The center pole of the season has come and gone. As is FN custom, I gathered our various contributors together and picked their brain about the Flames so far and how they might look in the future.
Also, Please note these inquiries were asked and answered before the debacle in Boston last night.
1.) At the time of writing the Flames had 41 points and will need to garner another 55 to get to the probable cut off of 96 points by the end of the season (or a record of roughly 25-11-5) to make the playoffs. Possible?
Robert Cleave: Possible, but exceptionally unlikely. Last year’s team had a EV-tied Fenwick after 41 games was .529. That’s a very good number, one that would currently place the club about 8th or 9th in the league. As well, the team PDO was right about 97, so an uptick was almost certain to occur, and it obviously did.
This year’s group, due to injury and a few other things, isn’t remotely near that level. They’re currently in the lower half of the league at .495, and with a PDO just over 99, the room for growth just doesn’t seem to be there. They would certainly benefit from a return to health of a few guys, but barring a dramatic improvement from several players and a rapid return to health of several others, it seems like they’re headed for a 9th-12th finish.
Robert Vollman: It is possible. There are four teams doing it currently and one of them is arguably not much than Calgary. Every year there’s a team that gets all the bounces and rides a wave of incredible luck, and if the Flames can do it in 2012 the way they did in 2004, then yes it is possible.
Justin Azevedo: Possible? Absolutely. There is enough raw talent on this team to win that many games in that short a period. Probable? Not even close. The buzz word around the Flames – other then "rebuild" – is "inconsistent". They could go on a percentages run, but I just don’t see them getting that kind of luck based on the way they’ve played in the first half.
Ryan Lambert: Probably not. The 7-10 teams in the West aren’t very good or anything, so I’m not going to completely rule it out, but the playoff threshold is the playoff threshold and 96 points simply doesn’t seem possible. I have serious doubts that Calgary can win in excess of 20 of their final 41 games, let alone 25.
Vintage Flame: It is possible, though not probable. I will still say that Calgary is talented enough to make the playoffs. Not survive, but they could make it. Unfortunately they are just all over the place with their consistency or lack thereof. This team lacks the organization to replicate 2010-11. At least last year they were terrible for the first half of the season and then solid for the most part in the second half; they were just unable to ride it out to the end. This year they are just all over the place from game to game and week to week.
Pat Steinberg: Possible? Of course it’s possible, but not realistic, nor likely. The Flames are a team that couldn’t afford to put themselves too far behind the eight ball, something they did with their medicore months of October and November. A slightly better December put themselves somewhat back in the race, but to play hockey 14 games above par for the rest of the season, I just don’t see it happening.
2.) Related to question 1, should the Flames start thinking about the trade deadline already?
RC: Yes. Teams might still be reticent to take on salary until the last minute for cap reasons, but making plans to, at the very minimum, unload UFAs like Sarich, Moss if he’s healthy and Hannan would simply be the mark of a prudent operation at this point.
RV: Absolutely, and I believe they are. By acquiring cheap and/or young players who can play big minutes in a variety of situations, and developing young players wherever possible, the Flames are in a position to either act on a great offer on one of their big names (in most cases), or to continue to get the most out of their higher priced assets if they don’t.
JA: They probably should, but I think the Flames will be within striking distance at the deadline. What that means is that Feaster, King and Company will be standing pat. But, even if the Flames think about trading players-who do they get rid of? Who is going to be wanted by other teams? Who will waive their NTC/NMC’s? Will the Flames get fair return? So, yeah. Call around. But don’t expect the reaction for the players to be positive.
RL: Thinking about it, yes, but right now a full-on firesale isn’t going to be feasible, much as I would like it to be. Still too many games to go to flesh out a roster with AHLers and younger NHLer, and not enough few enough that demand for a 40-game rental is going to net a strong enough return. They can sell off a guy here and there if the market exists (it won’t) but the best thing they can do right now is figure out who stays and who goes. The latter should be, "almost everyone."
VF: I hope they are. It’s been said many times since the preseason that the Flames should be looking at moving pieces as opportunities present themselves. It will be very hard to deal effectively with 12 contracts and roughly 20 million dollars coming off the books all at once. It creates a huge margin for error if you ask me and takes away from focusing on specific areas of concern, which for this team is pretty much everywhere.
