It’s still not time for a full and proper eulogy of the Flames season since there remains a couple more games on the schedule. It’s going to take more than a single article to truly get ahold of what went wrong and, more importantly, where the club is headed as well. But here’s some things that are rattling around my head as the Flames prep for the golf course for a third straight April.
The Old Grey Mare
I’m entirely blase about his coaching, but one has to somewhat feel for Brent Sutter after reading this interview today. He sounds like a man who desperately wanted to win and tried for all the world to get his club over the hump. Unfortunately, it still sounds to me like he’s still coming to the wrong conclusions.
"For three seasons, Sutter has tried to instill an up-tempo style of game. He still believes in that system — noting it’s the same used by the Boston Bruins, St. Louis Blues, New York Rangers and Detroit Red Wings — but couldn’t seem to be consistently executed by the Flames.
The easy response is the Flames are too old, too slow, not talented enough and not built for a punishing forechecking game.
Sutter says the winning streaks over the years proved this club had the players to win with the gameplan. They just didn’t do it on a consistent basis.
"It’s re-assured me when this team has done it right how good we can be. And it’s reassured me when we’re not doing it right, we’re not at the level we need to be," he said. "The game isn’t played like it was six, seven years ago. It’s not played like it was before the lockout (which wiped out the 2004-05 season) and even the first year after the lockout. When all the rules changed, it took a year or two for everyone to get acclimatized to that environment, and the teams that had success with it, are the teams that really took it and went with it.
"You look at all the teams that have had consistent success the last three or four years, the players have adjusted to how the game is played, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re the top guy or the guy down here, everybody has to play a certain way, but we fight with that."
With apologies to Sutter, the Flames winning streaks proved nothing of the sort. Every team in the NHL goes through spurts of success, even the very worst in the league. Remember when the Oilers were leading the NW division in November? Remember, also, the Wild’s climb to the top of the WC heap for the first 30 games of the season? The natural ebb and flow of chance plus the parity in the league means everyone gets to feel like a winner in the NHL now and then. The true test of excellence is consistency.
The answer that the Flames aren’t talented enough is the easy response because it’s the correct one. You can whip an old mare all you want but she’s never going to run as fast as a thoroughbred.
Let’s put it another way – if the teams who have consistent success play "that certain way" (I can assume he means strong, two-way type hockey) then even if you match that level of commitment or energy level or whatever, that means the determining factor is going to be talent. Trying to out-Red Wings the Red Wings is a tough gig because they have Datsyuk and Zetterberg and Lidstrom and you don’t. Particularly if you’re the Calgary Flames.
It’s seems self-evident and glib, but elite teams play that way consistently because they can.
Related – the organization seems to have this idea (going back to the Darryl Sutter era in fact) that the Flames are an elite club that is simply held back by some enduring character flaw. I think that’s probably a popular sentiment in many fan circles as well…if the big guys had bigger hearts, more will, better leadership, then the untapped potential would be released and the club would finally affix itself atop the Western division. Heck, they even hired an in-house sports psychologist a year or two back.
The decision makers need to disabuse themselves of this notion if the club is to meaningfully move forward. The Calgary Flames don’t have the horses up front to be anything more than a middle of the road team in the league. Full stop. The assembled crew isn’t good enough to hang with the best and many of them are on the wrong side of the development curve. It’s not that Jarome Iginla is a terrible cancer or Jay Bouwmeester has somehow infected the lockerroom with a loser mentality. The team needs better players if they want to take a step away from the ledge and start competing with the big boys again. It’s a simple, but daunting, fix.
For the sake of a thought experiment, let’s pretend the issue is, in fact, entirely mental. That a championship skill level is being suppressed by a problem of will or emotion. At this point, after three seasons outside the playoff picture, one has to admit the issue is intractable, not transient. Fixed and unalterable. It’s not a bout of depression that can be talked or medicated away – it’s a persistent personality disorder.
I don’t subscribe to this notion, personally. But either way, the idea that the Flames as constructed would suddenly rocket up the standings if a magical, psychological button were pressed should be abandoned with prejudice.
King of the Hill
For those who think Ken King is part of the problem, the recent news that the Flames bought a majority stake in the Stampeders is probably bad news. The Flames were already the gorilla in the room when it came to sports entertainment in Calgary, but after acquiring the Hitmen, the Roughnecks and now the Stamps, they are pretty much the only game in town.
And King sits at the top of all of it.
Say what you will about KK, but the Flames sales have been consistently strong with him and he’s managed to increase and consolidate the organization’s power (and, therefore, his own) in a sort of impressive, Machiavellian manner over the last few years. Even as the club’s fortunes have flagged on the ice and various other figureheads have been sacrificed to answer for those failings (various coaches, Darryl Sutter, scouts, etc), King’s position on the throne has only grown more and more secure.
It will be interesting to see what happens if/when the Flames Sports and Entertainment conglomerate approaches the city about a new arena. Given their growing stature, they may not even arrive with hat in hand.
Even in the gloom, there are bright spots to be excited about. Some of the Flames kids, including Baertschi, Ferland, Granlund and Gaudreau, had unexpectedly good seasons and the Flames will likely be choosing 11th overall again this June. Perhaps the organization will be able to really start building a strong base of prospects going forward. We’ll explore Calgary’s prospects and the upcoming draft in much greater detail in the off-season.
In addition, the Flames aren’t starting from a place of zero big leagues assets as well. There are some decent middle-tier players here and the blueline is fairly strong as well. While the team’s needs are big and difficult to obtain (excellent-to-elite ES forwards), at least this ship doesn’t have multiple big leaks across it’s hull.