-season to have any chance in H-E-double-hockey-sticks to make the playoffs. So should the Flames have a better start than 2009-10, life may be a bit easier in the latter stages of the year for them.
Threats (while there are many, just 2 covered as promised)
1. Satisfied Players Effect:
Given the locking up of major players to long-term contracts this year and in recent years, Flames supporters can only hope the skepticism I hold about players having money as supreme or only motivator is wrong and/or mostly inaccurate. All players just want to play to win the Cup right? They don’t need no-trade clauses to ensure their family stays put do they? Sure, just like you don’t care about your long-term security and just want to be the best at your chosen career right (whether that be lawyer, bricklayer, engineer, IT guy, blogger or blog commentator)?
So given players are just humans with cool jobs and a family after all, the Flames must hope that recently-signed Tanguay (5-year contract), Glencross (4-year contract), as well as other long-termers like Bourque (5 years left on contract), Stajan (3 years remaining), Bouwmeester (3-years left), Giordano (3-years left), and Kiprusoff (3-years remaining) are not a threat to just play out the contracts they have with marginal motivation to do better until the last year of the contract (and some will just retire then anyways). Do they really want to win or just get paid having fun? Do they work harder to improve on areas of weakness or just rely on their strengths? Do they show and push players around them to be better? It’s hard to say unless you know the players well…hopefully Flames management reads them correctly but I see the "satisfied guy effect" in place with at least a couple of the above.
2. Northwest Division Teams All Made Improvements:
The Flames have a real threat to lose standing points to their division rivals in that other NW division teams made changes that can either improve them a lot or at least maintain their excellence (in the case of Vancouver). Check out Minnesota adding Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi to add firepower and Darrell Powe for grit and you see that team addressing their key needs. Edmonton brought in experience, leadership and under-rated scoring prowess in Ryan Smyth and Eric Belanger plus added Eager and Hordichuk for toughness and checking-game improvement. Colorado solidifies goaltending with Varlamov trade and signing Giguere while adding a steady defenseman in Hejda and depth in their strength position (forward) with Kobasew.
Finally the President’s Trophy winning Vancouver Canucks most importantly keep 4 key players (Bieksa, Salo, Alberts, Higgins) on reasonable deals while adding some scoring potential with Sturm and young guys like Mancari, Ebbett plus grit in Bitz and others.
It’s difficult to say whether Flames management staying with minimal changes will do the trick but it’s well-documented here in recent blogs that the Flames second-half was not one where they beat lots of top teams or even division rivals. Thus, the potential of not getting a large share of 48 points available from 24 games versus division rivals or just winning in extra time to give the rival a point is a real and dangerous threat.
**The author, like Spiderman, had a science lab accident while in university. While watching a Flames game from the lab, he was infected by poisoned corndogs and Nanaimo bars and now has what is known as Flamma-obsessivus-compulsivitis. Unfortunately instead of bring him “powers to do good” it simply brings him the ability to continually obsess about the Calgary Flames which can only harm himself. Fortunately the treatment is somewhat reasonable consisting of an all-meat diet, daily exercise, weekly psychologist visits, and required physical-emotional release sessions consisting of sharing his dangerous and sometimes controversial thoughts and feelings about the Flames so he can “keep it in the open” and “ensure nobody gets hurt” from bottling them up.