PS: I don’t think their record should ever be taken into account when evaluating trades this season, deadline or otherwise. This is a non-playoff team for the last two years and likely will be again this year; even if they do find a way in this season, we’re talking about an aging core and very few, if any, potential impact players on their way up. Banking on Sven Bartschi to be the next franchise player is not the way to run a hockey team, so the team needs to be thinking hard about each player on the roster and how they fit longterm.
The three most interesting guys to watch are Olli Jokinen, Lee Stempniak, and Miikka Kiprusoff. The two forwards are on expiring deals and could net a decent return, specifically Jokinen, who is having his most impactful NHL season as a Flame to date.
3.) The Flames are one of the worst road teams in the NHL through the first half of the year. Why do you think that is? Schedule? Coaching? Team make-up?
RC: Poor forward play in large part. If your main forwards can’t hang with the other team’s big guns, coaches with last change are invariably sharp enough to figure it out. I mean, other than Tom Renney. At any rate, the fact that Iginla and Bourque are deficient in this regard is really at the heart of Calgary’s problems. Add in the fact that one the club’s best at out-shooting (Moss) hasn’t played very much, and here we are.
RV: Excellent question! Normally a poor road record indicates a Vigneault-styled team where some players are ridiculously sheltered while others are playing the tough minutes at home, but that’s not the case with Calgary. I can’t dispute the reality of their being the league’s worst road team, but to be perfectly honest I haven’t yet figured out why.
JA: Special teams. The Flames were bottom-10 in the NHL Special Teams % on the road up until their recent run, if we can call it that. I won’t blame scheduling because the Flames can’t control that, but they can control a horribly run PP that was sub-5% through the first 11 road games of the season.
RL: Team makeup for sure. This isn’t a team that was ever going to be very good either at home or on the road and that’s being borne out. There’s no great mystery to it.
VF: Like Meatloaf said, two outta three ain’t bad. I’d leave scheduling out of this and focus more on coaching and team make-up. Sutter has left many fans wondering with his general ineffectiveness to line match. At home it is supposed to be an advantage and Flames barely function on most nights, on the road they seem completely lost at matching the opposition. That is also directly related to the make-up of the team. Even if Sutter was more effective and line matching, the Flames just don’t have the horses to run with most teams and any of the elite teams in the NHL.
PS: The schedule hasn’t been easy, and that’s the only real thing that could play into this. The team has actually had some of their best individual outings of the season away from home this year, with wins in Detroit and Vancouver sticking out. They’ve also had some of their worst (see losses in Columbus and St. Louis). I just think it’s a quirk of the 2011-12 season on a middling team.
4.) Despite the overall struggles, can you point to a couple of bright spots so far?
RC: The goaltending, particularly since Irving has been added, has been decent enough. It’s been pretty easy in the past few seasons to point at Kipper’s shoddy work and the uselessness of the various back-ups as the primary factor in holding the team down. That’s not the case this season. Kipper and Irving have deserved a better fate this season, frankly.
The other player obviously worth mentioning is T.J. Brodie. He’s still got some learning to do in his own end, but his speed is notable on a team that has historically featured a bunch of lead foots on the back end, and his offensive acumen is getting better almost by the game. The next step for him will be to manage versus top-4 comp on a regular basis, but he’s pretty clearly headed in the proper direction.
RV: Yes, absolutely. Had Miikka Kiprusoff played this well last season it would have been enough to make the post-season, and Leland Irving’s first few starts have been very promising. I also think Chris Butler’s adequacy as a first-line pairing has been a pleasant surprise. And their power play has produced average results even though it’s probably one of the league’s worst.
JA: Obviously Jarome Iginla’s pursuit of 500 goals is a pretty awesome thing to watch, and it’s made even more impressive in that he’s scored every one of those goals in a Flames uniform. The second is Mikael Backlund. He’s absolutely killing it in terms of possession-and while the points might not be there, he’s been the Flames’ best forward at driving the puck to the offensive zone in less then favourable circumstances. He’s so much better then the guy some people wanted to trade him for – Kyle Turris. I think not getting Turris, especially with the price Bryan Murray paid, was another bright spot. Dude’s not a good player in any sense, and the allure of being a high pick wore off for me last year.
Derek Smith, pre-injury, was a lot better then I was expecting. Jay Bouwmeester, for all of his critics, has been the best Flame on the ice for the last 20 games. Matt Stajan’s been a plus-possession player this year, and I’d like to remind everyone that Stajan didn’t force that contract on the Flames.
