Rebuilding the Flames



There has been much discussion about whether the Calgary Flames need to "blow it up" and rebuild the team with high draft picks just like divisional rivals like the Edmonton Oilers and Colorado Avalanche or the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders in the East.  Unfortunately, there are four fundamental flaws with this approach.

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1. It doesn’t always work

Finishing near the bottom of the league and getting early draft picks doesn’t guarantee a team’s success, just look at the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have made the post-season just once in their eleven seasons – a streak unlikely to end this year.  The Florida Panthers might end their ten-year streat of missing the play-offs, but it will have been by virtue of free agency, not the draft.

Worst case scenario for a small market team attempting to rebuild through the draft is the Atlanta Thrashers, who made the post-season just once in their ten seasons, and wound up leaving town entirely. 

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2. The effects aren’t always permanent

The Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks both rewarded their patient fans with Stanley Cups, and things have definitely been turned around in Los Angeles and Washington, but how long will it last?  Entry-level contracts protect players for only three seasons, after which they cost you full price, like Drew Doughty and his seven million per season.

Unless the underlying causes of the team’s original poor performance is addressed, any improvement through the draft will be temporary. Just ask the fans of the Carolina Hurricanes, who were rewarded with the 2006 Stanley Cup after three early picks, but have made the post-season just once since then, and currently sit dead last in the Eastern Conference.

3. It isn’t always necessary

There have been many veteran squads that rebuilt while staying competitive, with the Detroit Red Wings being the classic example, having made the post-season every year since the 1990-81 season. 

There are plenty of other examples of teams that made it a habit to chronically replenish their system and cycle out their veterans, like the New Jersey Devils, who missed the post-season last year for just the 2nd time since 1989-90, the Philadelphia Flyers, who have missed out just once since 1994-95, and the San Jose Sharks, who have made the play-offs 12 of the past 13 seasons, including six 100-point seasons and 2 more 99-pointers.

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There are certainly teams that have had little option but to force their fans to watch non-competitive hockey for years on end for a 50/50 chance of being competitive temporarily, but it should truly be viewed as a last resort.

4. They’re already rebuilding

The Calgary Flames don’t need to blow anything up to rebuild, they are already rebuilding, and in a way that doesn’t hurt the team on the ice. Don’t believe me? Check out the players they have let go, the ones they kept, and the ones they brought in.

Flames out      Age  GP  GVT   Cap
Robyn Regehr     31  79  6.3  $4.0M
Daymond Langkow* 35  72  5.2  $4.5M
Steve Staios     38  39  4.0  $2.7M
Niklas Hagman    32  71  2.4  $3.0M
Adam Pardy       27  30  2.3  $0.7M
Ales Kotalik     32  26  0.0  $3.0M
Tim Erixon       20   0  SEL  $1.8M
Total            31 317 20.2 $19.7M
*Daymond Langkow's statistics from 2009-10

The Flames let seven players go with an average age of 31 even when you include 20-year-old prospect Tim Erixon, who cost $19.7 million towards the cap but contributed just 20.2 goals above replacement-level, in 317 games. By contrast, here’s the group the Flames decided to keep.

Flames kept     Age  GP  GVT   Cap
Alex Tanguay     32  79 17.6  $3.5M
Curtis Glencross 29  79 12.0  $2.6M
Anton Babchuk    27  82 11.3  $2.5M
Brendan Morrison 36  66  9.7  $1.3M
Henrik Karlsson  28  17 -1.1  $0.9M
Total            30 323 49.5 $10.8M

The Flames kept a slightly younger group who played roughly the same number of games, but contributed well over double the number of goals above replacement-level, and it cost them about half as much. The group of players they kept together have roughly five times the value of those that left. They also kept AHLers like Brendan Mikkelson, Max Reinhart, Jordan Henry, Leland Irving, Jon Rheault, Carter Bancks and Joe Piskula. And who did the Flames bring in?

