Old face, new faces, different management, same coach. It’s a cross-roads season for the Calgary Flames with the organization wriggling itself clear of Darryl Sutter’s long shadow. Jay Feaster pruned two of the more expendable members of the former "core" in Daymond Langkow and Robyn Regehr this summer, but is still apparently set on battling it out amongst the Western Conference’s middle class for a post-season berth.
The rebuild, or retool, or whatever you want to call the post-Sutter efforts is likely to be done in degrees rather than a single, purifying conflagration, so the team and we the fans will be caught between worlds this year. Here’s how Flamesnation sees things as we head into the unknown:
Jay Feaster’s first off-season as the guiding light is over. Considering both roster and front office changes, how would you grade his efforts?
Robert Cleave: B-, roughly. I don’t dislike Lee Stempniak, and Chris Butler might turn out to be useful, so moving two solid pros in the process isn’t the end of the world. If he’d been able to move Kotalik withot sending away the draft pick, that would have boosted his grade, but he still gets a slight pass this year for still having to clean up after Daz’s late-term moves (hello, Matt Stajan). I’ll be inclined to judge him more thoroughly next summer when a few more contracts hit the road.
Vintage Flame: I’ll give him a B. He did a good job with the front office, and for the most part, the line up. But I’m still scratching my head on moves like adding PL3 and Desbiens, especially giving up draft picks in an upcoming, supposedly talent heavy draft. I’m left to wonder what the purpose was when the Flames were still stuck with Ivanans.
Rob Vollman: Given his poor track record, relative inaction was definitely the right move for Jay Feaster. Phasing out bad contracts should be seen as a plus, especially since it was gradual. Of course, all that makes the bizarrely risky Alex Tanguay deal that much stranger. The Hannan, Stempniak and Glencross deals were all good, though.
Pat Steinberg: I don’t mind a lot of the things that happened this offseason, as having talked to Jay a few times, I know that a lot of this past summer was used to set up the summer of 2012 when numerous contracts come off the books. I look at this season as kind of a "running in place" year in a lot of ways, and I like that Feaster didn’t go out of his way to blow resources on this singular year. Byron, Horak, Baertschi, and Butler were all added to the organization, and all could be big parts of the team going forward.
What was the Flames best addition this Summer? What was their worst?
RC: Stempniak isn’t any super hero, but I suppose he’s the best player they’ve added. I doubt anyone will surprised to hear that I could have done without the Babchuk re-signing. He’ll need to score a ton on the PP to make up for his play at EV, sheltered or not.
VF: I’m going to step outside the box on this and say John Weisbrod was their best addition. Weisbrod brings to the organization the cutting of the Sutter regime apron strings. He represents a new ideology and direction from the trolley tracks this team has been in for far too long, in relation to scouting and drafting. Many people are skeptical that Feaster can ‘talk the talk’, but will he ‘walk the walk’? Weisbrod is a key step in that walk. I’m sticking with PL3 as the worst addition. I don’t care that I haven’t seen enough of him to judge. The guy played 1 pre-season game and got suspended. Enough said?
RV: Best addition was Scott Hannan, an affordable veteran defender who can eat up the tough minutes to give others (like Mark Giordano) opportunities to excel. Runner-up is Lee Stempniak: top-six potential with very little downside. For worst addition, I’ll go with Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond, who is unlikely to add any value whatsoever.
PS: I’m with RC, Stempniak is the best addition. Having him as a third line scoring winger is an asset, as Calgary’s third unit will likely be better than a good number of others in the Western Conference. Given offensive starts against other third lines, I think Stempniak could make it a third 20 goal season. Mirror mirror with RC once again. I wasn’t a fan of the Babchuk resigning either, but I’ll defer to the other two and go with Letourneau-Leblond. Why is he here? There’s no use for him on this team, so I don’t get the trade.
Even with the exit of Daymond Langkow, Calgary has as many as five NHL centermen: Jokinen, Stajan, Backlund, Morrison and (sometimes) Moss. Ideally, how do you see the depth chart shaping up down the middle?
