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.
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.
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.
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.
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.