Flames in          Age  GP  GVT Cap
Roman Horak         20   0  WHL $0.8M
Paul Byron          22   8 -0.2 $0.6M
Chris Butler        25  49  2.2 $1.3M
Pierre-Luc Leblond  26   2 -0.4 $0.5M
Derek Smith         27   9  0.6 $0.7M
Lee Stempniak       28  82  6.5 $1.9M
Scott Hannan        33  78  3.4 $1.0M
Blake Comeau        25  77  8.5 $2.5M
Total               26 305 20.6 $9.3M

They brought in a collection of talent almost identical to those that left, but on average 5 years younger, and at less than half the price. They also brought in more AHLer’s like Guillaume Desbiens, Clay Wilson and Ben Walter. To summarize, the Flames correctly identified the players to keep, a collection of players with five times the value as those they let go, who were replaced by a group almost exactly as good, but five years younger and less than half as expensive.

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Flames Out: 31 year old, 317 games played, 20.2 GVT, $19.7M cap

Flames Kept: 30 years old, 323 games played, 49.5 GVT, $10.8M cap

Flames In: 26 years old, 305 games played, 20.6 GVT, $9.3M cap

The rebuild is already happening.  If they keep it up, they will soon have re-structured their team into a legitimate post-season participant, and without having to be the joke of the league for years on end.

Ask fans in Columbus, Florida, Carolina and especially Atlanta if the Flames should blow up the team and force us to endure terrible hockey for years on end. The Flames are better off following the Detroit, New Jersey, Philadelphia and San Jose model, an approach that would have avoided their current struggles had it been followed sooner.

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  • First round picks are not the answer in and of themselves. You need to build the team around some quality depth veterans.

    The Oilers are better this year. Sure that is in part due to the progression of Hall and Eberle as well as the hot start for Nugent Hopkins, but I’d say it had more to do with (finally) getting some quality goaltending from Khabby and having Gilbert emerge as a true top pairing D-man. Those things, plus having another guy that can play a shutdown role and win a draw (Belanger)so Horcoff wasn’t always put in situations where he couldn’t succeed. Having Smytty find the fountain of youth helps as well.

    The beginnings of the turnaround in Edmonton are partially due to the draft picks, but also partially due to the management finally starting to look for depth instead of trading away legit NHL players for handfuls of magic beans.

    I don’t think that the Flames should be trading away good quality NHL players for nothing more than a pick that may turn out to be the next Rico Fata. Getting a return can involve getting back NHL players too. Some combination of picks prospects and players for hired gun stars is the fastest way to come back. Provided of course that your amateur and pro scouting depts know what they are doing. That my be the first hurdle for the flames.

  • loudogYYC


    You won’t build a contending team without serious depth at centre. Every Cup champion since the lockout has won with at least 2 elite/solid centremen.

    Carolina 2006:
    Eric Staal-Brind’Amour-Weight-Cullen

    Anaheim 2007:
    Getzlaf-McDonald(In His Prime)-Pahlsson(IHP)-Marchant(IHP)

    Detroit 2008:

    Pittsburgh 2009:
    Crosby-Malkin-Jordan Staal-Talbot

    Chicago 2010:

    Boston 2011:

    Let’s not forget that before the lockout, Tampa beat us with Lecavalier-Richards as their 1-2.

    Boston has taken centre depth to a new level, they have Seguin tearing it up now and had Savard been healthy, they would have 6 centres that are better than almost all of ours. They even traded Thornton away in 2005 and still managed to put that depth together in the next 5-6 years.

    This is why I’m not sold on keeping Iggy or putting high hopes on Baertschi or signing Parise next year. These guys can’t do it if you don’t put quality centremen on their lines.
    Right now we have Jokinen, Backlund, Horak and Byron that are somewhere between 2nd or 3rd line centres at best. Hopefully management lets them fight it out while they try to acquire a real #1.

