Frequent Nations’ commenter Rex Libris concludes his epic series on franchise rebuilds today with this piece on the Calgary Flames. It’s extensive, so settle in and enjoy the ride.
The Flames aren’t in a rebuild. That much we know because Jay Feaster has told us. While I’m not entirely convinced that they aren’t at least in the initial stages of one, for the time being it might be best to describe their current phase as a retooling.
So how do they fit into this discussion about teams rebuilding?
*Full disclosure: for those who don’t know me, I am an Oilers fan living in Edmonton. I regularly read/comment on FlamesNation, as well as most of the other Nation sites. While I harbour the usual Edmontonian’s feelings towards sports teams based in Calgary, I endeavour to be objective, respectful and honest. I don’t like trolls. The following is a view of the Flames in contrast to the many teams I have discussed so far who have chosen to rebuild. So if you don’t like what I have to say you can
stick it in your ear take it up in the comments section. I try to answer everybody individually and welcome comments and criticisms.
First, let us put forth some basic statements about the team and from that we can test out some assumptions.
- To begin with the team isn’t rebuilding. Feaster made that clear, ownership has been adamant that they expect the team to compete, year in year out. No time off to quickly nab a top draft pick. This is a team intentionally assembled with the belief that it is good enough to challenge for a Stanley Cup. Specifically, I believe Feaster has said that the team is good enough to make the playoffs, after which, “anything can happen”.
- Second, that the Flames are undergoing a change of philosophy under Feaster and that, after nearly a decade of being a Darryl Sutter team, this roster is now a reflection of Jay Feaster. Anything arising from this point on is on his record alone.
- Third, an approximate majority of fans (there is likely no way of knowing exactly how many) are supportive of the team continuing on their current path while a vocal minority ( see above) would prefer the team dismantle the roster and restock through the draft.
- Fourth, ownership, management, and the fans all want (emphasis added) the team to win a Stanley Cup much sooner rather than later. Delayed gratification doesn’t seem to factor into the conversation at this point. I think most fans realize that it is either right now or a long ways away. The core is old and there are no prospects on the horizon that could be convincingly slotted in to replace them. A new core will need to be assembled and most are realistic about how long that can take. So it is now or never for this group.
I’m going to draw upon a variety of the oft-repeated statements and general opinions that I have gathered from FlamesNation, as well as take a look at the state of the franchise management structure.
By examining the organization’s weaknesses and strengths, the strategic positioning of the management group since Feaster took over, and the relative challenges facing them, I hope to be able to objectively plot the Flames within the range of teams covered thus far and put them in a larger context.
Part audit, part comparative analysis.
Sounds pretty exciting, huh?! Just like Ryan Lambert, I promise to include a beauty photo at the end that will make it all worthwhile. Deal?
Now, about those assumptions…
- The Flames are a perpetually mediocre team that has to rely on strong seasons from both Kiprusoff and Iginla in order to make the playoffs as an 8th or 7th seed. Once there, they would need a total buy-in from the team and some playoff magic to get past the 1st or 2nd round.
- The Flames can’t rebuild because Iginla means too much to the team and city to trade him away and even Feaster said that without Kiprusoff this team would be worse than 30th. Their drafting hasn’t been good enough over the years to make risking everything on a fool’s gamble worth the risk of drafting in the top five. The franchise has too much self-respect to intentionally tank for a handful of magic beans ie: lottery picks.
- The Flames don’t have to rebuild because they can simply bring in young talent, find some gems in the draft, and lure some undrafted European players from overseas to make the team competitive without ever having to tank it like the Oilers, Penguins, Capitals, Blackhawks and others. You don’t have to draft in the top five to get good players; Claude Giroux, Shea Weber, Cam Ward, and Duncan Keith were all picked outside the top five. The Flames can copy Philadelphia’s example, where they almost never finish at the bottom of the league and draft high, but are always competitive with smarter scouting and top-end free agents.
- Jay Feaster and John Weisbrod have brought about significant change to the organization in their short time with the organization. The Flames drafting has improved under their watch and they have shown more courage in their draft picks, going out on a limb to draft players like Sven Baertschi and Mark Jankowski, both of whom have tremendous upside and could become elite level players in time.
First, a few issues to cover before we get to the above statements. I’ll include only a brief history as most fans who are reading this are familiar with the Flames. Instead I will go over some of the broader details and management moves in an effort to save time while still putting the rest of this article into context.
The Dog Days of Sutter
Darryl Sutter (Photo: Buchanan-Hermit/Wikimedia Commons)
There is a common refrain amongst hockey fans that Darryl Sutter perpetually traded young players and draft picks for immediate help. While he did often trade away younger players (Prust, Leopold, Sutter, Aulie, Lombardi, Betts, Lydman, Prust) through all of Sutter’s trades in Calgary he sent away 31 draft picks while acquiring 27. Sutter made a habit of trading down in the first round to acquire a 2nd round pick in one year, then trade away a 2nd round pick in the following year. He would often mimic this move in the middle rounds as well, trading up in 3rd round one year, then down to get an extra 4th round pick the following draft.
Only twice, as far as I can tell, did he trade away a 1st round pick. Once in 2008 for Michael Cammalleri and again the following year for Olli Jokinen. Those picks were used to take Jake Gardiner and Brandon Gormley, respectively. The Gormley pick was conditional at the decision of Sutter and he chose to retain the pick in 2009 to select Tim Erixon. In their current development system those two would easily be their best defensive prospects today.
This is compounded when one factors in that Michael Cammalleri was later allowed to leave for unrestricted free agency in order for the Flames to sign Olli Jokinen to a contract that would tie the team’s hands under the salary cap and see them finish a season only able to dress fifteen skaters. Sutter would then trade Jokinen and Prust to the Rangers for Ales Kotalik and Chris Higgins, one of whom would leave as a free agent while the other Feaster would have to dump like toxic waste along with a 2nd round pick to the Buffalo Sabres.
This move would, in turn, play a part in Feaster trading down at the 2012 draft from 14th to 21st in order to recoup a 2nd round pick.
Sutter traded away a 2nd round pick five times in order to bring in players like Tanguay, Conroy, Bourque, Leopold and Anton Stralman/Colin Stuart. Stralman would later be traded for the pick that was used to select Max Reinhart. The pick that had been traded away to acquire those two was used to select Brandon Saad. It is clear that Sutter used his 2nd round picks as a common currency in trades and based on the likelihood of success in drafting in that range, the players he was able to acquire could be considered to have essentially covered the purchasing price. To date, Feaster has been as willing, if perhaps not more so, to continue that trend.
