Now I Got Worry: The Flames Ain’t Playin’ Hockey (REDUX!)

(Whoops.  I meant to add a whole ton more to this piece before I published it.  Now it just feels incomplete, so I’m adding everything all anew.  If you read this before, read it again.  I promise it will be better – BoL)

I don’t know if any of you out there have noticed, but there’s not a lot going on at the Dome today. It’s like the players, coaches, scouts, management, media, and fans all collectively forgot to attend training camp this morning. I have no idea why.

I suppose that contentious little quibbling over money might have something to do with it, but the fact remains: your Calgary Flames are not playing hockey. Like, anywhere, man. We should find this distressing.

But considering how up in arms the masses got when the news broke that the Flames wouldn’t be playing at a golf tournament, the relative detachment from the C of Red on this subject buffaloes my understanding of just what people want this team to do. Clearly, dissecting the inner workings of the average Flames fan is well beyond the scope of my own expertise, so that’s going to be an experiment for another day.

Especially since there’s just so much more to talk about when it comes to the team and where they’ll find themselves playing during the lockout (more specifically, where they aren’t)

Uh, Hello?

My curiosity over the Flames’ whereabouts pushed through my lingering sense of bitter malaise over the lockout for just long enough after reading Ryan Pinder’s Abbotsford Heat Season Preview. In the article it was explained that many would-be Flames hopefuls have been assigned to the Heat for the season, but not young Leland Irving, who you would have assumed would have been given every opportunity to dominate the minutes played in the Abby crease this campaign.  

But thanks to a complete failure to have any confidence in Henrik Karlsson’s play as a backup last season upon return from his knee injury (also all that time prior to the injury, but just who are we to be so cynical, anyway?) and a shuffling of Mr. Irving back and forth from Alberta to B.C., Leland has enough NHL appearances notched on his belt that to be assigned to the Heat, he’d need to clear waivers first.

Naturally, that’s a risk the Flames don’t want to take, so he won’t see even one puck hurled his way by AHL opponents or somehow Krys Kolanos this season. Which led me to question (number one in the comments section, y’all!) "Well just where is Leland Irving going to play this season, anyway?"

The answer, at this admittedly early juncture, is freakin’ nowhere, man

And that’s bad news. Depending on who you ask, Irving is still very much the potential goaltender of the future once Miikka Kiprusoff executes his last Scorpion in Cowtown. Having a prospect of that pedigree go a full season without professionals wiring pucks at his head won’t allow him to develop his game, learn how to adapt to life in the majors, nor allow his ever growing fanbase of fawning ladies coo over his rakish good looks (or so I’m told).

In short, you’re letting your goalie muscle atrophy.

It Doesn’t End There

Um, yeah, almost ALL of the Flames seem keen to keep the skates hung up on the stall and wait out this lockout. In many ways it makes sense, as you’d want to be ready immediately if the work stoppage ends tomorrow and training camp opens right after a victory lunch (because OBVIOUSLY the players demands are going to be met and they won’t cave at all…)

Moreover, as is the plight for many "older" professional sports teams, there is that whole pesky notion of athletes not wanting to go overseas to toil in ad-laden jerseys because they have their families, or young children to take care of, like anyone believes that’s true. Yeah, sure, Jarome, you have three kids (acutally, I think he’s up to four now – ed.). Like you’d have any time to raise a family when you’re either at the rink, the gym, or filming Scotiabank commercials.

Maybe you’re Matt Stajan and no one wants you on their team you’re the PA representative for Calgary and you’re keeping yourself busy by staying abreast of the news of the day involving the talks between the union and the league (spoiler alert: there are none, so you’re doing about asw much as usual, Stajan).

The point is there could be hundreds of reasons as to why the Flames aren’t out begging for jobs in peripheral leagues, desperately hoping to take the job of a lesser player who makes a few million less and really needs that money (and philanthropically, maybe that’s one of them), but it’s a bad idea. The crux of the Flames NHL roster (and the heart of the payroll) are sitting this thing out. No Iginla in the KHL. No Kiprusoff in Finland. No Bouwmeester, No Tanguay, Giordano, Cammalleri, Glencross, Stempniak, Wideman, Comeau, Jones, Butler, Sarich, or Smith. Bob Hartley is stuck at home, being outcoached by his cat.

You Not Teemu

If they’re hoping for a Teemu Selanne effect, in which the players, close to retirement and frustrated with the game that’s passing them by, take the lockout year off and allow their bodies to heal fully, thus giving them their joie de vie for hockey again and ushering in a renessaince of awesome in a new era for the game, I’d like to remind every last one of the players on the Flames roster of one simple truth: You are not Teemu. You need to be playing, playing regularly, and playing against those who are good at hockey.

They’re doing what they can to stay in skates and keep in shape, and that’s admirable, but it’s not enough. Random workouts led inexplicably by Cory Cross, who we had all done a great job of forgetting he existed until now, are no alternative to true, real life, competitive high level hockey. And yeah, maybe the inevitable frustrations of having to go through this nonsense again is quelling their desire to experience life in Europe enough to not even bother, but this lockout is going to end eventually, and to have let an entire season go by without excercising that hockey mind is a fast death to a hockey team that has designs on going for it all the way to 8th place.

Jarome, being the intelligent young man that he is, should be acutely aware of this. Now far be it from me to deny a man the right to spend as much time with his family as is humanly possible, but we’re talking about a guy who had activated real life cheat mode in the 2004 playoffs before having an entire season where Iggy would have been in his prime vanquished due to that truly heartbreaking season where I learned that Bridgeport had a hockey team. HIS PRIME. No worry, we all naively believed, this is Jarome Eff’n Iginla, he might be the greatest hockey player in the world right now, a year off from the game won’t affect a man in his pristine condition the way it might a mere mortal. We all watched in eager anticipation upon his, and by extension the NHL’s fabled return back to the ice, and proceeded to experience him falling flat on his face for the better part of the season.

