Despite missing the playoffs in each of the prior two seasons, last year began with a glimmer of hope for Flames fans – the club went on to be one of the hottest teams in the league in the wake of Darryl Sutter’s ouster in 2011-12. So although new GM Jay Feaster only made a few nominal changes to the line-up in the summer of 2012, the feeling was the organization would bloom now that it wasn’t operating under the dour cloud of Sutter’s baleful glare.
Unfortunately, the second half run in 2012 was mostly a mirage. The Flames were (and remain) a fundamentally flawed club who are good enough to compete for a playoff spot, but several steps behind the true contenders in the league. The current construction of the team also makes a real step forward in the near future unlikely; in fact, with an aging core and lackluster collection of players in or near their prime, the Flames will probably continue to trend downwards.
The Calgary Flames face an interesting conundrum – the top end of their roster can’t drive play at even strength anymore. Jarome Iginla is still a dangerous sniper in certain circumstances, but he has become a liability at even strength. The rest of the Flames top-six forwards features players of varying offensive quality, from Alex Tanguay to Mike Cammalleri, but none of them can win the possession battle on most nights. Last year, the only Flames forward who consistently faced top-6 opposition and didn’t end up underwater in terms of corsi or scoring chances was sophomore MIkael Backlund. Unfortunately for both the player and the team, Backlund saw only 41 games due to several injuries and his percentages were awful when he was in the line-up (PDO = 94.8, personal SH% = 4.7%), so his impact was limited.
As a result, the club labors under a sort of inverted pyramid, where the highest paid forwards who also play the most tend to spend a lot more time in the defensive end of the ice. For example, the Flames two biggest guns – Olli Jokinen and Jarome Iginla – were double digit negative corsi players last season.
On top of all that, the Flames suffered a swath of injuries to their bottom-end, including Backlund, David Moss, Lee Stempniak and Blair Jones. Their replacements were mostly untested rookies and fringe AHL quality forwards which further sunk Calgary’s possession rates. By the end of the season, they finished with the fifth lowest Fenwick tied rate in the entire league (47.15), only better than Montreal, Toronto, Nashville and Minnesota. Even Columbus, Edmonton and Anaheim finished with marginally better outshooting rates than the Flames.
Calgary’s summer additions didn’t do much to firm up this area of weakness. KHL sniper Roman Cervenka will be one of the rare forwards within spitting distance of peak form (26 years old), but is a completely untested commodity on North American ice. It’s an open question whether he’ll be a 50+ point center or a complete wash-out.
The Flames also signed former Red wing Jiri Hudler, whose career best 27 goal season was based on an unsustainable 19.7% personal shooting percentage, so he’s doubtful to repeat that performance. Hudler has been an okay middle tier forward his entire career in Detroit, putting up respectable if unspectacular counting numbers in extremely cushy circumstances. Hudler’s possession rates have never been impressive despite facing other second and third liners and starting far more often in the offensive zone, so it’s unlikely he’ll be able to help the Flames move the puck north (unless he develops some two-way skill at 28 years old). Hudler also won’t be playing with a player of Zetterberg’s caliber (his frequent line mate last season), which is also likely to have a deleterious effect on his output.
Gone are Olli Jokinen (Calgary de facto "checking center" the last two years) and David Moss (one of the club’s best possession forwards), both lost to free agency. Jokinen was marginal at best as a hard minutes option, but was still solid at putting up numbers at both even strength and on the power play. The team is hoping some combination of Cervenka and Hudler will replace his production, no doubt, although who will take his role as the tough match-up option is still in question.
The Flames are replete with soft minutes/PP type scorers: Iginla, Cammalleri, Tanguay, Cervenka, Hudler, Stempniak and (potentially) rookie Sven Baertschi are better served being deployed against a softer underbelly than other high-end players. The list of checking/two-way/Selke type players is much shorter – Mikael Backlund might turn into a Frans Nielsen type option if his percentages rebound and Curtis Glencross has been a high possession player in the past (albeit not last year). Erstwhile Lightning center Blair Jones could develop into a defensive specialist at center, although he’s closer to replacement level at this point in his career. Waiver wire addition Blake Comeau had decent possession rates in a third line role last season, but he doesn’t forecast to get much better than that.
In short, the Flames top-end up front is over 30-years old and can’t quite carry the mail against other team’s big guns. They have decent enough depth options, but almost nobody who can thrive in a tough minutes role. Jarome Iginla remains the incumbent big gun, but his steady decline into liability territory and the club’s inability to effectively protect him means the Flames are again a good bet to spend more time in the defensive zone than anywhere else this coming year.
