The Flames changed management, traded a few key pieces and reshuffled some of their scouting staff over the last calender year or so. Even with all that, the Flames are in pretty much the same position they were last year at this time. The club’s hopes for the playoffs are already extremely slim and it’s unlikely we’ll see them pull off another two month miracle run like they did post-Christmas last season.
In short, things are mess. Here’s how the good folks here at Flamesnation view the club at the quarter pole.
1.) Calgary is 8-11-1 and 13th in the west at the time of writing. Is that an accurate portrayal of the Flames actual talent level you think?
Robert Vollman: No, I’d put them at 9th in the West in terms of actual talent, which is also where they rank in terms of close-game Fenwick % (a fancy-stats way of measuring how often they control the play). Slightly bad luck in shooting, and the misfortune of a low-scoring team only getting to overtime once have probably together cost them the 7 points in between 13th and 9th.
Robert Cleave: Probably not quite that bad. Minnesota, Dallas and Nashville are benefiting in a significant manner from puck luck, and in the case of the Wild, it’s almost certainly unsustainable. The Flames aren’t good, obviously, but if every team finished out the year more or less as is in terms of personnel, Calgary wouldn’t be 13th by the end.
Vintage Flame: In terms of player talent, I would have to say no. It’s not a far jump to realize that many players are under performing and this club has more talent than they have demonstrated. Players not shooting as much as they should and bad decision making have been the results of low confidence, further exaggerating the gap between actual talent and production results. I would have them somewhere betwen 8th and 10th. Like Rob said, some bad luck, but there have also been plenty of nights where key members of this team just haven’t shown up.
Patrick Steinberg: Yes and no. At their best, the Flames are a borderline playoff team. But for them to be at their best, we have to see them play consistent, even-keel hockey, something that has been absent for far too much of the first quarter. I don’t think the Flames are a team that should be wallowing three and four games below .500, but I also don’t think overly high expectations are fair either. We know for a fact that when executing, they can play competitive hockey with most teams in this league; if that happens on a much more regular basis in the final three quarters, they have a chance to put a couple streaks together and start closing the gap to the rest of the pack. If they don’t cover off that regular basis part, they’re going to stay right where they are.
2.) Despite the terrible start, do you see any bright spots so far?
RV: Miikka Kiprusoff has been playing consistently well, and Chris Butler being able to play on the top-line without much of a problem has been a very pleasant surprise. The Flames have also used 4 players under age 23, which is 3 more than expected.
RC: Sure. Backlund looks like he might be making reasonable progress, Butler hasn’t been openly awful under difficult circumstances, and Kiprusoff has been pretty good. Two of those gents appear to be part of the medium term plan, and Kipper’s value to the club down the line will be as a trade chip, so good play from him enhances that value, at least in theory.
VF: Miikka Kiprusoff is the obvious ray of light. So far he has given the Flames a chance to win every night and has even stolen a few already. I have also been very impressed with the play of Horak and Butler. Horak shows a lot more maturity than I originally expected. Smart with and without the puck. He may not be racking up the points, but I think it says a lot about the confidence the team has in him when you look at his defensive zone starts.
There is still plenty of room for development, but I think his ceiling may be viewed a little higher than when he first got here. Butler has played well in the top pairing wih Bouwmeester. He has handled himself quite well in being thrown into the minutes placed and the quality of competition he has faced. He’s impressed me early.
PS: For sure. Chiefly, the fact Jay Feaster has started rebuilding the team, regardless of what many may think. Paul Byron, T.J. Brodie, and Roman Horak have been fast tracked on this team and it shows that a youth movement is something desired by the braintrust. Seeing those three players play decent hockey is even more positive.
The Flames said at the outset of training camp that the players who deserved to play will be playing, and they have stuck with it. Big salaries have sat in the press box regularly this season, as less tenured players have had the opportunity to do their thing. With as many contracts on the team as there are currently, it’s difficult for Feaster to do more when it comes to infusions, but I like what he’s done in that regard thus far.
3.) What are the Flames most obvious weaknesses?
RV: Scoring, at even-strength and with the man advantage
RC: Poor special teams play in general has been an issue, and the terrible shooting rates 5v5 and 5v4 have been very problematic. The PP is especially up against it. The Flames are averaging 39.5 SH/60 5v4, with good teams averaging about 20 shots more. Teams are on pace to play about 8 hours on the PP this season, so the Flames would be 160 shots behind the league leaders, or nearly 20 goals, just based on volume and typical PPSH%. For a team that’s scuffling to create offence, that’s a death rattle.
VF: Scoring. Comes from the lack of shooting and the inability for the team to sustain a decent passing game. The PP has been abysmal, but again I think it goes back to the fact that they don’t get enough shots to the net, and the few they get through are of poor quality, because of the poor passing. Passes in the skates or to the backhand of the other player reduce time, which rushes the shot. The team looks disorganized because, well, they are.
