There’s just one game left in what will prove to be the Flames worst regular season since 2002-03. This off-season will no doubt be filled with tough questions, doubts and multiple post-mortems to be sure. Picking through the wreckage and attempting to define a new path forward has become one of my favorite summer acitivities.
All that said, not everything was bad news this season. A few bright spots emerged from the gloom that are worth mentioning
The Silver Linings
The Kipper Rebound
After perhaps his second worst season in Flames colors in 2010-11 (2008-09 stands alone at the bottom), Miikka Kiprusoff had a fine bounce back season that saw him float the team for a two month stretch while they battled incessant injuries. If Kipper doesn’t play like a Vezina candidate through January and February, the Flames aren’t battling for a playoff spot come March.
While those heroics now seem somewhat fruitless (and perhaps pragmatically counterproductive since a higher draft pick would be preferable at this point), his renaissance means he has reinvigorated his value on the trade market at just the right time for the organization.
This summer, Miikka’s NTC goes away and his real salary (versus his cap hit) begins to drop. He’ll be paid $5M next year and then just $1.5M the season. His cap hit will remain at $5.83M, but the reduction in real cash salary and the erasure of his NTC means he can be traded to just about anyone, and his contract is less risky.
The question of whether to deal Kipper at all is another matter, but the good news is it has now a more attractive option after such a quality performance.
Flames win the Regehr trade
I’ll admit I was fairly underwhelmed by the return for former stalwart Robyn Regehr when Feaster moved him (and Kotalik + a second) for Chris Butler and Paul Byron. I’m still not thrilled a second round pick was included and I find Byron to be a completely middling prospect, but in the end I have to give the edge to the Flames anyways.
For two reasons: firstly, Butler is a young, functional top-four defender whose cap hit is incredibly reasonable (1.25M). The 26-year old caught a lot of flack this year for his occasional struggles, but the truth is he was technically playing way over his head on a top-pairing, shut-down tandem. He finished the year with the second highest average even strength ice time per game for the Flames and third most per game short-handed ice. That’s a tough row to hoe for a guy who wasn’t even a regular for the Sabres the year previous. So while he didn’t exactly excel in his vastly tougher assignment, he was good enough for the Flames to assume they have a competent top-four guy on a cheap ticket going forward.
Reggie, on the other hand, had a terrible year. His addition has been roundly panned by Sabres writers and fans. Initially paired with sophomore Tyler Myers to start the year, the duo got their heads beat it in as the Sabres shut-down pairing. After 75 games, Regehr’s even strength ice time has sunk to 15:54 per game – good for 6th amongst regular Sabre defenders.
Regehr is just 31-years old, but he’s never been overly mobile or good with the puck. He’s battled chronic knee issues for years and it looks like his strengths are starting to overwhelm his weaknesses. The Flames got out of that $4.02M/year contract at just the right time.
Backlund Gets Better at the Tough Stuff
This one will be controversial because Backlund’s season was a disaster by most conventional measures. He battled injuries, bad bounces and lackluster output all season, so many are prepared to declare him a bust. The truth is, the kid managed to prove he can drive the play, even in tough circumstances.
Thanks to injuries and dearth of other options, Backlund frequently played against top-six opposition when he was healthy. He also started 44.6% of his shifts in the defensive end (only Tom Kostopolous had a lower ratio). Despite all that, the Flames out-shot the bad guys when Backlund was on the ice this year.
I’ll put this in context that is easy to understand. In my piece the other day on why the Flames’ scoring fell off, I noted the team just didn’t generate enough shots this year. With that in mind, here are the shots for and shots against (per 60 minutes of ice) for the Flames regular forwards at even strength this season:
The Flames didn’t finish very often when he was on the ice this year and Backlund himself needs to figure out how to put the puck in the ocean a bit more often, but he took a step this season that a huge majority of kids never take: keeping the puck moving the right way. Moving the play north was one of the Flames biggest weaknesses this season (check out all the top line players above), but it looks like Backlund, at 23-years old, has arrived as a functional NHLer who is better than average in terms of possession. Even if he only settles in as a 35-40 point centerman, the fact that the team outshoots the bad guys with him on the ice is a boon.
