Oh, hey guys, it’s me, The Book of Loob. BoL. Loober.
Nancy. If you’re at all familiar with my work, you know that when it comes to things like Corsi, PDO, Zone starts, QualComp and the like, I’ve almost learned what some of them are. So while the Kents and the Azevedos of the world will give you fancy numbers as to why Anton Babchuk is not a very good player, I’m just going to say he is just the absolute worst and it’s probably because his mother didn’t love him enough. Or because he has a debilitating addiction to Beanie Babies that garners all his attention away from learning how to position himself in his own end.
(I have no proof of either of those claims, but I’m still saying they’re true, and you can take that to the bank)
These 100% verifiable facts and more are the next level fluff I bring to the table here at The Nation, and is the basis for what we’ll be talking about here today. So gather round, children, and let your ol’ Gampy tell you a tale! This potboiler is called "Your Calgary Flames And The Quest To Remember". It’s a giddy romp featuring a beskated pack of scamps, intrepid young men (er…young?) who toil day and night, I guess, atop a frozen surface when their corporate overlords deem it to be acceptable through the terms laid out by a needlessly complicated Collective Bargaining Agreement. Armed with nothing but hockey sticks, pucks, pads, helmets, skates, shin pads, a mile of tape, agents, and millions of dollars, the Flames set out to remember their identity, the id of their hockey team, or, failing that, forge a shiny new one.
It will be riveting.
Who They Were
There are a variety of reasons as to why NHL caliber hockey players are allowed to ply their trade up in The Show. They get drafted, signed, or traded for, because they have appreciable skills that teams deem important to their success. These skills are imprecise and differ from player to player. Sidney Crosby and Craig Adams are on the Pittsburgh Penguins for very different reasons. Tommy Wingels does not have the same expectations placed upon him by the San Jose Sharks as does Joe Thornton. These realities are understandably reflected in the contracts for these respective players. The goal scorers, the "game breakers" will always sign the big money contracts that owners are currently crying about and is the reason why we won’t have hockey for a few more months.
But it’s obvious that these players are all pieces of a bigger thing, The Team, a collective that takes on a life of it’s own. In the immortal words of Sammy Hagar and Van Halen – a band truly as terrible as the analogy I’m making here – "It’s alive, and it’s kickin’"
Which is to say that, every player, with every strength and weakness, contributes to their team, and every part of that affects just what that team as an organism is. Some clubs have a larger than average crop of speedsters, so their style of play is based on speed. Others have top notch defensive players, and employ a suffocating defensive style to eke out wins. It goes on and on. Specific players have tangible proficiencies that don’t necessarily translate to better odds of winning games, but are nonetheless important to a franchise. They’re the kind of talents or characteristics that bring fans to the games (and make no mistake, a well developed and unique fanbase certainly attaches itself to a team’s bravado), makes money, and dictates a style of hockey that distincts itself from it’s opponents.
It’s not always talents that dictate this. French Canadian players will always be important to the Montreal Canadiens. They’re a team that’s synonymous with Francophones, and have a deeply forged relationship with the culture, and the idea of Quebec nationalism itself.
It’s so deep it’s a political matter.
Which is ridiculous, but it’s the way it is. It’s started riots. Bob Probert is still loved and revered in Detroit, because he represented something that the Joe Louis locals felt resonated within themselves. Here was this blue collar pugilist that had to work hard for his ice time and do the dirty things to protect his star teammates. If Steve Yzerman was a Ford Mustang, Probert was an F-250 (do you get it? People in Detroit like their Fords). He was never the guy on the ice when you were trailing by a goal late in the game. He’ll never be a Hall of Famer or have his jersey in the rafters, but win or lose, he was important to the Red Wings.
The point is, teams have identities, and it absolutely dictates the way it plays the game. I’m a firm believer that the reason why the Flames have floundered in recent years can be directly traced to who they think they’re supposed to be. For a long time, the Flames roster has been built to reflect the region they play in, the fabled New West.
Calgary is Cowtown, home of the rough and tumble cowboys and roughnecks, who are up early, work long hours in treachery, and don’t go in for those fancy things like lattes or hybrid cars or this internet thing we all hear so much about these days*.
*(Obviously this only defines a portion of the population around here, and it’s arguably far too rigid to group people into such concrete boxes, but right or wrong it’s the prevailing stigma revolving around our fair city at the moment)
Because of this, the Flames have perennially managed to stock their shelves with any kind of behemoth, corn fed Prairie farmboy on skates they can find. Call it Cory Sarich hockey.