Sutter did not do the Flames organization any long-term favours. Then again, it wasn’t in his job description to do so. He was under orders to win now, often with the complete backing of many of the fans. What eventually did him in was a series of bad trades and the full extent of a poor drafting record finally coming to light. The Phaneuf deal stands alone as perhaps his most significant blunder and I won’t rehash it here. Sutter also gambled heavily on Olli Jokinen being the big, franchise center that could play with Iginla. That didn’t work. Choosing Jokinen over Cammalleri was a miscalculation, and Sutter’s involvement (some might say interference) with the draft lead to the team selecting Chris Chucko, Matt Pelech, Greg Nemisz and Mitch Wahl as either first or second round picks. Collectively they have amassed 22 games in the NHL and a combined four points, all assists. I’ll look into the draft a little later.
In 2008 Sutter signed Jay Bouwmeester to a six-year contract with a $6.68 million dollar cap hit, when the cap ceiling was still $56.7 million, alongside Phaneuf ($6.5 million), Adrian Aucoin ($4 million), Cory Sarich ($3.6 million), Regehr ($4 million and change), and Jim Vandermeer ($2.3 million). It became clear that Sutter was mishandling his salary cap structure. He had 49% of his total salary cap space allotted to defense, not including Mark Giordano, Adam Pardy, Matt Pelech or Jordan Leopold. That salary weight, taken in combination with $7 million dollar contracts to Iginla and Kiprusoff, meant that there was precious little money left to flesh out the roster with forwards and complementary scoring.
Sutter’s flaws were primarily that he withdrew from a weak development system in order to fund a strategy of immediate capitalization. He bet on a few wrong horses both in the NHL and at the draft. He overleveraged the team heavily in favour of defense, and he tended to use contractual clauses as boilerplates, rather than in negotiating a cost reduction for their inclusion. He was unable to balance the team needs and find sufficient complementary talent.
Since the lockout the Flames have finished 3rd in the Western Conference in 2006, due to their having won the division (103 pts), 8th (96), 7th (94), 5th (98), 10th (90), 10th (94), and 9th (90). They have been a remarkably consistent team in terms of final standings, the Calgary Flames haven’t had a season with fewer than 90 points since the 2002-03 season, making them a consistent playoff-threat team since the lockout. Unfortunately they have also occupied the NHL’s version of No Man’s Land, looking down at the struggling teams below them but also looking up at a host of successful teams ahead.
Over the years the Flames have marginally lost ground in the Western Conference, dropping from a mid-seed playoff position to their lowest place of 10th. The problem that has arisen is that many of the teams against whom they found themselves battling for a playoff position in 2006 have since either improved or sunk in the standings. The Flames are being passed by teams going in either direction, making changes and either improving or restructuring, all the while sticking, more or less, to their original framework from 2004. At the end of 2011-2012 the Flames were once again stubbornly in their perennial playoff cusp position. Jonathan Willis mentioned the Red Queen’s hypothesis the other day and I think it applies here. The Flames stopped moving forward and tried to run in place, which meant that they were passed by.
In that same time they have had five coaches: Darryl Sutter, Jim Playfair, Mike Keenan, Brent Sutter, and most recently Bob Hartley. The team has added players like Jay Bouwmeester, Jiri Hudler, Michael Cammalleri, Mark Giordano, and Mikael Backlund. They have also parted ways with Dion Phaneuf, Olli Jokinen, Daymond Langkow, Rene Bourque, Robyn Regehr, Jim Vandermeer, Craig Conroy, Todd Bertuzzi, Nigel Dawes, Chris Higgins, Jamie Lundmark, Ian White, Brendan Morrison, Vesa Toskala, and Steve Staios, among others. The core of the team from 2008, the date of their last post-season appearance, to the present is markedly different with only Jarome Iginla, Cory Sarich, Mark Giordano and Miikka Kiprusoff remaining from the team’s last trip to the post-season.
This situation is further exacerbated by the fact that the players the Flames most need are those that are some of the most difficult to attain: elite, first-line talent. While a player may become available on occasion through trade, the team’s poor drafting record and prospect development, something I will address later, means that they lack the kind of prospects required in return. The margin of talent available for the Flames at this time is too thin to allow for any subtraction in order to negotiate addition. They are thus wedded to a holding pattern of the talent they currently have available, with no immediate options available for internal replacement, and an ownership group that refuses to sanction any moves that would result in a fall in the standings regardless of potential long-term benefits.
The Flames, first under Sutter and then continuing under Feaster, have been generous in their inclusion of no trade clauses and no movement clauses in player contracts. Generally, the purpose of those clauses is to cede some power of management over to the player in exchange for a lower overall contract cost. It can also be used as an act of good faith, wherein management includes it as a contractual symbol of a commitment to that player and to a direction for the team as communicated to that player.
In the case of the Flames it does not appear as though the former is the case, and all too often it seems the latter is implied. Why this is problematic is that the Flames have been a mediocre team since the 2008 season. Rewarding mediocrity by offering rich contracts with restrictive movement clauses to the players that are partially responsible for that (perceived) underachievement is counter-productive to the health of a sports organization.
The argument has been made, notably by Feaster himself, that a NTC/NMC does not actually inhibit the movement of a player. Not to overstate this point but that strikes me as being a truly stunning example of hypocrisy coming from the manager who negotiated the contract. If the clauses provide no real impediment to movement then why offer them? Why would the player feel the need to have it included in the contract? Does this statement not revoke any implied agreement between the management and player about the respect or sanctity of that clause in their professional arrangement? Suggesting that ceding the power of preference to the player when discussing a move to another city does not affect the negotiation with that organization as it relates to the return value is either naiveté or a lie. One need only ask Bryan Murray, Cliff Fletcher or Scott Howson about the impact a NTC can have when trying to trade a player. The cynical option is that Feaster intends to make the Flames such an awful team that no player would hesitate to waive their NTC.
Currently, the Flames have eleven players with NTC/NMCs on their contracts.