On top of all that, his rough season means the Flames should be able to re-sign the pending RFA at a very reasonable number this summer. I have had a number of opposition team fans inquire about the Flames potentially dealing Backs this summer for these reasons. Hopefully Cakgary does the opposite and inks him for several years at a bargain price.
The Return of Cammalleri (and the exit of Bourque)
Feaster’s biggest "win" so far as the Flames GM is the Cammalleri/Bourque swap. Whatever malady that infected Bourque after he was re-signed by Calgary followed him to Montreal. He’s been a disaster for the Habs, garnering five goals, eights points and a -17 rating in just 37 games. His contract extends for another 3 years after this one and it wouldn’t surprise me if he gets bought out or demoted to the minors before it ends.
Cammalleri didn’t turn the Flames around or anything, but he proved to be a far more useful piece than Rene. His underlying numbers were relatively strong down the stretch and he played well when asked to move from wing to center. Even with his early season struggles and fighting through injury, Cammalleri finished the year with 20 goals and 40 points in 65 games.
MC is overpaid at $6M/year, but his deal ends one season earlier than Rene and he is, by far, the more useful player at this point. He is a player the team can hang on to as they find a new path or a decent trade asset to flip for futures down the road.
The KIds are Alright
Calgary Flames prospects collectively had one of the best seasons I can personally recall. Not only did Sven Baertschi emerge as one of the best picks of his draft class (and the most exciting forward prospect in town for two decades), but numerous other youngsters met or exceeded expectations this year as well.
I was intrigued when the Flames drafted John Gaudreau in the fourth round last June, but by no means did I expect him to become a high impact player in college at just 18-years old. Calgary’s most diminuitive draft pick ever scored 20-goals and 43-points in 43 games for Boston College this season, second only to 20-year old, former first rounder Chris Kreider (45 points). He was named the MVP of the Beatpot tournament and his club is considered the favorite to win the frozen four. It;s hard to ask for a better freshman season.
Former Calgary third rounder Bill Arnold is also a Boston College Eagle and a significant contributor. He doesn’t have the offensive ceiling of Gaudreau, but it was another firm step in the right direction.
Max Reinhart led the Kootenay ice in scoring with 78-points in just 61-games played. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but the Ice were one of the lowest scoring clubs in the league. HIs 16-year old brother Sam was second on the club with just 62-points. Only one other guy (Ismond) managed more than 50.By alla ccounts, Max was by far the club’s most dominant forward in all situations. He will be turning pro, likely with the Heat, this coming October. Reinhart teammate and Flames third rounder Joey Leach was named the Ice’s MVP during their brief playoff run as well.
Markus Granlund, brother of top-flight prospect Michael Granlund, was picked in the second round with one of two assets acquired in the Tim Erixon deal. There were some questions about the younger Granlund heading into the season, specifically his size and compete level, but he managed to stick HIFK Helsinki if the Finnish Elite League (SM-liiga) despite being only 18-years old. He scored 15-goals and 34 points in 47 games, a healthy number for a teen in a pro league. He also made the Fins WJC squad.
Michael Ferland was a guy who stood out to me during Calgary’s pre-season last summer. A big guy who moved well and seemed to think the game at a good pace, I nevertheless could not have predicted his sudden outburst this season – the 19-year old went from a point-per-game player in 2010-11 to scoring 47 goals and 96-points in just 68 games this year. He finished second on the Brandon Wheat Kings in scoring to Mark Stone and 9th in the WHL. That’s an incredible year for a guy who was picked in the 5th round, and mostly because he was willing to muck in the corners and drop the gloves now and then.
TJ Brodie Emerges
Finally, the organization saw TJ Brodie take the step from "promising youngster" to "full time NHLer" this year. The 21-year old acquitted himself well on most nights, due to his combination fo mobility and vision. Although not very big, Brodie held his own in the corners and in front of the net most nights and, aside from Mark Giordano, is one of the few guys on the Flames back-end who can either pass or skate the puck out of trouble.
Brodie was sheltered by Sutter this year, but he excelled in that role which is the critical first step for any young defender. He is poised to be a fixture on Calgary’s blueline for years to come.