RC: What, no mention of Roman Horak? I keed, I keed. Anyhoo, Backlund should be with Iggy/Tanguay when he recovers from his busted digit, and Joker should play with GlenX/Moss if all hands are on deck. That leaves Morrison with Bourque/Stempniak, which I’m not crazy about, but that seems like the best bet of a bad lot, because I’m not that enamored of Moss at center. Stajan? Well, he’ll make a nice compliance buyout after the next CBA kicks in.
VF: I still think the top centre job is Backlund’s to lose. If that happens, then I like Moss as the #1 centre with Backlund as the #2. The one downside to this is Moss is proven as part of the OMG line; if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. I see where Robert is coming from with Morrison between Bourque and Stempniak. Leads me to wonder if Horak does prosper, does he slide in there, leaving B-Mo some pressbox time? Stajan rounds out the #4 centre, unfortunately.
RV: I like the opportunity Sutter has to fashion a shut-down line (like the classic Moen/Pahlsson/Niedermayer) in order to give the top line sweet, offensive, Sedin-like opportunities. If so, Backlund would work best on the top line, Jokinen on the shut-down line, leaving Morrison and Stajan at the bottom. Of course, this has already been shaken up by injuries, something you have to expect to continue throughout the season, so the key will be role flexibility.
PS: What’s most interesting is to see what the aforementioned Roman Horak does on the big team. Does he prove that he can stick and makes the decision to send him down a tough one? Or does he go the route of T.J. Brodie and prove to us he’s not really NHL ready at this point? Ideally, Moss goes back to wing with Jokinen and Glencross while Backlund moves up to centre Iginla and Tanguay. When everyone is healthy, I have Morrison on the third unit with Bourque and Stempniak with Stajan still with Kostopoulos and Jackman. hat means Horak will eventually by AHL bound and Hagman will be…somewhere.
What do you consider to be the Flames primary weakness this year?
RC: A center for Iggy and goaltending, same as it ever was. If Backlund takes off, that’ll help, but I’m not quite convinced he’ll be a true top-level center this year even if he plays really well. As for the nets, one can only hope Kipper can find another good season at this point, since the collective evidence over since 07/08 isn’t the best. I’ve never been much for the idea that playing Kipper less would help, but if Karlsson shows some measure of ongoing competence, they might as well give it a shot. I will say that given the overall depth of the club, my marker for Kipper is around .912 overall. If Miikka can manage that, they’ll be in decent shape to make the playoffs.
VF: It’s not even the fact that the Flames are so thin at centre, but that what they do have is still handcuffed with a bunch of "ifs". You start at the top with Backlund and it’s not a conversation of how good will he be, but will he be good, or he’d better be good. It’s a key year for Mikael, I hope the ‘ifs’ don’t get the better of him. Not to mention the fragile, aged Morrison. How many games will he play? Jokinen has an evolving style at age 32, that’s a question mark. You mention Horak and people say "who?".. Which brings us back to Stajan.
RV: Defense. Their blue line is too reliant on very few players who are above-replacement level defensively, and their forwards are below average as a group. I believe the Flames could have trouble protecting leads, killing penalties, and shutting down the better teams.
PS: Depth defence. There’s no question Jay Bouwmeester and Mark Giordano are the unquestioned anchors on their pairings, but what is fair to expect from Chris Butler and Scott Hannan, the respective partners on those pairings? Butler has never played a full NHL season, mostly because he’s struggled with consistency while Hannan is no longer the feared shutdown force he once was. That said, Hannan is still effective in my eyes and I think he’ll do well. It’s the third pairing of Cory Sarich and Anton Babchuk that really worries me, for obvious reasons.
What is their main strength?
RC: Depth. I’m not exactly enamoured of Stajan and Hagman, but those guys might be 4th liners this year, and most teams can’t offer that sort of quality at the bottom of the order. The Flames really need that sort of depth as well, in my view. They don’t have superstars at EV that can carry a team for long stretches, so their best hope for competitiveness is to win with their bottom six smoking the other guys’ third and fourth lines. When injuries hit, a team like Calgary needs as many interchangeable parts as possible to sustain that advantage, which is why depth is so paramount for this club. It’s certainly not ideal, but it’s their only real chance for a decent year..