On Intellectual Honesty
Intellectual Honesty – an applied method of problem solving in academia, characterized by an unbiased, honest attitude, which can be demonstrated in a number of different ways:
• One’s personal beliefs do not interfere with the pursuit of truth;
• Relevant facts and information are not purposefully omitted even when such things may contradict one’s hypothesis;
• Facts are presented in an unbiased manner, and not twisted to give misleading impressions or to support one view over another;
• References are acknowledged where possible, and plagiarism is avoided
Harvard ethicist Louis M. Guenin describes the "kernel" of intellectual honesty to be "a virtuous disposition to eschew deception when given an incentive for deception."
This is a term that Jay Feaster first used when he took over as Flames GM. It is one that he has hung upon his mantle and is a recurring theme here on FlamesNation. In order to examine this mission statement, I would like to take a look at each of these points and contrast them with the management group at this time.
First, no one outside the team can know whether Feaster allows his personal beliefs to interfere with his evaluation of the state of the franchise, but given the strong connection that ownership seems to have with the management group, and the obvious loyalty that those groups have to Jarome Iginla and Mikka Kiprusoff, it is difficult to defend the idea that this statement is a core value. At the same time, one suspects that Feaster was hired because his personal assessment was ostensibly aligned with what ownership believes to be the state of the organization.
It is important not to underestimate the impact that ownership has on the strategic positioning of a sports team. Teams tend to be extensions of the owner’s ego.
The second point is one that stands out to me. Incontrovertible and quantifiable facts have been hitting the Flames in the face for several years now, and yet the conclusion at which management has arrived in every one of those seasons is that the team is actually better than their record indicates and that they need only a few circumstances to go their way in order to find success. The hypothesis of this management group (likely with significant influence from ownership) would seem to be that the Flames are capable of winning a Stanley Cup right now. The facts over the past five years would strongly suggest that this is not true. One of these mutually exclusive states must give way and the premise of intellectual honesty is that it is the hypothesis that bends to the evidence at hand. Is that the case with this organization right now?
The third point requires that one know what another truly believes and as such is impossible here. That being said, there are some instances where Feaster has stated something that hasn’t quite been in line with what others have discovered. For example, his statement that Roman Cervenka is a first or second line center ready for the NHL. It isn’t that Cervenka isn’t talented or experienced in some aspects of a center’s duties, or that he isn’t necessarily ready to play in the NHL.
But is he truly a player whose experience and abilities will allow him to line up, sincerely, as a first or second line center against comparable NHL talent this season? Is he, at this moment, in the same category as: Saku Koivu, Patrice Bergeron, Patrick Sharp, Sam Gagner, Matt Duchene, Travis Zajac, Martin Hanzal or T.J. Oshie? Perhaps, but in boasting that he is up to the task Feaster is essentially writing cheques that it will be up to Cervenka to cash. While this is just one example, it highlights that there are some aspects of Feaster’s management style that do not appear to align with his stated guiding principle. To some extent a GM must be biased in their public statements about their team, but one would hope that a more objective view is taken when evaluating talent options for their team.
The last point, on face value, has no direct connection to the topic at hand, but could be extended to speak to the issue of character, something which often is set at the top and travels down to all levels of the organization. In the past year the Flames had several incidents that publicly cast them in an unfavourable light. An official tweet criticizing the Hemsky contract extension and Feaster’s pre-season comments in response to the Flames rebuilding and the now-famous wandering in the desert diatribe to a disgruntled Flames fan are just two examples.
There is nothing new about a GM specifically calling out another organization, although it generally happens in the playoffs or under specific circumstances such as a contested offer sheet. Doing it in September and in the context of defending your moves against the sincere comments of one of your own fans shows a lack of character. This addresses the final point of our definition as it relates to a level of integrity and professionalism. In his defense, Feaster is new to the Canadian hockey market and he may not take to perpetual criticism well. I don’t think many people do. Perhaps he simply needs to get better at handling this level of scrutiny.
I would like to propose a different psychological term be added to the discussion: Cognitive Dissonance. Wikipedia defines this as follows:
A discomfort caused by holding conflicting cognitions simultaneously. In a state of dissonance, people may feel surprise, dread, guilt, anger, or embarrassment. The theory of cognitive dissonance in social psychology proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by altering existing cognitions, adding new ones to create a consistent belief system, or alternatively by reducing the importance of any one of the dissonant elements. A general view of cognitive dissonance is when one is biased towards a certain decision even though other factors favour an alternative”.
Much was said both before the season began and during about where the team would finish. When those results failed to materialize the same path was again chosen for this upcoming season, albeit with roster changes. The decisions made this off-season are based upon a premise that many outside of the organization feel is inherently flawed. The justification for those decisions then rests on either an inspired bit of arcane knowledge, or a fallacy.
In review, Feaster’s introduction of the concept of intellectual honesty into the discussion surrounding this team and his management style has opened the door for an increased focus of his impact on, and direction for, the Flames. Ultimately, this may not be to his advantage.
A Look at the Management Team
Jay Feaster (Screenshot from theScore)
Is there anything that Jay Feaster is doing much differently from Sutter? Or is he simply drawing the same water from a different well? If anything can be said about Feaster’s approach differing from Sutter it could be that he is amenable to giving the Flames a more cosmopolitan look. Whereas Sutter’s teams were noted for their Canadian content, Feaster has shown a willingness to recruit players from overseas. This, in and of itself, does not bring success, though it does at least offer some refreshing change of scenery for fans. The NHL is not exactly littered with successful players who have been recruited by similar means.
Feaster has traded a 2nd round pick on two occasions, one to dump Ales Kotalik’s contract and the other in the Cammalleri trade, ostensibly to acquire Kari Ramo. He had an opportunity this past February, with the team playing poorly and after having declared that the players would be held accountable, to make significant changes and capitalize on a number of expiring UFAs at the trade deadline. Nothing happened. Time will tell if it was an opportunity missed.
Looking over Feaster’s trades we can discern a pattern. First, he likes to acquire familiar faces. Nothing wrong with that, most GMs do, be it a coach, scout, player, or assistant. To date, Feaster has acquired Ramo, Blair Jones, and Fredrik Modin, all players with whom he was familiar from his time in Tampa Bay. Second, he also likes to add diversity to trade negotiations. The Regehr and Cammalleri trades will give some insight into this pattern of behaviour.
Photo by James Teterenko/Wikimedia
Feaster appears to like to add complexities to a deal in order to maximize the asset return on an event. In other words, when he was dealing Regehr to Buffalo he added Kotalik in the deal, and the notorious 2nd round pick, in order to acquire both Paul Byron and Chris Butler. While I am loathe to indulge in the “coulda, woulda, shoulda” game that often surrounds drafting and trades, I remain skeptical that Feaster could not have found a less costly deal to move Kotalik.
