In April, I wrote about the primary dilemma facing Flames fans and management – persistent mediocrity:
The Flames have exhausted all efforts to escape the NHL’s growing middle class since the lock-out, trying desperately to leverage the peak years of Jarome Iginla, Robyn Regehr and Miikka Kiprusoff, without success. "Solidly middling!" is the hypothetical critical reception of Darryl Sutter’s tenure – consistently able to beat up the lesser lights, never good enough to challenge the heavy weights. And now fans no doubt see the bright future promised by the 2003-04 cup run inexorably fading, the final step between their team and the venerated elite class of the league becoming insurmountable as their core stars age.
As such, a different kind of hopelessness grips the modern Flame fan relative to those in the late-’90’s: the possibility of a never-ending cycle of mid-range finishes, mid-range draft picks and scrambles to make the post-season just to "see what happens". A gray, perpetual purgatory where ultimate success is denied but tantalizingly close enough to avoid sweeping away the vestiges of failed dreams to start anew.
In short: the club is too good to blow up but not good enough to become elite with no clear path out of the woods. With the big guns drifting ever closer to obsolescence and the dearth of elite talent in the system, the Flames seem destined to run aground as a matter of course.
The essential problem is the total lack of an elite forward to bridge the gap between the decline of Jarome Iginla to the ascent of some hypothetical future superstar who will be able to assume the mantle. Feaster tried to acquire the best forward available in Brad Richards this off-season, perhaps in part for this purpose, but the gamble was a pricey one and more band-aid than remedy. After all, Richards himself is 31-years old with on a few more seasons left of peak or near peak production before he too begins to ride towards the sunset. As such, I suspect the club would have ultimately regretted landing Richards for the price and length they offered.
The Flames true needs is a comparable or better player, but a decade younger. They need a kid whose peak has yet to be reached, who can claim the offensive torch from Iginla’s failing hands. There are only a few ways to acquire such talents: a trade, the draft…or a restricted free agent offer sheet.
Trading for a young superstar is next to impossible in the current environment (unless Paul Holmgren gets hungry for some change, I guess). It happens, but it’s rare and usually costs a bundle in terms of current assets to pull off. On the other hand, drafting a superstar requires a top-5 pick, some luck and/or a shrewd scouting department. Flames have been lacking in at least two of those factors for the last two decades. Cory Stillman stands as the best forward drafted by the organization since the team won the Stanley Cup. The last time the Calgary Flames drafted a generational type talent up front was 1987 when they took a chance on some squirt named Theoren Fleury in the eighth round.
The final method for procuring young, elite talent is considered the forbidden fruit of the CBA: the RFA offer sheet. It’s costly both in terms of future assets (up to four future first round picks) and the wrath it conjures in other GM’s (particular those who are targeted). Proffering an offer sheet has the connotation of desperation and of dirty pool. I sometimes suspect the stigma associated with the act – rather the actual cost – is why GM’s so rarely employ this strategy. No one likes to walk around with a scarlet letter on their chest.
That said, successfully sniping a young, established superstar might be a way out of this conundrum the Flames organization finds itself in. The best possibility this summer is Steven Stamkos, who remains unsigned and therefore open to an RFA attack. At 21-years old, he has back-to-back 45+ goal and 90+ point seasons. He is already an elite player on the power-play and has taken steps forward at ES in each of his first three seasons. By the age of 24, he should be the full package – an elite, all around center with years left on the odometer. Like Ovechkin, Crosby and Parise, Stamkos is a good bet to be one of those rare players who is worth whatever he gets paid.
Generational talents like Stamkos are easily worth four first-round picks, particularly to a team like the Flames whose draft history is less than storied. If Calgary inked Stamkos for, say, 10-years at $8-9 million per, they would lock up a future elite center for the majority of his peak seasons and a number of his UFA years. He would aid Iginla as he declines by resting the offensive burden from the captains shoulders and would become the focal point around which the team would build when Iginla finally moves on.
There’s no such asset in the organization currently, and no guarantee nor obvious avenue to acquire one. Of course, Feaster would have to engage in some fancy footwork cap-wise to make a Stamkos offer sheet work this summer (Flames have about $3.8M in space currently), but I maintain the return could very likely be worth it, both in the short and long-term.