VF: No question, the team has depth. If you’re looking at a fourth line of Hagman – Stajan – Jackman, I think I’m feeling good about the overall depth of the team. One thing the team might have really going for them is the element of surprise. Many opponents are going to see the Flames as a team hampered with high contracts and too many NTC’s, thereby preventing them from making any significant changes. This is a younger and faster squad though and they did it without sacrificing offense. I guess the big disclaimer here is, this depth gets a lot more shallow if the Flames don’t get bounce back seasons from Bourque and Bouwmeester. Scoreface will be wild card in all this as well. How does he play after getting the contract he wanted?
RV: The Calgary Flames are a very experienced team, getting good leadership from a true legend, which potentially makes them more resilient to the inevitable ups and downs of a long NHL season. Theoretically they should be able to take advantage of opportunities and be less prone to mistakes.
PS: It’s gotta be forward depth, as has already been covered. Going back to my take on Stempniak, it’s an absolute luxury for the Flames to have him, Bourque and possibly Morrison/Backlund on the third line Having players like that against depth lines versus the likes of the Avalanche or Wild has the possibility to be very promising.
If you were the Flames GM, what would be your main focus going forward?
RC: Don’t make any false moves this year. Don’t sign Stempniak just because he hits a hot patch, don’t re-up Sarich if he plays well for a bit, and if they do feel the need to secure a player for more than one year, concentrate on Backlund and maybe Moss. Oh, and see if anyone will take Stajan off your hands. It really is such a shame that Doug MacLean isn’t a GM anymore. At any rate, there will be a fair bit of salary leaving after this summer, so a bit of patience is in order for Feaster.
VF: They have to find ‘The Guy’: the one that is going to take over for Iginla, but do it without mortgaging the future. Darryl’s focus was always to find the guy that can play with Jarome. Feaster has to find the player that will take over for him, one that they can basically build a new team around when all this money comes off their cap space and they are free of so many contracts. Yes, I’m looking at you Zach Parise.
RV: Nothing specific. I’d continue to gradually shed the riskier overpriced long-term contracts, replacing them with lower-risk, shorter-term value contracts, and replenish their pool of prospects.
PS: Stay the course for this season. If the goal really is to help set yourself up for the coming summer, don’t do anything to limit that. If you feel your team is close to making the playoffs, don’t put too much stock into one season and make a deal that could hurt your future. On that same wavelength, don’t stray if it’s a bad season, looking for a one-stop cure-all move.
Where do you see the Flames finishing in the Western Conference this year?
RC: 8th. They weren’t really that bad last year, and they’ll get a full year of Stempniak rather than 4 games of Langkow, so they’re a little ahead of last year in that regard. I’m less worried than most about Reggie moving on, by the way, mostly because they still have a representative defence and slightly better forwards overall. The best case scenario is that Backlund is ready to roll in mid-November and they can get a slight uptick from Kipper. As for the potential competition, St. Louis is likely better than last year, but Dallas and Phoenix are worse, and I’m not sold on the Ducks, so there’s a spot for them if the team has just average luck on their side.
VF: I see them as a playoff team. They will be in the bottom half of the draw, but the range could vary. I’m going to say they finish 6th. I see no reason why they shouldn’t be able to score like they did last year, In fact with Stempniak available for the full year, they should be able to score more often and more consistently. With a younger, more mobile defence, they should have a better transition game out of their zone as well. They won’t contend with the heavyweights of the conference, but there are a lot of teams with just as many, if not more question marks than Calgary. That in itself may help the Flames in the standings. That being said, if this team gets derailed again this year, it could be a nail biter come game #82.
RV: The Flames will be a bubble team, fighting for that last post-season position. Unfortunately that leaves a great deal to chance, but playing in such a soft division, perhaps it is finally their time to get lucky.
PS: I’ve got them in the playoffs, between sixth and eighth. I wouldn’t be surprised if they finished as high as five in the conference or as low as 12, so it’s on one thing: consistency. Don’t put yourself in a spot where a torrid two month span is necessary. Instead, play in line with the rest of the bubble teams in this conference. That’s the only way they’re a playoff team this year.