Dale Tallon was purchasing players at a feverish pitch during that exact same period. Could Feaster have dealt Kotalik to the cap-starved Panthers along with a less-costly pick, perhaps a 3rd rounder, in exchange for a 5th or 6th round pick? Perhaps Tallon had no interest and the point is moot, still the thought remains: did Feaster add Kotalik and a 2nd round pick in order to appear to have gotten more in return for Regehr?
Feaster’s trade of Rene Bourque for Michael Cammalleri is less controversial because the exchange returned a good player. However, the inclusion of another 2nd round pick and prospect in
Bill Arnold Patrick Holland does not appear to have been needed to equalize the value between the two major assets involved. Adding Kari Ramo to the Flames prospect pool isn’t necessarily a bad move; one can never have too many goaltending prospects developing. However, could Feaster have moved Bourque, received Cammalleri in exchange, and not relinquished another 2nd round draft pick in the deal? I think so, but too often it appears that Feaster begins to pile on more and more details into a trade that, in the end, dilutes some of the early advantage he might have had in negotiating the deal.
Flames at the Draft Table
Photo by Alexander Laney/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 3.0
Tod Button was hired by Al Coates in 1997 and later made head of amateur scouting in 2001. He remains in that position to this day, though John Weisbrod is now the head of the entire scouting department. The current scouting staff has eight amateur scouts and two pro scouts (Steve Leach in the east, Michel Goulet in the west).
Ryan Pike has a good article on Button and the scouting department here.
I consulted Ryan’s article while gathering information for this one, and though I cannot be as supportive of Button and his scouts as Ryan, I will concede that Button likely had Darryl Sutter making the calls on the first or second round picks during Sutter’s time as GM. This likely left Button with only the later rounds to work and thus put his and his staff’s stamp on the team. Button has found some decent players in those later rounds. Not necessarily any gems in the bunch, but some decent NHL players nonetheless (David Moss, Adam Pardy, T.J. Brodie as examples). What I cannot say, though, is that this amount of depth drafting success is any different, or even arguably better, than most other scouting departments.
The worst year for the Flames drafting under Button is the 2006 class where eight prospects were selected, of which only Leland Irving remains. The other seven are no longer in the Flames organization and have not yet played a single game in the NHL. We have seen what can happen to a team when they have this kind of draft bust that wipes out an entire year of prospect development and it is not surprising that, four years later, the 2010 season was a moment of crisis for the Flames organization that cost Darryl Sutter his job.
The point here is that the Flames, by virtue of their failure to draft impact players in the draft, have had to rely heavily on their veteran players and overpaying free agents in order to fill the necessary holes on the roster. This has meant that the team has been forced into a sort of holding pattern with little or no youth to force its way onto the team from year to year and replenish the roster. This would also help to explain the gradual decline of the Flames fortunes in the standings since the lockout. The excitement many fans feel towards the current crop of prospects in the development system can be understood when placed in this context. However, when talking about prospects like Reinhart or Ferland, while there is promise and potential, it would be wise to keep names like Bobby Butler in mind.
Under Weisbrod the Flames have continued to mine the WHL as heavily as they did under Sutter. Though to date it would appear that they have forsaken drafting from Europe and replaced it with a focus on the USHL and US college ranks, thus reflecting Feaster and Weisbrod’s familiarity in that area. More on Weisbrod later.
Currently, the most recent ranking of Flames prospects reflects a much improved collection of players at various positions. That being said, a year ago the Flames were ranked near the bottom of the league in prospect depth. A year later the Flames were ranked in the upper tier of the bottom third of the league; a significant improvement but still a long ways away from what should be considered a respectable prospect group.
I generally defer to the theory that a draft can be objectively assessed after approximately five years. It will take a few more years before the most recent crop of Flames prospects can be adequately evaluated against their draft pedigree. However, the potential of this group would appear to be greater than the group from 2004 to 2008.
I’m taking the time here to discuss this because if the Flames don’t sort out their drafting then any talk of a rebuild is moot. Picking high is one thing, getting it right is something else. And the draft advantage to high picks doesn’t end in the first round. Picking 31st, 61st, and 91st has tremendous value, based on the way many teams structure their draft boards. Having the first pick in a later round is akin to having an extra pick in the round prior. This is where a team can steal a sliding prospect.
The scouting department must be able to see straight enough to take the best player available on day one, and perhaps be smart enough to grab the best available on day two, but what they do in the stretch drive is what may ultimately determine the success or failure of any build-through-the-draft effort. To date, Tod Button and his group haven’t been spectacular over the course of their long tenure in Calgary.
A Look at John Weisbrod
Photo by Wolfgangerl/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 3.0
The involvement of Weisbrod in the draft ought to make a fan a little uneasy. I have read as much about him as I can find online and remain underwhelmed. Weisbrod had a short stint as GM of the Orlando Magic where his claim to fame is having traded away an unhappy player and demolished a team, maneuvering it to draft Dwight Howard first overall. He spent one year with the Dallas Stars as their New England scout and was likely responsible for their taking Richard Bachman (4th round, 120th overall) of Cushing Academy, a Massachusetts high school, who played 18 games for the Stars last season and averaged a 2.77 GAA and a .909 save %.
After one season in Dallas, Weisbrod went to the Bruins and spent two years as their director of collegiate scouting. The names he is likely responsible for during his time there are Justin Florek (F, 5th round, 135th overall, no games played), Zane Gothberg (G, 6th round, 165th overall, no games played), and Zach Trotman (D, 7th round, 210th overall, no games played). All of these are late picks and in recent drafts. Florek is just beginning his pro career in the AHL and his optimal projection is as a 3rd line power forward. Gothberg is a long-term project and is seen as being at least another four years from the NHL, with a likely ceiling as a Mike Smith-style backup. Trotman was the last player taken in his year and is listed as a long-term project.
I respect that Weisbrod was given the later rounds to make his selections, and that the level of talent available drops off significantly. However, if this is the case, what in his body of work recommended him to Feaster as a good candidate to become head of scouting?
The progression of responsibility appears to take something of a leap at some point there.