Like the forward corps, Calgary’s back-end boasts precisely zero all around elite talents. Much maligned Jay Bouwmeester is a capable shut-down option, despite complaints about his physicality and compete level. Last year Bouwmeester faced some of the toughest minutes available with 25-year old Chris Butler as his frequent defense partner. The pairing didn’t excel, but they weren’t completely buried either. In fact, when they were on the ice with anyone but Jarome Iginla, they were almost even terms of possession and scoring chances.
Bouwmeetser will continue to draw criticism thanks to his big contract and below average offensive production, but the Flames don’t have an adequate replacement in the pipeline. Although the off-season is thick with Jay Bouwmeester trade rumors, the truth is Calgary could only afford to trade the former Panther if they received another hard minute defender in return or if they decided to move him for picks and prospects and jump start a rebuild.
The rest of the blueline is solid, but not particularly above average. Freshly signed Dennis Wideman was added because of his decent offensive numbers and the fact that Calgary had one of the lowest scoring bluelines in the entire league last year. The 28-year old isn’t particularly adept in his own end, however, and probably doesn’t measurably improve the Flames back-end in terms of defensive prowess, even though his $5.25M contract runs through to 2016-17.
The formerly undrafted Mark Giordano had his first generally unimpressive season since jumping into the league as a regular. Giordano battled through a significant leg injury mid-season and was also saddled with a doddering Scott Hannan, a burden which proved to be overbearing: with Hannan, Giordano’s corsi ratio was .454. Without him, it ballooned to .548. Hannan, in contrast, fell down to .434 absent Giordano.
The good news for the younger man and the Flames in general is Hannan was allowed to walk as a free agent, so Gio should be partnered with a superior option this season, be it Wideman or Butler.
On the bottom-end, Calgary has a host of options, including Derek Smith, TJ Brodie, Anton Babchuk and veteran Cory Sarich. Babchuk was an ill-considered signing from last summer, a pure PP specialist with a booming shot, lackluster hockey sense and slow feet. He could be a third pairing option for new coach Bob Hartley, although with Brodie primed to take a step forward after a decent rookie season and Smith/Sarich ready to provide capable enough play at even strength, Babchuk is again unlikely to crack the roster on a nightly basis.
Sarich was a curious re-signing by the team this off-season. Although he is still more or less functional in a bottom-pairing role, Sarich has battled chronic injury issues for several years and spent the last two seasons in and out of the line-up, either because he was in the infirmary or simply as a healthy scratch. Not the most mobile defender at the best of times, Sarich doesn’t have much ability in the offensive zone and can struggle mightily at moving the puck or defending against anyone with above average speed.
While Sarich certainly brings a physical edge to a blueline somewhat lacking in size and aggressiveness, it’s debatable whether the 34-year old will be able to adequately keep pace with the game over the course of his new two-year deal.
Against long odds, Miikka Kiprusoff had a bit of renaissance last season. His .921 overall SV% was the 9th best in the league and his best personal save rate since 2005-06 when he won the Vezina Trophy. Kiprusoff stopped 92.8% of the shots he faced at even strength, again one of the top save percentages in the NHL and a number he has only matched once in the last five years. Indeed, it’s safe to say the only reason the Flames were in the playoff race by March was Kipper’s top notch performance, particularly given how consistently the club was outshot.
Of course, that means the 36-year old is in line for some regression this year. Kiprusoff has bounced around the goaltending ranks in terms of save percentage since about 2006 – at times flirting with replacement level rates like in 2008-09 (.907 ES SV%) and again in 2010-11 (.916 ES SV%). Post 2006-07, Kiprusoff has more or less settled into a league average tender (around .920 ES SV%) albeit with wild swings between the extremes.
On the bad end of things, that means Kiprusoff is on schedule to have a below average season, particularly if time and wear-and-tear start to catch up to him. Realistically, though, fans and management should expect him to finish a lot closer to his average ES SV% (about .920) than to what he managed last season. If that happens, the club should expect to give up another 13 goals at five-on-five assuming a similar work load for Kipper; bad news for a team that finished last season with a -24 goal differential.
As always, there are significant question marks surrounding the Flames back-up position. Henrik Karlsson’s second turn as Kiprusoff’s stand-in last year didn’t go very well (.900 SV% and one win in nine starts) and by the end of the year the tall Swede had lost the coaching staff’s confidence. He was eventually benched in favor of rookie Leland Irving, who had to be called up from the minors to shunt Karlsson to the sidelines.
Irving alternated between great and average performances during his time in the NHL, but nevertheless struggled to outplay free agent signing Danny Taylor in Abbotsford. Taylor was the Heat’s established starter by the time the AHL playoffs rolled around, with Irving relegated to back-up duty. Perhaps as a result, RFA Irving suffered through an extended contract negotiation with the Flames this summer, finally settling on a one-year, two-way contract which signals neither the player nor the team is terribly certain about his future in the organization.