It was, let’s say, underwhelming. Of course, for the average hockey player, 35 goals and 67 points in a full season is actually pretty decent, but at this time, Jarome Iginla was not an average hockey player. In the first 10 games of the 05-06 term, Iginla had only notched 2 goals, and was only averaging 2.7 shots per game. Not the numbers you expect from a prototypical shooting power forward.

Of course, as the year and following seasons wore on, he found his game and became The Man again, even once rediscovering that 50 goals a season fire. But this time around, we’re talking about a man who will become both 36 years old and a free agent on the same day before he sees another real hockey game again, and I think if we ever see Jarome in a Flames jersey again, we’d be pretty amazed if we saw him put up 67 points (Spoiler alert #2: He won’t score 67 points after taking off a full year again)

Get your overpriced agent on the phone to Europe, dude. I understand you’re a family man now, but you’ve got a job to do.

Could Be Worse

There are a handful of players who rock the Flaming C during normal business hours that are going extra curricular during this break and finding some ice to skate on. A lot of the kids are playing down in Abbotsford, and for some of the future hopefuls, the Svens and Maxes of the world, this opportunity is a bit of a blessing in disguise. Sven’s a great example: Some pundits out there, yours truly included, were wondering if Mr. Bartschi wouldn’t benefit from a year in Abbotsford, depsite probably being good enough to make the Flames straight up this season. It would have been a big deal in training camp, especially if in the end, he got cut and the Flames floundered out of the gate. Given the lockout, the NHL has taken the guess work out of management’s hands (and that’s good, because have you seen management?)

Others still, those unlucky few who are too um…seasoned to go down to Abby and have to endure the exhausting flights over to Europe. Or in the case of Tim Jackman, and this just sounds too perfect to me, playing beer league.

Everyone by now knows that both Jiri Hudler and local Flames legend Roman Cervenka have already found homes in Europe, with Cervenka shunning his former KHL comrades by signing with Slavia Praha of the Czech Extraliga. Personally, I’d have preferred him hooking back up with his pals in Omsk again, but he’s got an Iginla thing going on, where he just had a kid and wants to spend time with him, a ridiculous notion indeed. You can’t help but wonder what role this whole fatherhood thing plays in the future when it comes to Cervenka actually playing games for the Flames.

Hudler, meanwhile, is back in the KHL following that one time he kinda limped over there with his tail between his legs a few seasons back (but let’s try not to dwell on that.  He’s one of us now. One of us) Hudler gets a chance to shine and develop chemistry in Prague with former NHL has-been Marcel Hossa, so I can’t see anything bad happening there.

Mikael Backlund has been rumoured to be joining Västerås HK, a club in Sweden’s second division (so in some ways, he’s playing in a bit of an AHL, just travelling a really long way to do it). Västerås is Backlund’s old stomping grounds, and while these rumours began before the Swedish Elitserien lifted their moratorium on NHLers signing on top level teams only to leave when the lockout ends, it makes sense that Mikael is staying put, given it’s a bit of a homecoming for him. Plus he’ll get to play against Anze Kopitar, so at least there’s some elite level competition to fret about. Assuming he actually goes.

Anton Babchuk is reportedly close to signing on with Ukranian based KHL squad Donbass Donetsk. Let’s all cross our fingers and hope he stays there forever and ever.

Idle Hands Are the Devil’s Plaything

If you recall, the Calgary Flames weren’t exactly an inspiring hockey team last season. It showed in the playoffs when it was almost as if they weren’t even playing in them.

Depending on who you ask, the team became marginally better in the offseason, or marginally better but kind of a bit worse. It’s not that they’re a bad team, but by no means could we ever look upon them as a favourite. And this is the team, for better or worse, that will suit up and do battle whenever there is hockey again, and they’re not about to go out and acquire Sidney Crosby. It pains me to say that this team is not going to rely on talent alone.  Matt Fenwick once, when talking about the Flames last season while still desperately clinging onto false hope about making the playoffs last season, put it best:

"For one, teams really do get better and worse just kind of organically. We (and here I basically mean bloggers) tend to pretty arrogantly think that the relationship between the independent variables and the dependent variable is a tighter formula than it actually is.

Add known good players, have young guys predictably improve, get better and move up the standings; take the opposite actions, and observe the opposite results.

Reality, though, is that teams get better and worse, often times in mid-season, for reasons we don’t understand. And I’m not talking about Wow, what happened to the Wild! situations, where the underlying numbers told the tale the whole time — I’m talking about genuine improvements and drop-offs.

One of the teams currently battling for 7th & 8th positions in the West on merit could easily be one of the four best teams come playoff time. I don’t like the chances of the February 1st Coyotes against the February 1st Red Wings in a 7-game series, but it could look different on April 15th."

Which I agree with. Teams are an organism. They change. They improve over time, but they need to have the time to reach that pinnacle. The good teams get that done over an 82 game schedule. The Flames won’t have the benefit of time should this lockout be resolved before the league scraps the entire season, and with that in mind, this team would do well to get as close to midseason form as they could ever hope to be if they want any chance of competing for anything before the lights once again are doused in the arenas across the continent. And there is no way that happens if they all sit at home, pantsless getting their Cheetoh dust forever stained on their collective shirts. That, right now, is your Calgary Flames, friends, and that’s as pretty as it’s going to get.