The Flames have elicited more excitement from their fan base over the past two years of drafted prospects than Sutter managed perhaps in his entire tenure. It is an ongoing debate as to the merit of that excitement, but ultimately what must be determined isn’t the minutiae of where Mark Jankowski attends college, or if Michael Ferland can become a bona fide top six power forward, or even if John Gaudreau can make the jump to the professional ranks. Instead, the real focus should be on whether the Flames have actually improved their drafting record in a sustainable fashion such that they can string together three, four or even five drafts with at least average drafting success. Unforeseen circumstances and the natural cycle of performance aside, it will take nothing less than a consistently strong draft performance spread over half a decade for the organization to avoid collapse.
What Has Feaster Done Lately?
In his two and a half years with the Flames, Jay Feaster has evaluated the team from top to bottom, hired a video analyst, an assistant GM, an AHL coach, a special consultant to the GM, a head coach and assistant coaches and changed-over a significant portion of the roster from the day he joined the organization in the summer of 2010.
The focus of the team has shifted from defence to offence with greater balance in the salary structure. The defence makes up approximately 33% of the total salary cap of the Flames, down from roughly 49% under Darryl Sutter in 2008.
While the team continues to draft sparingly from Europe under Weisbrod, they haven’t forsaken pursuing European talents as Feaster has acquired Kari Ramo and Roman Cervenka both in this past year.
The farm team appears to be improving and assisting the development of prospects to the extent that Troy Ward received considerable attention from fans this off season in the head coaching debate.
While it remains to be seen what effect Feaster’s changes will have on the franchise over the longer term, we can examine the last two seasons and compare them to the final two seasons under Darryl Sutter. Granted, during Feaster’s first season he was still evaluating the team and making changes from the situation as Darryl Sutter had left it. However, for the purpose of discussion it provides an initial point of departure.
Looking at five seasons altogether, the fourth being split between Sutter and Feaster (December 28th, 2010) we find that the Flames finished the ’07-’08 season 3rd in the Northwest with 94 points, lost in seven games in the first round of the playoffs to the Sharks. The following season they finished 2nd in the Northwest with 98 points, lost in six games in the first round of the playoffs to the Blackhawks, scored 254 goals for and allowed 248 against, good for eighth overall in league scoring. Overall, the team appeared to have improved as scoring was up.
In the 2009-10 season the Flames would finish with 90 points, their lowest total in the post-lockout era, finish 3rd in the Northwest division, score 204 goals for and allow 210 against, making them the second-lowest scoring team in the league ahead of only Boston, and would not qualify for the playoffs after five consecutive post-season appearances. This was also the season that Dion Phaneuf was traded.
The following year would see Darryl Sutter removed from his post and replaced by Jay Feaster by December. That year the Flames would go on to finish 2nd in the Northwest finishing with 94 points and scoring 250 goals for and allowing 237 against making them the 7th highest scoring team in the league.
Much was made of the fact that the Flames made dramatic strides towards the playoffs in the latter half of the year following the effective dismissal of Darryl Sutter. I’ll look at that further in a moment after we finish our train of thought. This past season the Flames finished 3rd in the Northwest again with 90 points, duplicating their lowest post-lockout season, and scored 202 goals for while allowing 226 against, the lowest goal output of the team since the 2002-03 season.
Back to the latter half of the 2010-11 season. The Flames went on a tear shortly after Sutter was removed from the General Manager’s chair and just missed the playoff cut line. To what extent did Feaster affect the team’s improved performance? He added Brett Carson and Fredrik Modin and subtracted Craig Conroy, Ales Kotalik and Niklas Hagman from the roster, so suffice to say that it was not his roster movement that sparked a change.
That summer Feaster began to make more changes, sending away players such as Daymond Langkow and Robyn Regehr while adding Lee Stempniak, Roman Horak, and re-signing Anton Babchuk. Feaster also added considerably to the Abbotsford Heat roster. During the season he would go on to add Blake Comeau, Blair Jones, and Michael Cammalleri.
This off-season, Feaster has made even more changes in signing Roman Cervenka, Dennis Wideman and Jiri Hudler. This team is now, without a doubt, the product of Jay Feaster and John Weisbrod and that which follows, successes and failures, belong squarely on their shoulders.
The Flames today appear to be a smaller, more offensively gifted group of skaters than they were three years ago. It is uncertain if this is a recipe that will succeed in the current NHL atmosphere, but a direction, clear and distinguishable, has been chosen. The Flames will attempt to surround Iginla and the veteran core with offensive support in an attempt to become a playoff contender for the next few seasons. Draft picks can and will be traded away for a combination of players and prospects that will improve the team in the here and now and add organizational depth. Free agents will be pursued , both locally and overseas, and aside from Iginla and Kiprusoff, management is willing to entertain offers on nearly any player.
There will be no rebuild while Jay Feaster is the General Manager.
Ownership of the Flames
Photo by 5of7/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 2.0
One of the less-contentious issues surrounding the Flames lack of success has been the ownership aspect. While they have once or twice come into the crosshairs of fans and critics, Murrary Edwards and his partners are less visible in the running of the franchise than Ken King, Jay Feaster and to a lesser extent John Weisbrod. King is far and away the biggest lightning rod with Feaster still trading on the honeymoon period of his hiring at this time.
What is the impact of Edwards on the managing of the team? There is precious little available about the man online and in fact his Wikipedia page contains only 338 words. He is extremely wealthy, media-shy, and has a variety of financial interests, though chief among them is the oilsands. In fact, he is described as having perhaps the most at stake in the resource-rich area of any individual in the world.
Undoubtedly the message repeated by management, that the Flames will not tear the team down and build through the draft, comes from ownership. It is after this initial statement, though, that the message begins to fork into two different interpretations. The first argues that they are too wedded to the revenue of jersey sales, ticket revenue and the hope of playoff gates to risk a prolonged sabbatical from being a “competitive” team (though it is open to debate about how competitive the Flames actually have been). This side believes that money is the ultimate motivator in the decisions of ownership and that a sound strategy towards winning is secondary. The other side of the argument is that ownership believes in the core group and has plotted a course where the team can remain competitive with their current roster while improving their drafting results, thus negating the need for lottery picks.
The former argument makes a compelling case and there are other examples where a team has been maneuvered for profit over competitive success. Were the latter point that easy to accomplish wouldn’t every team choose it?