For awhile, this was effective. Size mattered. Calgary became a team that was so hard to play against because they were so big and strong, worked hard in the corners, would hold onto youcand never let you go. The image of Robyn Regehr perpetually making Ales Hemsky a part of the endboards became a strong metaphor for Flames hockey (and a hilariously accurate one for the Oilers).
But then there was that whole lockout thing, and when the dust settled on that miserable debacle, the game of hockey had evolved. It got younger, it got faster. It was far more mobile. The Flames, however, became older, more stubborn, and refused to evolve, and the game began to pass them by. The boys in the Flaming C were performing as goofy and out of place as then General Manager Darryl Sutter looked.
Over time, the gap between the Flames and the rest of the league widened so considerably that we now sit in this dysfunctional era where the team has missed the playoffs for three straight seasons, failed to escape the first round in the four campaigns prior to that, and look to be generally screwed for at least a few more years due to some pretty hearty mismanagement along the way.
Who Are They?
This season, or half season, or whatever this is going to be finds the Flames caught in a crossroads. Jay Feaster has done his part to try and abandon the old Flames identity. I’m no Feaster habitué by any stretch, but I do find this strategy admirable. If it doesn’t work, sweet merciful Håkan, change it up. Drafting players out of non traditional Flames locales like the NCAA and USHL (and wherever the hell it was that Mark Jankowski came from), while more or less ignoring the tried and true WHL defenseman route signifies that a new brand of Flames hockey is coming our way.
Going out and signing Czech slickster Roman Cervanka, seen by many as a coup by the team to win his rights, is extremely unorthodox for this franchise in this post lockout era. The future of this team looks to be in the hands of Sven Baertschi, and who would have ever predicted that to be the case as little as five years ago? Certainly it looks like the future of this team could be more focused towards skill and offense, and also, if what John Wiesbrod has to say has any merit to it, players that think the game smarter. Quite a concept.
However, it may come at a price. As it stands, this team is currently a mish mash of the old guard and this newer brand, and there’s sure to be a real tug-o-war to find out just who they are as a unit. There was no real reason to re-sign Cory Sarich, and yet they did. For more money than he’s worth, which more or less dictates that he’s going to play. Bob Hartley is as much the Brent Sutter/Mike Keenan style coach that he’s replacing. Matt Stajan’s abomniable contract was never even considered for buyout purposes. Nor was Anton Babchuk’s. Players like Jay Bouwmeester and Mikael Backlund are still perceived to be liabilities, and it doesn’t seem like there’s any real effort to foster their very real skills into roles that will help this team win in the long run. Instead, they constantly remain as trade fodder in the media, an asinine notion given that they both serve in positions where the Flames can’t afford to downgrade.
No, Andy Sutton, I’m not an expert. I have no idea how this whole thing is going to shake out. One benefit from this inevitable lockout is that it should give the Flames a clean slate to stake out a new identity, something they never took advantage of in the previous work stoppage.
I hope they smarten up and take advantage of it. If this new post lockout NHL ushers in an exciting new breed of hockey that the last one did, the Flames HAVE to have the foresight to adapt to it this time if they ever want to succeed at this whole hockey thing. I think they can do it. Certainly a lot of their recent transactions can be classified as high risk, high reward (or if you’re one of those cynical pundits I just love SOOO much, just high risk). And while it may not come to fruition immediately, a smarter, more skilled identity for your Calgary Flames should be something we all encourage, and look of it as a long term goal. The Roman Cervankas of the world are merely a starting off point to a greater good.
So when we’re finally allowed to do so, let’s all go pack the Dome with our boisterous young selves and help foster in this new era of Flamesitude (It’s a word now, chumps!). This IS important. Because while on paper it makes sense to boycott a team that is underperforming due to a tired old system, the reality is when you stop going to games as a protest, teams leave town. I know what I’m talking about. I was, and still am, a lifelong Montreal Expos fan, and nothing is more painful than watching a very exciting Washington Nationals team challenge for a pennant.
As a fanbase, we do have a louder voice than we think regarding all of this. Maybe it’s time we demand a new Calgary Flames, lest we become a new Montreal Expos. I have no idea how to do this, I just want people to go to games and drink heroin beer and be loud and all that.
Okay, so that’s that. This is what I do. There are no charts, and I’ve laced this entry with enough narrative to make Azevedo Hulk out and choke on his breakfast. Mark my words, this will be my legacy.
GO FLAMES GO! (you know, eventually)