RL: Jarome Iginla is having another fine, fine season, and no one, to my knowledge, has died on the ice yet. Also they beat Vancouver that one time.
VF: I still think Olli Jokinen remains a bright spot for Calgary. The reinvention of his game isn’t revolutionary, but it has definitely helped. He has become a solid two way player and his points are coming. I don’t think he is a first line center, but no one on the team is so you take what you have a run with it.
As of late, I’ll include Leland Irving on the list as well. I know he hasn’t played enough games to really judge one way or another his NHL potential, but the kid looks good from what we have seen of him and I’m really impressed with his level of composure. I think he has played well enough to play Henrik Karlsson out of job…for whatever that is worth.
I’ll also throw in honourable mentions for Derek Smith and Roman Horak. I like Smith’s ability to jump into the play and make some pretty decent plays in the offensive zone. His defensive play still needs work but considering he has been thrust into a top 4 role, he’s done a good job. Horak as well has shown signs of play-making and offensive prowess. I’d like to see what he can do with other skilled forwards that have some speed, maybe with the likes of Baertschi and say, Holland or Ferland sometime in the future.
PS: The duo of Jokinen and Curtis Glencross have been a nice carryover from last year, something the team will need to continue for it to stay in this thing. The progression of Chris Butler has surprised me as well, as the toughest minutes to date in his NHL career don’t seem as steep a challenge for him anymore. There was a time when I thought the Bouwmeester-Butler pairing just wasn’t a good idea,
but it’sbeen much better over the last two months or so. And the first three starts of Leland Irving’s young career in between the pipes have to be classified as a positive.
5.) What are the biggest disappointments in your mind?
RC: Rene Bourque and Jarome Iginla, by a large measure. Those two gents, simply by where they sit in the club’s pecking order financially, have to be the lead forwards. Neither can be trusted against good players this year, and if your expensive guys can’t carry the mail, you won’t be any good. Before he was nicked, Mark Giordano wasn’t playing very well either, and I’ll be intrigued to see what he’s got when he returns, because the team needs a lot more from him than he was showing earlier this year.
RV: The inability to generate offense at even-strength has been the biggest disappointment. Beyond that, their poor performance on the road and Rene Bourque’s bizarre slide are on my list of surprised disappointments.
JA: I suspect this will be a common thread amongst us, but Rene Bourque. That contract looks so ugly it’s insane. I wanted him to be resigned, but I was disappointed when the contract came down. I looked at this last year-even though he got 50 points, they came in just 35 games. You can’t be a second liner and not get points in 47 of the team’s games.
Aside from that, his underlying numbers were horrible last year on the second line and his underlying numbers have been horrible this year on the third line. Chuck in the penalties and general dumb play, then realize the dude is 30 and realize we’re witnessing the downfall of his career. Mark Giordano was also having a really bad season before he went down, even though he was playing second and third liners.
RL: They’re mostly with management. Honestly, I can’t imagine how they thought this team would be competitive in the league after making very few substantive changes to the roster for a team that’s missed the playoffs the last two years. If it couldn’t make the postseason in 2009-10, why would an old, slow team that’s two years older and slower make it in 2011-12?
VF: There are so many on this team from players to game play that I’ll just give my greatest hits. Rene Bourque has to top the list. Kelly Hrudey finally said on TV what everyone was thinking. Bourque’s level of competitiveness is flat out unacceptable. It’s not even so much that his point totals are in the toilet, but his all around general play. I thought it had culminated just over two weeks ago when he was suspended for two games, until now and the five game suspension. By far the dumbest thing he has done all year. It’s time to cut bait.
I really thought this was going to be a different year for Matt Stajan. He had worked out all off-season with Gary Roberts’ program and I thought he was going to show a lot more progress from the terrible season he had last year. Alas that wasn’t to be and it’s my belief now that Matt is just a flat out bad player with no drive and the ethic that it’s easier to give up and feel sorry for himself than to push through any adversity.
Finally, the overall play of the Flames this year. Like I said before there is just no organization or consistency to their game and they appear to be just playing with the flow of the games they are in. We have yet to see them play an entire 60 minutes of any given game; that might have something to do again of the make-up of the team and just not having enough weapons in the garrison, or they’re just not that good. Injuries have definitely not helped this team but every team goes through it so I don’t think they can really fall back on that excuse.