If fans wish to take issue with the overall direction of the club they cannot berate Feaster without spreading some of the blame to Ken King and Murray Edwards. Smaller quibbles with some of the minutiae of the team, the Glencross negotiations, the Wideman or Sarich signings, or the Regehr trade, can be more or less roundly placed at the feet of one individual or another. However, for those of you lobbying for a complete rebuild of the team, the name that ought to be first on the list is that of Mr. Edwards.
Ecclesiastes 3.1 “To Everything There Is a Season”
The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Frierich Hegel once wrote “what experience and history teach us is this – that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.”
I don’t mean to say that the Flames are being deliberately obtuse, but rather that it is inherent in human nature to ignore the record of the past when it contradicts our immediate interests.
How this relates to the Flames and their current situation in the context of a rebuild is that the Flames have two franchise players whose age and performance has meant that, while they still bear the title, they are transitioning to something of a support role. This isn’t meant to suggest that there is no longer any value in the player. Dave Andreychuk, Bill Guerin and Mark Recchi were all veteran stars who helped guide teams to championships through work ethic and locker room leadership, and each was four or five years older than Iginla is right now. Good goaltenders famously retain their value well into their late 30s.
Andreychuk could leave the heavy lifting to younger shoulders in Lecavalier, Richards and St. Louis, while Recchi was able to lean on Krejci, Lucic, Chara, Bergergon and others on the Bruins. Guerin had Crosby, Malkin, and Staal to provide the majority of the on-ice work. All three were valuable in the veteran experience they brought to the team, but none had to be the principal performance cogs of the team. The Flames, as a team, are not positioned such that Iginla is afforded such a luxury. Kent Wilson recently wrote a sobering piece on this very issue.
This leads us to the argument that Iginla should be traded to a contender where he can win a Stanley Cup. It would presumably allow the Flames to get a much-needed injection of valuable young assets in trade while preserving the good relations fans have with #12, and give the player, city, and team an amicable denouement to his career. Hence the often heated discussions of what Iginla might be worth through trade and the many scenarios fans posit.
Variously these scenarios will borrow from the trades of Ray Bourque, Peter Forsberg, Wendel Clark and Joe Nieuwendyk. All of those transactions played out in the old NHL CBA, under an entirely different business paradigm, wherein veteran players were valued far more than younger prospects. Talk of Iginla being traded usually gives way to the belief that any trade absolutely must involve an eventual successor to #12, both in impact and potential. The line of argument usually brings up how Kent Nilsson begat Joe Nieuwendyk who begat Iginla, as though the entire process were a cross between the Book of Genesis and One Red Paperclip.
What needs to be considered is this, would the Flames be willing to give up a prospect like Sven Baertschi, as well as a 1st round draft pick for a player like Iginla if they were in a playoff hunt? If you hesitate at all, then why would you expect another team to be willing?
Back in late July frequent FlamesNation visitor and fan cLyde had this to say: "We are 1 trade request away from a much bigger rebuild and perhaps if Iggy sees his buddy Doan go elsewhere he may be inclined to ask for a move. I am a huge Iginla and Kipper fan but this organization has allowed the name on the back of the jersey become bigger than the crest on the front in my opinion.[sic]" (used with cLyde’s gracious permission). This speaks to a deeper issue in the Flames organization and one that is often blamed for holding back what many fans (though again, perhaps not a majority) feel is a necessary rebuild.
While many hope that Iginla will be traded to a Stanley Cup contender for a windfall package of picks and prospects, others would prefer that he remain in Calgary and retire a Flame. He is quickly becoming a divisive figure amongst fans.
The truth is most likely that Iginla, regardless of whether he remains with the Flames or not, will not usher in such a massive infusion of talented youth so as to prevent the team from having to acquire it by other means. Supporters will inevitably point to what Iginla has done during his time in Calgary, and therein lays the crux of their opposition as well. These are past events, and past accomplishments do nothing to benefit the team looking to purchase his immediate future. They can provide some measure of security towards investment, but Iginla’s fifty goals in 2008 do nothing to aid a team in 2013.
At the same time, retaining Iginla will, in a worst case scenario, only tarnish his reputation amongst the fans and falsely inflate the Flames statistics to insulate them from the necessary realities of an objective audit of team capabilities and needs.
There is no simple solution now. Management has closed off the option of trading Iginla and has bungled the job of retooling the team around him so that they are now neither a team with a corps of capable young prospects ready and able to take up the mantle nor are they equipped with enough talent to ease the offensive load and help provide additional leadership that would maximize Iginla’s remaining productivity over the remainder of his NHL career.
An inability to attract key free agents, too few prospects to leverage, as well as a reluctance to forfeit those they have, in a trade, and a management group without a track record of being able to steal the occasional trade means that the Flames are likely going to remain in their current state until the departure, by whatever means, of Jarome Iginla and Mikka Kiprusoff.
There is nothing wrong with that. It might be a slow and painful death for fans to have to watch. But maybe Murray Edwards realized years ago that he couldn’t trade Iginla without inflicting significant damage to the morale of the team and city and decided that, while the end would inevitably come, the time between might as well be spent at least in an attempt to win. Maybe.
The Iginla era is coming to an end.
Whither the way forward?
Photo by Marsyas/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 3.0
The Greek historian Herodotus once wrote that “if anyone, no matter who, was given the opportunity of choosing from amongst all the nations in the world the beliefs which he thought best, he would inevitably, after careful consideration of their relative merits, choose those of his own country”.
Why I include this is to say that, while it is natural for a fan (a close cousin to the religious follower) to advocate a path or strategy which closely resembles one taken by his group, it is important to weigh the differences and understand the value that lies in these comparative studies. It would be easy for me to suggest that the Flames, and indeed any team, need simply follow this path or that as a way to find renewal and success in the NHL. However, I have been adamant in my comments on FlamesNation that each team must find its way, according to their specific circumstances.
What I hope has become apparent by this series is that many teams have rebuilt in a variety of ways and to varying degrees of success. Pittsburgh and Washington bear some striking similarities, and pursued similar strategies at around the same time. One has won, the other still struggles to. When the time comes for the Flames to rebuild they will likely find a method that suits their circumstances, provided they have a management team in place wise enough to recognize it. Comparisons will be made to the Oilers, that is inevitable, as well as to the Penguins, Kings, and Blackhawks.
In this endeavour there is absolutely no guarantee of success. Expecting one is naïve, demanding one is asinine. It only matters that the situation be recognized and the project approached with all due respect. It will be through the effort taken that the chance of success rises.
About those statements…yeah, back to those again.