PS: The Flames haven’t found an ability to play smart hockey enough of the time, plain and simple. On too many occasions, the team has been close in a contest only to see a parade to the penalty box derail their work five-on-five or a string of turnovers at the bluelines turn into scoring chances against. Calgary isn’t talented enough to win hockey games by playing loose and undisiplined, and they’ve lost a lot of hockey games because of it.
4.) Is it time to finally commit to the rebuild and blow things up?
RV: The time to rebuild is certainly well past due, but it does not require blowing things up. While some teams were mismanaged so badly that they had no recourse but to force their fans to endure atrocious hockey for years on end, others have reversed their fortunes without dropping to laughing stock status. Rebuild by continuing to slowly cycle out their older, higher-priced talent only when they can attract someone young and promising in exchange, and use the spare cap room to bring aboard prime-aged talent from around the league.
RC: It’s certainly time to explore the market for their UFAs and the one must-don’t for Feaster is taking on salary and term in a misguided attempt to rescue the year. Allowing the current contracts to expire, or moving them, even for middling picks or prospects, will give the Flames some flexibility for next summer and beyond. If the club can make Stajan’s ticket go away without too much pain, that would be good as well.
VF: If they weren’t committed to it before then this team is in more trouble than I thought. However, I don’t think they can blow it up right now, they don’t control that fate until the end of the season. Unless they have a line up at the door of guys asking to be traded, they are still in wait and see mode. Even if some players agree to be traded, they still have to find someone to take them. The team just has no leverage for now, but I suspect that will change as they get closer to the deadline.
PS: Why do the two have to be tied together? Rebuilding the team doesn’t also have to mean trading away every player over 25 and scorching the earth. The Flames have contracts that expire at the end of the season, allowing them to open up roster spots for promising players in the system. Those players could be currently in Abbotsford or still in junior, but there are three or four players with legitimate shots at making the team next season. That said, the team cannot ignore offers on established players, regardless of how much success they have in the final 60 games.
Putting too much stock into this season would be a dissservice to the franchise going forward, so exploring the possibility of trading helpful players now for future assets has to be in the gameplan.
5.) Now the million dollar question: would you trade Jarome Iginla? If so, when?
RV: Historically the Calgary Flames traded away their stars to re-tool when they were between 28 (Nieuwendyk) and 30 (MacInnis), and Iginla turned 34 this summer, so they might not be getting offers as attractive as you’d hope. If Iginla’s intention is to find a winning team with which to end his career then it’s best not to wait too long and get nothing (cough cough Brad Richards cough cough), but otherwise I wouldn’t hustle him out the door, no.
RC: If there’s a decent market at the deadline or this summer, I’d certainly go to him and lay out the options. Jarome has control of matters, and given his place in the team’s history and his standing in the community that makes any move involving him a bit tricky from a PR viewpoint. Still, since the answer to the question "Can the team win anything with the current roster?" is an obvious "no", and give or take Gio, he’s the best chip in terms of receiving assets, you have to see what’s out there given the club’s circumstances.
A blanket refusal to explore a trade simply because he’s Jarome seems ill-founded. Sad as it is, the best move at the moment would be to find him a good landing spot, wish him well, and get on with re-tooling the club. I would have preferred, like most people, to see him play out his final years on a competitive Flames’ club that didn’t need too much from him, a la Yzerman. That has the whiff of being a pretty far-fetched scenario at this juncture. It’s unfortunate that the Flames couldn’t do more with him at his peak, but that’s nothing more now than casting a wish at something that can’t be undone. For the benefit of both parties, it’s probably time.
VF: Calgary’s problem is that they have never had good forethought, especially when dealing with their star players. The trading of star players has always been a result of necessity rather than future development, or in other words because the star wants out so management then starts looking for his replacement.
The strategy has worked in the past, ie Nilsson (indirectly) for Nieuwendyk, Nieuwendyk for Iginla or Fleury for Regehr; but it has also come back to bite Calgary, and I don’t think I have to mention any names there. It’s a pracitice the Flames should get away from and that needs to start with Iggy. Unfortunately, he is tied to Calgary the same way the other players are, a lack of leverage. I think that changes though as teams see how far behind the curve they are, say like Philly to Pittsburgh, and that may prompt more interest in a guy like Iginla. Flames need to be aware of that and should be following it so they can anticipate who will come calling. Be prepared. Iginla’s value increases to contenders as they approach the deadline as well.
PS: This is the question that bothers me most, because it’s so fruitless. It’s not a decision the Flames are going to make, regardless if we think it should happen. Jay Feaster and Ken King have relayed it’s not happening, period; a message I believe is coming straight from Murray Edwards and the ownership group. If Iginla decides he wants out, the team has to deal him, but they’ve certainly given all the cards to their captain in a move that lessens their bargaining stance if he decides it’s time for a change. If it were in the cards, I’d likely understand and be okay with it, however one thing tempers my eagerness: name the last time a franchise player was dealt with good results for the team dealing him. I can’t think of one post lockout.
BONUS – Flames Forward OzQoC chart through the first quarter:
As always, the further to the left, the more offensive zone starts. The higher up, the tougher the quality of competition.