Last Wednesday I had the opportunity to attend the Flames information session held by Ken King. I felt this would be a good follow up to the piece I did last week regarding the direction and role of King within the organization.
Although the session was not as candid as some of those in attendance would have preferred, the President’s demeanor and his willingness to engage the season ticket holders without being dismissive or guarded in any fashion was a welcomed surprise, as were some other factors. Today, Part I examines the discussions leading up to King addressing the concerns of the fan base.
Jay Feaster was also in attendance with King, with Rollie Cyr moderating questions for the brass. It didn’t take long for the STH’s to get right to the point regarding the speculation that Jay took his cues from above. King took the question as directed pointing out that with any company there is a certain level of involvement from the top and any team in the NHL that tells you differently is flat out lying. In order for any company to be successful within its industry’s business model, there has to be a flow of information. To those of us in attendance there was a collective nod; after all, we are all well aware that the unwritten motto of every corporation is that sh!t flows downhill.
He then paused and almost sensing the opportunity chose to turn the rest of the answer over to Feaster, to give the fans the chance to hear what the other half had to say. Feaster was adamant that there was unequivocally no meddling from King or Murray Edwards or any of the owners for that matter. The level of interaction between the GM’s position and upper management is set by Feaster, not the other way around.
Jay went on to explain that it’s his belief that the operation of the Flames runs smoother if he is able to go to King et al seeking not permission, but approval for the decisions he makes regarding the hockey club. If there is any arm twisting going on, it sounded like it was actually getting Jay to do some of the things he was pondering himself. That comment is by no means a shot at Feaster either, but when a GM makes a decision for the team that has a multi-million dollar implication on the owners, he’s not always so eager to jump the gun.
Case in point was the decision to put Ales Kotalik in Abbotsford. When Feaster went to King and said he wanted to put 3 Million dollars in the minors, he was told to go ahead. In fact if it was right for the team, he was told to put 9 Million in the minors if he had to. Now at the time that would have been the preference for Feaster, he was basically given carte blanche to demote Kotalik, Hagman and even Stajan. He chose to only send Kots, but it wasn’t long after that he sent Hagman down as well. According to the GM, that decision was made by him based on the fact that he in fact had prior knowledge of Anaheim’s intentions to claim him upon re-entry.
THE GM-COACH DISCONNECT
Perhaps the biggest assumption I was able to glean from talking with Feaster was that although Jay seemed sincere in his respect for Brent Sutter, there was a constant disconnect between the two that kept them from ever really being on the same page. Normally the moves by the GM have to be taken in stride by the coach – he has to work with what he is given. In the case of Sutter, it was apparent that he not only had the support of Feaster, but shared the same autonomy with the line-ups that Jay had with regards to Ken King. The hesitation and indecision seems to have been a fault of the coach, not the GM.
Interestingly enough, Feaster directed the discussion towards a familiar topic here on FlamesNation: Mikael Backlund. Apparently at one point in the season, Sutter came to the GM with a degree of turmoil in his thoughts. The coach was struggling with the line-up, and with Feaster’s notion of implementing “meritocracy”.
Feaster: “What’s wrong Brent?
Sutter: “I want to play Backlund more..”
Feaster: “So play him!”
Sutter: “But what about Stajan? I wanna sit Matt.”
Feaster: ”So sit him. You run this team with what you feel is the right thing to do.”
*Conversation in Feaster’s words. Brent wasn’t actually there.
The direction of the discussion really got me wondering just what was happening behind the scenes in the Flames organization. Hearing now on two different occasions that both the GM and Coach had autonomy to freely make moves and shape the line-up as they saw fit got me scratching my head as to why then nothing was ever done. When pressed a little further on the matter, Feaster really started getting into the discussion and proverbial flood gates opened.
I decided to see how far Feaster would delve into the situations that seem to hamper the team on the ice and to see if he was still sticking to his guns with his proclamations made throughout the year. Taking to microphone, I asked Feaster a three part question.
”From management to coaching, to the players themselves, how much stock does this organization put into advanced statistics? It was no secret that two seasons ago the line of Jokinen, Glencross and Moss were dominant against opposition’s third lines. Last season with the extended injury to Moss, the subsequent injury to Glencross and the constant attempts to fit Jokinen in with Iginla and Tanguay, that dominant line wasn’t given much of a chance to duplicate that success.
The Iginla line itself was constantly deployed by Sutter in a power vs. power situation, and if we are all being honest here today, more often than not, that line was getting its head kicked in on a regular basis. (At this point, Feaster is nodding in agreement)
On the other hand, it was a pretty dismal season for Backlund, mired by both injury and bad luck, leading to a disappointing season for the young center. However, Backlund’s underlying numbers told somewhat a different story. If Sutter was indeed looking for more opportunities to play Mikael when he was healthy and if the team tracks these kinds of statistics, why was there not the recognition to put Backlund with Iginla and shelter the line with far more offensive zone starts, bringing a higher probability of offensive production, much like what the Vancouver Canucks do with the Sedin’s zone starts?
The third part of my question was directed more towards Feaster’s manifesto that the fan base was constantly reminded of throughout the season.
Jay, all season long you preached two principals that governed how the Flames would be managed – “meritocracy” and “intellectual honesty”. With the season over and done with now, can we truly be intellectually honest by saying that despite the team’s not wanting to use injuries as an excuse, that the constant need to plug holes in the line-up left a concept like “meritocracy” nothing more than lip service? That the reality was, this team was simply not talented enough to properly employ the advantages that evaluating advanced statistics presented?
Without even as much as a glance in King’s direction Feaster dove right into his answers. He agreed whole-heartedly with the assertion that the injuries to the “OMG” line were devastating to the make-up of the team, that indeed yes there were constantly aware of the possible benefits Backlund could offer if playing with Iginla and Tanguay, but equally aware of just how tied their hands were in attempting to match lines.
The fact that Calgary lacked a true number one line, combined with key and significant injuries, forced Sutter to play Iginla in a power vs. power situation and stunted any chance of sheltering his minutes. With the struggling play of Backlund coupled with the inability to shelter those provided minutes, the decision was made to try and make it work with Jokinen and/or Stajan. Throughout it all, Sutter never did act on his instincts to sit Stajan for any extend period of time, thus closing the door on any feasible application of advanced stats by the team.
STUMBLING INTO STAGNICITY
The best part of the discussion with Feaster came when the fans started to get on Feaster’s case about standing pat through the trade deadline. It truly bridged the gap between what the perception of the fans was and what was the reality staring back at management.
Everyone was quick to point out Feaster emphatic comments on SportsNet and some even reminded him about his “Fool me once, fool me twice” quote. What many had forgotten was Jay’s explanation as to why the team didn’t make any moves that day. The GM was more than happy to reiterate that the team did in fact have three or four deals in the works and that it was those partners that ended up not following through, not Feaster, and not King. When a fan asked if the Flames ever pay attention to deals they hear of from the fans or in the media, because maybe it just wasn’t something that the team had thought of, Feaster had a reply that was nothing short of classic and BRILLIANT!
*Feaster walks to the very front of the stage and leans out over the crowd, staring right at the fan asking the question…
”Really?… Really? Are you kidding me right now? I have been doing this for 28 years now. I have won a Stanley Cup and a Calder Cup. John Weisbrod has won State Championships, The IHL Championship, and a Stanley Cup Championship. Do you honestly think Rhett and Boomer are going to be able to come up with anything that we haven’t already thought of? Come on now.”