    I don’t mind the way the renewal or “rebuild” is going so far. Slow and steady but, it’s getting close to the time where Feaster has to back up all those intelligently put together speeches.

    Great article BTW, Robert.

  • RKD

    I guess people overlook the failures of other teams and assume the Flames will be able to stack a bunch of draft picks and win a Stanley Cup.

    The reality with Pittsburgh is that Sidney Crosby is one in a million, the best player since Gretzky. He will be top 5 all time if his health doesn’t fail him.

    Chicago also got lucky with Toews and Kane, you need to assemble the right team with the right players.

    Los Angeles hasn’t taken that next step, in fact they are struggling to be a top team. Washington hasn’t won a Cup with Ovechin, Green, etc.

    The Oilers are far too top heavy, offence is important but you need a solid defence too.

    The cupboard is not as bare with the emergence of Sven Bartschi and Max Reinhart. There’s Leach, Holland, Ferland, Granlund, Bouma. We still have Backlund, Horak, Byron, Brodie, Smith, Butler, Piskula and Irving, phew! I’m sure we all want Bartschi’s talent x3, but that’s just not realistic. It’s much more promising now then in the past when we were only talking about Kolanos, Chucko, Negrin and Pelech.

    • loudogYYC

      I agree that there are some good pieces in place for the future Flames. But Washington is a clear example of a good team that doesn’t have enough depth at centre.
      Maybe that Johansson kid is good enough to form a strong 1-2 with Backstrom, but until that day arrives they’re probably not gonna make it past the 2nd round of the playoffs.

  • There is no guarantee with any direction this team goes. Rebuild could be futile, plugging in more veterans will probably produce what we have seen for the last 3-4 years. I think maybe we should just focus on what really is the right decisions to make on players within the organization in hopes of finding that right mix of young & experienced players. This process needs to be unfortunately done in a very business like manner.
    So looking forward to the next 18-20 months, what decisions really need to be made. Well the biggest white elephant in the room & most contraversial is Iginla. As a GM you know the basics, he’s a franchise face and long time captain. He’s also mid 30’s & we have him under contract for the next 136 games barring injury. He is still the team leader but clearly is not as effective without a supporting cast which includes something the franchise has not had for him, a #1 centre. Efforts to get that last summer via free agency failed & there are no acceptable trade options out there. His cap hit is the highest on the club & his role is diminishing so something has to give.
    Which is the worst and most desirable of potential outcomes? A GM must consider the following scenarios:
    Better Scenarios:
    1/ Have discussions now with player about future role, future realistic expectations of the hockey team.Player indicates he wants to retire a Flame no matter what & wants to be part of a youth movement & retool to get back to being a playoff contender. Player realizes, role will change, perhaps even relinguish Captaincy to Assist Captain, extend current deal by 3-4 more years to a cap friendly contract. Problem solved, no more Iggy trade rumours.
    2/Discussions now with player indicate he is ready & needs a change for the next 2-3 years in pursuit of a Stanley Cup with a real contender. Understands the direction the organization has to go, Agrees to a trade for young Players/prospects & draft picks. We grind out teams to obtain top value to help accelerate the youth/retool movement.
    Bad Scenarios:
    3/Discussions with player indicate he needs a change of scenario & he is traded to a contender for a package of middling players like the Phaneuf deal.
    4/Team & player refuse to discuss the future in a wait & see attitude & hopes the current team can find the magic to make the playoffs & make a miracle run. By this time next year, the player refuses to discuss contract negotiations and wants to wait for the end of the season. Another slow start & still denials of trading the player. Come off season, player still wants elite player contract, team wants a cap friendly home town discount, player opts to go free agency where he gets his money & the team get zero value for a franchise player.

    The moral of this story, if I’m Feaster, I would be ignoring the fact there is one more year left on his contract & have discussions to see if scenarios #1 or #2 is what Iggy wants & act accordingly & put this white elephant back in the box. This one aint going away any time soon.