To begin, that the team isn’t rebuilding. Feaster made that clear, ownership has been adamant that they expect the team to compete, year in year out. No time off to quickly nab a top draft pick. This is a team intentionally assembled under the belief that it is good enough to challenge for a Stanley Cup. Specifically, I believe Feaster has said that the team is good enough to make the playoffs, after which, “anything can happen”.
This is a common strategy amongst many franchises that are struggling financially or are still labouring to “sell their product” to a fan base. That isn’t the case in Calgary. The fan base in Calgary is cultured and educated enough in the traditions of hockey that the team would likely be able to survive on gate receipts over the course of a rebuild. The economic landscape is also such that a “small market team” like Calgary could easily weather any financial hit from a lack of playoff revenue. Jonathan Willis recently wrote about the fans in Edmonton being partially responsible for the success, to date, of the Oilers’ rebuild. Their patience allowed the management team to take the time necessary to carefully plot each move and gradually draft and develop their roster internally rather than look outside for a faster fix.
As for getting in to the playoffs as the 8th seed because “anything can happen”, there is a difference between a team being better than is reflected in the standings but has struggled through the season and a team that has to play a near-perfect game on 70 of the 82 nights in a season in order to qualify.
The Los Angeles Kings experiences this past season are not those which the Flames should expect to duplicate. The Kings struggled through the season but their roster boasted far greater talent and depth than the Flames. A management group may cite this reasoning understanding that they need to sell hope and possibility to the fan base. However, to incorporate that element into the organization’s internal structural strategy is to encourage a kind of intentional dishonesty and incorporates luck as an official management tool. This is only a small step away from incompetence.
Second, that the Flames are undergoing a change of philosophy under Feaster and that, after nearly a decade of being a Darryl Sutter team, that this roster is now a reflection of Jay Feaster. Anything arising from this point on is on his record alone.
Absolutely true. Be that as it may, I wouldn’t sleep easy on this fact. Feaster inherited a poorly managed, but fortuitously built, team in Tampa Bay. With very few alterations to the roster, and some good timing and luck, he rode that team to a Stanley Cup. When work was needed to upkeep the roster and properly evaluate the necessary pieces to retain or replace, he botched the job horribly.
It meant that the team quickly spiraled downwards to draft 1st and 2nd overall in consecutive years. He made disastrous trades and let key free agents walk away, eventually putting the team into a position where they would draft 1st and 2nd overall, in consecutive years, in spite of his best efforts. The success that he had in the latter half of the season after taking over from Sutter is similar to Tampa Bay’s 2004 playoff run. He made virtually no roster changes in 2011 and the team’s improvement is likely the result of coaching changes and improved player performance independent of any influence by management. Feaster has begun to make the Calgary Flames team his own. Where the Flames are five years from now will be Feaster’s legacy. I am not optimistic.
Third, an approximate majority of fans (there is likely no way of knowing with certainty) are supportive of the team continuing on their current path while a vocal minority (see disclaimer above) would prefer the team dismantle the roster and restock through the draft.
This cannot be proven or disproven. However, there has been a gathering movement towards rebuilding the team. There are several fans and regular commenters on Flamesnation that have been vocal in their support for such a move, to varying degrees. I would like to point out that too often in heated debates, criticism can be confused with opposition or dislike. The fans with whom I have spoken that favour a complete rebuild of the team are passionate Flames fans and want nothing more than to see a Stanley Cup parade in Calgary.
For what it is worth, most Oiler fans are content to see the Flames continue along their current path and are generally amused at having Jay Feaster manage their provincial rivals. This is certainly parochial arrogance from some, no different than the sneers that are directed at Steve Tambellini and Kevin Lowe from many Flames fans. However, even amongst the more diplomatic and open-minded fans in Edmonton, the Flames current trajectory elicits a mixture of pathos, bemusement, comic-relief, and of course schadenfreude.
Fourth, ownership, management, and the fans all want (emphasis added) the team to win a Stanley Cup much sooner rather than later. Delayed gratification is not in the conversation at this point. I do not use the words expect or even believe as I am under the impression that the majority are realistic about the competition and long odds against.
If Jay Feaster and the ownership group didn’t absolutely believe that the team could win a championship then I don’t think they would waste their time (and ownership’s money). I could be wrong, but competitive drive is often underestimated in NHL managers from a non-hockey background. Fans, though, are beginning to become more jaded in their expectations.
When You Assume…
The Flames are a perpetually mediocre team that has to rely on strong seasons from both Kiprusoff and Iginla in order to make the playoffs as an 8th or 7th seed. Once there, they would need a total buy-in from the team and some playoff magic to knock off their opponent.
Feaster has undoubtedly tried to address this by bringing in players like Hudler, Wideman, Cervenka, Stempniak, and Cammalleri. Iginla arguably has more offensive support than at any other time since the lockout. Being that many of these players have been brought in from different organizations, even different leagues, it remains to be seen if there will develop any chemistry or team cohesiveness to bring about the goal of this project. The team still has depth in the bottom pairings, but has not addressed the problem of buying Iginla some shelter at the right wing.
The Flames can’t rebuild because Iginla means too much to the team and city to trade him away and even Feaster said that without Kiprusoff this team would be worse than 30th. Their drafting hasn’t been good enough over the years to make risking everything on a fool’s gamble worth the risk of drafting in the top five. The franchise has too much self-respect to intentionally tank for a handful of magic beans in the lottery picks. Rebuilding simply isn’t an option to this team, they are too good to intentionally choose to be bad.
Iginla is and likely will always will be an icon in Calgary. I hope that he stays in Calgary for his entire career. Kiprusoff will be a legend in the city and the Flames would not be considered even a mediocre team without him. That being said, I often encounter the argument that drafting a player is too much of a gamble to make it worthwhile. This argument is absurdly defeatist and stands in direct contrast to the excitement and pride that so many Flames fans have expressed for Sven Baertschi. That the Flames have failed to draft elite talent over the last two decades does not bankrupt the exercise, it just means that they have been exceptionally bad at it. Other teams do it all the time and do it very well. If the Flames wish to relinquish their draft options there are 29 other teams that would be more than willing to take their place.
The last point about self-respect is a specious argument. One need only look to the fans at Penn State to see that people who hold unassailable beliefs will find whatever proofs they need to support the inalienable pride they wish to feel for the focus of their faith. Flames fans may mock the draft parties that were held in Edmonton these past few seasons, yet were the Flames to find themselves in a similar position it is very likely that the same would occur in Calgary. People will celebrate whatever is given to them and the human psyche is flexible in the way it can find a sense of pride.