With Karri Ramo spending one more season in the KHL and no other Flames prospect anywhere on the horizon, Irving will likely get a shot to prove he can be a worthwhile back-up at the NHL level in 2012-13. If he doesn’t excel, however, there’s a good chance he won’t be retained by the Flames going forward.
Future Hope and Expectations
The best Calgary management and fans can hope for in the short term is for the team to run in place and remain a going concern in the 7-10 range in the West. Many of their key pieces are still functional, but are drawing pay checks for peaks that have come and gone. Their roster has a sizable hole in the middle of it in terms of age range – almost everyone on the club is either over 28 years old or under 23. Mikael Backlund (23) and Roman Cervenka (26) are the only two bodies up front who will likely play more than a supporting role and who are also in that sweet spot in their career arc.
The risk for the Flames is guys like Iginla and Kiprusoff taking a step backwards at 35+ years old. Jarome’s play has already begun to tail off and the team has no one in the organization ready to take over for the sniper should he drop off completely or decide to flee to greener pastures once his contract expires at the end of the year. Calgary’s uncertain net commodities behind Kiprusoff also means the team can’t afford to see the previously unflappable Fin give in to the ravages of time. The Flames are in tough even if Kipper returns to average – if he struggles further, Calgary could be entering draft lotto territory and the chances of one of Irving or Karlsson stepping in and providing anything above league average netmiding is slim.
There are a few reasons for optimism, however. Backlund and Comeau should be in line for rebounds given their below average PDO’s of 94.8 and 97.4 respectively. Sophomore defender TJ Brodie excelled in a support role last season and may be ready to take a step forward into the team’s top-4. Mike Cammalleri suffered injuries as a Flame and a dry patch in Montreal, but still remains a crafty offensive zone presence with a quick release, so he should put up better totals as well. Roman Cervenka’s NHL equivalence coming from the KHL is about 51 points, so if he fulfills his promise the Czech born player will add much needed offense to the Flames top-6. Finally, Dennis Wideman and a Hannanless/healthy Mark Giordano should mean a better blueline for the Flames, particularly in terms of generating offense.
That said, everything will have to fall in place for Calgary to realistically battle for a playoff spot this coming season. Without at least modest puck luck, consistent performances from every key player, a big uptick in possession stats and at least one or two surprise seasons from other guys, Calgary will be in line for a 10th place or lower finish. Some may hope that new coach Bob Hartley will be able to squeeze more out of the roster than the deposed Brent Sutter, but that remains to be seen.
In the far flung future, the Flames might have a bit more to look forward to. Former 13th overall pick Sven Baertschi tore the cover off the ball in the WHL last year, averaging a CHL high 2.0 PPG pace over the regular season. He turns 20 in October and is poised to make the Flames out of camp. While he probably isn’t ready to make a truly significant contribution at the NHL level quite yet, Baertschi is the organization’s first blue chip forward prospect in recent memory and represents the organization’s best chance to finally pick and develop a homegrown star.
In addition, youngsters Johnny Gaudreau and Max Reinhart could be decent NHLers a few years down the road. The former was picked in the 4th round in 2012 owing to his small stature (5’7", 150 pounds), but nevertheless went on to score at a PPG pace as a freshman for Boston College and capture numerous awards, including the "Bill Flynn" trophy as Hockey East’s most valuable player. Gaudreau will always be considered something of a long shot because of his size, but his results as an 18-19 year old in College are difficult to ignore.
Reinhart is a former 3rd rounder who doesn’t have quite the offensive credentials of either Baertschi or Gaudreau. The eldest son of former Flame Paul Reinhart is nevertheless highly regarded in the Flames organization for his high hockey IQ and ability to contribute in all areas of the ice. It’s unlikely he will jump directly into the big league like Baertschi, but he is expected to be an impact centerman for the team somewhere down the road.
After three years out of the playoffs, the Flames are nevertheless a team who will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into a rebuild. The point at which management has no choice but to start selling hope in Edmontonian fashion could come this year as the key players age and the gap between the top end of the roster and the Flames next generation widens. The club possesses zero all around elite talents anywhere in the line-up, the vast majority of their top-end is more likely to decline rather than improve and yet they boast the third most expensive roster in the league.
With a majority of the West’s playoff spots spoken for (LAK, DET, VAN, SJS, STL, CHI) and their NW rivals in Minnesota, Edmonton and Colorado in line to improve this coming year, the Flames will have to roll a lot of 7’s to make a go of things in the short term.
If Calgary once again fails to make the post-season, hard questions about the futures of key cogs like Iginla, Kiprusoff and Bouwmeester will have to be faced. With four years of expensive payrolls and limited success, "status quo" will become an untenable strategy, both on the ice and at the ticket office.