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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  • I definitely agree that a rebuild is risky and guarantees nothing. I also think you’re right in that the Flames are already starting to re-structure things to some degree.

    That said, I’ll quibble on two fronts.

    1.) Counting the GVT of the guys the Flames retained this summer is somewhat deceiving. I’ll eat my shoe if Morrison, Tanguay, Babchuk or Glencross manages those GVT’s again. In fact, Babchuk was a decidedly bad bet, Tanguay could very well become one in a couple of years and Morrison, despite his recent outburst, probably should not have received a raise. The best of the bunch is Glencross and I’m guessing he settles in around 8-10 GVT per year for the rest of his contract.

    2.) The Flames principle failing (aside from some poor value contracts) is a genuine lack of elite NHL talent. They have nobody in or even entering their peak that could be considered a truly upper echelon player. What’s more, pillars like Iginla, Kipper and Tanguay are on the downslope.

    There isn’t a lot of elite talent in the league, so the options for acquiring it are very limited. Probably the only route for this franchise to acquire some top-end players is the draft, which is the reason contemplating a rebuild is worthwhile.

    • Great points Kent.

      To address your first point, I agree the Flames could be doing even better, but over-all they’re still doing the right things.

      To your second point, assembling a team of value players gradually frees up the cap space needed to land that elite player.

      And while this could be a separate article, you don’t need elite players. The Phoenix Coyotes have averaged 103 points these past two seasons, and currently sit atop their division, and without elite talent.

      • Fair enough on the Coyotes. No big stars there, however, they have received elite goaltending the last few years and have one of the league’s heavy hitters at ES (at least in terms of moving the puck north in tough circumstances) in Martin Hanzal. Flames don’t even have a Hanzal on hand, let alone a Datsyuk, Kesler, Bergeron, etc.

  • Good article. The one flaw (that I’m sure will be picked up by those commenters who want a blow-up) is that they have a bunch of nice players but no star talent and won’t get that star talent unless they hit bottom (and then pick up a Kane/Toews or Crosby/Malkin). However, I heartily agree that hitting bottom is no guarantee of success (and before I hear “oilers” there’s certainly no guarantee they’ll be a great team in 2-3 years either – a lot has to happen between now and then).

    I’d prefer they continue with the approach they’re taking now – I’m likely in the minority but I like watching this team more than I have the past couple of years. One or two of the kids hits a star level over the next 2-3 years and the Flames will be fine.

    • First of all they do contribute, as a group they contribute 20 goals above replacement-level players, not 0.

      Second of all,
      20.2 GVT for $19.7 cap hit
      replaced by
      20.6 GVT for $9.3 cap hit
      is value!

      But even if you were right and their contribution were zero, that sitll frees up $10.4 million in cap space.

      $10.4 million in cap space can get you up to 30 goals above replacement level.