Spring brings with it the seemingly endless debate of whether the Flames will – or should – pursue an aggressive rebuild going forward. Without a playoff appearance in three seasons and the 2004 cup run growing smaller and smaller in the rear view mirror, Calgary’s options are shrining. The alternative paths set before the Flames decision makers are conceptualized as as opposites – mutually exclusive iideological antipodes that require total commitment or abandonment.
In truth, every team rebuilds on the fly to some extent. Roster attrition is an on-going concern for NHL GM’s due to free agency, trades, injuries and the cruel march of time. The rebuild-status quo relationship is probably more of a continuum than a dichotomy as a result, where levels of team building each year vary based on a club’s quality and needs.
Framing the issue in this in this fashion renders the rebuild debate in Calgary moot I think. Given the state of the roster and the team’s eroding core, the status quo and rebuild options will ultimately and inexorably converge, like autumn turning to winter. The only question remaining now is just how long the winter will last.
No Set path
Perhaps the most fearsome (and loathsome) aspect of the modern rebuild is the apparent aim to construct a losing team in order to take advantage of high-end draft picks. Whatever you might think of the Flames actions to date or their decisions going forward, the guiding aim of a rebuild should always be to keep the losing as brief as possible; meaning being competitive is almost always the target of properly managed clubs. Not only because pro athletes and organizations playing to lose is unseemly no matter how apparently pragmatic, but also because climbing your way out of the basement becomes progressively harder the longer you linger there.
Playing to lose necessarily means making bad decisions, or at least passing on good ones. The parity and spread of talent in the NHL is such that good bets and worthwhile opportunities are rather fleeting meaning they should always be pursued whatever a club’s situation. Team building is an on-going concern for every team whatever their quality and while a given organization’s position on the "rebuild continuum" may somewhat alter their short-term priorities, the goal for everyone in the league is always the same in the long-term: collect as many good players as possible for as little as possible.
The methods to accomplish that objective vary pretty wildly, including trades, drafting, development and UFA signings. There is no certain path from the basement to the penthouse in the NHL, which is why an organization like Calgary has not charged headlong into a rebuild.
Unfortunately the club has regressed beyond the level where simply re-tooling or supplementing the core is going to be effective. The Flames have traveled too far along the rebuild continuum and are now suspended in a sort of gray purgatory between fervently running in place as a playoff bubble team and falling put of the NHL’s middle class completely – whether by way of a purposeful rebuild or because the aging core ultimately collapses beneath the weight of their roles and expectations. Of course, that doesn’t mean they should necessarrily trade all of the decent veteran players or ignore possibilities to add others.
The Way Forward
So Jay Feaster is caught between the unpleasant option of rebuilding immediately and the ever-encroaching inevitability that the status quo will crash the Flames ship into the iceberg of failure anyways.
The Flames priories now mirror the typical priorities of clubs already engaged in an active rebuild:
1.) Find good-to-great young players
2.) Supplement those new core assets accordingly
Calgary has yet to really engage step #1 (Baertschi, Reinhart and Gaudreau are modest steps forward), although step two is where teams often fail. It’s one thing to select a John Tavares, Steven Stamkos or Taylor Hall at the top of the draft – it’s another thing completely to build a roster that can effectively leverage their cheapest and most productive seasons.
The Oilers, for instance, have all but wasted the entry level contracts of Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Sam Gagner. Roster attrition can affect teams at all levels and assuming the next CBA doesn’t somehow cap the second contract as the curent one does the first, the era of the cheap RFA is over when it comes to high-end youngsters. In addition, burgeoning stars don’t tend to stick around organizations who lose more often than they win.
A productive player in the first three years of his ELC is a blessing for the competitive club, but a curse for the basement dweller. A 60-70 point season for a 21-year old on a 29th placed team is gold on a dung heap. Pearls before swine.
So the properly rebuilding team is doing two things simultaneously – acquiring good young players via the draft or other means while also structuring the roster so the kids artificially cheap contributions aren’t wasted on subsequent seasons of failure.
The good news for Flames fans and management is that the team has yet to implode completely. They have a relatively decent collection of supplementary players as things stand. The challenge now is infusing the doddering core with fresh talent while the support guys are still effective*.
*(Ironically, this was the inverse problem the team faced for years as they tried to shore up the depth around elite guys like Iginla, Regehr and Kiprusoff.)
This off-season, the pertinent challenges for the Flames have little to do with whether they will be a cup contender next year or not – absent a 2010 Colorado Avalanche run of luck, Calgary isn’t going to be challenging the elite teams in 2012-13 no matter what management does this summer. Instead, the focus must be on acquiring more and better players under 25 years old while establishing a roster that will allow them to grow into a team that is competitive sooner rather than later. A team who won’t need to sell hope and the entry draft to its fans every summer in perpetuity.