PS: Rene Bourque continues to frustrate me, and every other Flames fan, to no end. From boneheaded penalties and suspensions to disappearing acts and on ice malaise, Bourque has been the largest disappointment of the season in my eyes. We all know how he can affect the play when he’s even close to on; he hasn’t been at that level anywhere near enough this season.
6.) Finally, pretend you’re the Flames GM – do you put Iginla and Kiprusoff on the auction block sooner or later?
RC: No later than this summer for both, although let me stipulate that neither would be my first choice to run off. That noted, you have to be realistic about what the other obvious candidates to expunge would garner in terms of assets, and with that in mind, moving on from the two gents in question might well be the optimal approach for improving the club.
It’s fairly clear that Iginla’s situation is trickier, because of his ongoing NMC and his standing in the community, but my view is that the time for sentiment is long past, and the net financial effect of tangential matters like jersey sales will pale in comparison to another several years of poor hockey. This is a point I mentioned earlier this year, but if the club gets a decent offer for him, they need to ask themselves, "Is it plausible we can be a top-flight team before Jarome retires?" If that answer is "no", then the path for their next move seems crystal clear. He’s the team’s best available asset for beginning to refurbish the roster, so given the state of the club the time to move on is likely now, and if I was sitting in the chair, I’d start the process pretty much as of today.
It’s always possible that the return offered might not be very good, but my sense is that his standing in the league might convince a GM or two to overpay. Kiprusoff was apparently shopped last summer, so it seems the club is already willing to countenance life without him. I’d also think that if a decent club actually came calling at the deadline, he’d be willing to move in order to have a shot at the post-season. Whether there’s another team willing to give up worthwhile assets for him is an open question, of course, but again, the Flames aren’t going anywhere with Kiprusoff, and he’s nearing the end of his career. Moving him would likely be good for both the player and the team at this juncture.
RV: The sooner they’re on the auction block the more likely they might get a great offer. And if they ever need to move one of them in a hurry (for whatever reason) there’s a better chance they’ll get more than Matt Stajan in return.
JA: I’ve said that Kiprusoff should be traded the past 8 months – ‘s too old, that contract is too ugly and he played at replacement level in ’07-’08, ’08-’09 and ’10-’11. This year, he hasn’t been much better, posting a .924 Even Strength Save Percentage-exactly 9 points above threshold, or one win thus far through the season. Think about that – the Flames are paying a guy 5.8 million dollars against the cap to add 2 wins to the team’s total. He needs to be traded while the spectre of "elite" still hangs around him.
As for Iginla…I’m the biggest Iggy fan out there; every Flames team I remember has had him on it. If I were GM, with complete autonomy from the owners, I still wouldn’t do anything until he asked to be traded. I think he has to be moved eventually-but I don’t think it happens before the end of the season. The Draft will be the first real chance for him to be moved, all things considered. He makes too much money for the franchise. Imagine how bad this team would be without him.
RL: Sooner. Trade everyone.
VF: You mean they’re not already? I know what the organization says to the media and the public, but the fact of the matter is that this is still a business and any smart business man knows that every deal has a price. I have to think that if the right deal comes along for this organization that anything is possible. The tight lipped intentions of King, Feaster, Edwards and even Iginla is just part of the business. You don’t go advertising to the shareholders a corporate restructuring plan without having a plan to begin with and the support to implement it.
PS: Iginla no. Kiprusoff yes. I’ve moved away from the "trade Iginla for the good of the franchise" stance, as I’m just not convinced it’s going to help them. I can’t think of a move involving a franchise player that has worked for the rebuilding team in the past decade. Deals to move Thornton, Richards, Kovalchuk, and Hossa just haven’t worked out anywhere near how they were supposed to. Mike Smith, Patrice Cormier, Marco Sturm, and Colby Armstrong are just a few of the names that went back in return in these deals.
Iginla can still finish at a high level, I say use him right and let him be a dangerous offensive threat. As for Kipper, he’s a 35 year old goaltender. Tim Thomas and Dwayne Roloson are the exception, not the norm; he’s playing decent hockey this season, so go the New England Patriots route and deal him while he’s still helping you, knowing that may not be the case much longer.