The Flames don’t have to rebuild because they can simply bring in young talent, find some gems in the draft, and lure some undrafted European players from overseas to make the team competitive without ever having to tank it like the Oilers, Penguins, Capitals, Blackhawks and others. You don’t have to draft in the top five to get good players, Claude Giroux, Shea Weber, Cam Ward, and Duncan Keith were all picked outside the top five. The Flames can copy Philadelphia’s example, where they almost never finish at the bottom of the league and draft high, but are always competitive with smarter scouting and top-end free agents.
Easier said than done. I have looked into this argument in past comments on FlamesNation (the Philadelphia Flyers) and some of the other articles in this series (Florida as an example). Simply put the Flames have neither the draft record nor the current stable of prospects that would allow them to easily justify such a goal. They do not have a single player in their prospect group or on their current NHL roster that arguably could be considered a first line or second line center. They have no notable defensive prospects around which a new core could be constructed and while they do have some exciting young players, these are too few and too far away for forestall the inevitable: that is, that the team will need to commit to a long-term plan of acquiring and developing elite-level talent.
The Flyers are an aberration that does not lend itself to duplication, much like the Red Wings drafting from the late 90s to the mid-2000s or the utter lack of ability and competence in the Islanders management.
Jay Feaster and John Weisbrod have brought about significant change to the organization in their short time with the organization. The Flames drafting has improved under their watch and they have shown more courage in their draft picks, going out on a limb to draft players like Sven Baertschi and Mark Jankowski, both of whom have tremendous upside and could become elite level players in time.
It is too soon to determine the ultimate success of the first two drafts under John Weisbrod and Jay Feaster. The early results are more promising than nearly any under Darryl Sutter (although Dion Phaneuf was a pretty good pick). John Gaudreau, Michael Ferland, and Max Reinhart have a long road ahead of them and should not be rushed into the NHL. The NHLE numbers have been encouraging in their respective leagues, however there is a steep learning curve from a developmental level to the NHL and praise for the early returns needs to be tempered with caution.
I’m not going to pick on Mark Jankowski. He is a high school kid and would be best served to be left alone for the next few years while he develops and matures. Instead, I will focus on Feaster and Weisbrod. They have made significant changes to the Flames. Some of these changes are long overdue. There are others that have not been addressed including some of the structural issues surrounding the organization. There appears to still be a culture of contentment and apathy that permeates the team and the roster changes this offseason will need to display that this has been addressed.
The draft record has had two seasons of note (leaving aside this past June until more time has elapsed), one under the direction of Darryl Sutter the other under Feaster and Weisbrod, and therefore gains cannot be easily attributed to one or the other. Feaster has been more interested in acquiring older players overseas, though not in drafting them. He has been as willing, perhaps more so based on a small sample size, to part with draft picks as Darryl Sutter for immediate help and to make roster adjustments. He has shown a predilection for familiar players and has attempted to extend massive contracts to unrestricted free agents. He has publicly expressed the need for accountability and dissatisfaction with underperformance but would appear to be either unwilling, or unable, to act upon it.
Conclusion and Plotting the Team
When plotting the Flames organization relative to others in the league, I step away from the standings. After all, an 8th seed team won the Stanley Cup this spring. In this exercise I am trying to determine where the Flames are in their lifecycle (regressing and in steady decline) and the health of the team as it transitions into each new phase (spoiler alert: not good).
The Flames claim to be a leader in using statistical analysis, yet Kent Wilson has shown that some of their signings and the claims made about recent player additions appear to be not quite synchronized with current advanced statistical theory. Perhaps they are working form a different model.
Almost every team, when asked says that they are a leader in any particular field (Brian Burke being the exception when it comes to fancy book learning), but If I were to ballpark the team, based on the publicly noted employment of one advanced statistician (Chris Snow), I would probably put the Flames somewhere north of the middle of the pack in that area.
In trying to plot the team in terms of prospect depth and quality, I think that somewhere between the 23rd to 18th overall position would be accurate. The Flames have some intriguing prospects. As does nearly every other team in the league. The Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers, and Los Angeles Kings are all considered to have a more extensive and deeper prospect pool. This despite finishing higher in the standings than the Flames for several seasons and, in the case of the Kings, having traded away prospects like Brayden Schenn.
When outside observers say that the Flames depth is still one of the worst in the league, they aren’t being malicious. The drafting has improved, but it will take a handful of miracles to keep the team from regressing even further.
The club is in decline and are a middle to below-middle of the pack team in the areas of prospect depth and apparent ability (or willingness) to observe and capitalize on advanced analytics. It is for this reason that I have spoken earlier about the need for extensive organizational changes being required following the departure of Iginla and Kiprusoff.
Kent’s article on the coming rebuild in Calgary is worth a look again. He has pointed out some sobering facts about the team and players like Jarome Iginla. The prospect depth chart for the Flames still lags in the bottom third of the league (23rd overall on Hockey’s Future) and the Hockey News has predicted that they will finish this season 12th in the West adding this editorial comment: “…overpaying for marginal talent isn’t what the doctor ordered for this team. Until they decide to rebuild, the flames will be headed in the wrong direction”.
Ownership has outlined a path for the team and has empowered management to see it through. The players and roster have been assembled over the past year and a half towards that goal. There have been changes, both by addition and subtraction, at nearly every level since December 28th, 2010 in order to affect ownership’s plan.
That plan is, in all likelihood, going to fail in its goal to keep the Flames relevant in west.
Following that the franchise will likely require a significant change at nearly every single level of the organization with the likely exception of ownership.
It remains for fans to watch, cheer, comment, criticize, and observe the metamorphosis of their team over the next few years. I suspect that, as Kent recently brought up in an open thread, this team will be markedly different in three years’ time. For better or worse.
Now, as promised, the uplifting picture of Iginla. I hope it was worth the wait.
I’d like to thank Kent and Jonathan for all their help and advice during the writing of this series. Their writing is both comprehensive and concise, something I am working towards. Having their ear, as it were, has been invaluable. I would also like to thank the many readers who have taken the time to pore over my mad rantings, especially those of you who have gone on to comment on the series. I hope I have responded to you all in a fair and open-minded fashion. I look forward to writing more for the Nations.
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