The Flames Through 10: Identity and the Rebuild Continuum

 


 

The Flames slow start, unfortunate early injuries and subsequent spanking at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks recently has caused the rebuild debate to rear its ugly head in Flamesland again. This is an inevitability until the club does one of two things: takes a firm step forward and becomes a meaningful contender again or bottoms out completely and starts from scratch out of necessity.

Even though the club currently finds itself in 14th in the conference, Calgary’s start to 2013 has nonetheless muddied the waters no matter what side of the debate you fall on. On the one hand, the Flames have decent underlying numbers, have frequently outshot their opponents and it has only been bad luck or lousy goaltending that has sunk them to the bottom of the Western Conference.

On the other hand, the Flames are who we thought they are. There’s been some improvement over the past Brent Sutter iterations of the club thanks to summer additions, the coaching staff and the progression of guys like Backlund and Brodie, but the truth is the team remains fundamentally flawed in a number of key areas. The top-end of the roster is expensive and aging, and there is a dearth of players at or near their prime age. And although the emergence of Baertschi and Gaudreau as potential bluechip prospects the last year or so is a good development, the truth is the Flames organizational cupboard is hardly bursting with talent.

Furthermore, Calgary’s depth at center has been exposed as woefully lacking with the injury to Backlund recently. Center depth has always been a bone of contention in town, but there’s no doubt with Alex Tanguay, Ben Street, Matt Stajan and Blair Jones currently counting as the Flames top-4 pivots at the NHL level, things haven’t been this dire down the middle in Calgary in the post-lockout (both of them) era. Particularly since the coach is forced to play converted 32-year old winger Tanguay out as the club’s power vs power option most nights.

Rebuild Continuum

While rebuilding vs. competing is often conceptualized as a dichotomy, I’ve mentioned previously I think it’s better to think of it as a continuum, particularly since the act of building and maintaining a roster is on-going and perpetual. Technically all GM’s are always looking to improve their teams at all times, but the motivations and moves will change depending on where they fall on that continuum.

The Flames are stuck solidly in the middle of that sliding gradient. They have enough quality NHLers to beat up bad teams, can compete solidly on many nights with good teams and occasionally beat the big boys. They also have a near complete lack of elite talent in the organization, whether we’re talking active bobdies or guys in the pipeline (Baertschi and Gaudreau notwithstanding). The remaining, yet unanswered question is how they move forward without falling off a cliff.

Personally, I am paradoxically encouraged by the Flames start despite the poor record, the last two uninspired losses notwithstanding. Not to say that Calgary is suddenly a contender again, only that a quick turnaround is at least possible with some luck and prudent management. In the depths of the team’s struggles under Brent Sutter last season I was mostly convinced the club would have to run aground completely before the ship could be righted, but the Bob Hartley version of the Flames seems to have nodes of hope around which the org could begin to build around. The blueline is strong, there is capable talent on the wings and the coaching staff at least seem to have things in order.

In short: I don’t think the team has to be terrible in order to get better.

The Post-Iginla Identity

Perhaps the greatest misconception I notice in the rebuild/don’t rebuild debate is the idea that trading Iginla or somehow proceeding without him (and Kipper for that matter) is necessarily indicative of a "tear-down". That is, if Iginla is moved at the deadline then the club might as well trade the rest of their veteran talent and burn the thing to the foundation.

This is predicated on the conditioned notion that the Flames simply can’t compete without Iginla on the roster; that he remains the center tent pole of the Flames big top. This is also apparently the misconception under which management labors given their reluctance to even consider an Iginla trade (although that is probably informed by other considerations as well. No one wants to be the guy who traded Jarome out of Calgary, particularly if the return doesn’t work out. Those kind of moves stick to a GM’s resume forever).

Iginla remains a capable enough player who can put up some points and play a lot of minutes. But he’s not elite anymore and he won’t be getting any better as time moves on. Ideally he’s a complementary piece on a good team. On the Flames, because he plays all night and gets a ton of PP time, he’s probably a 10-13 GVT (goals versus threshold) player as things stand over a full season, comparable to guys like David Krejci, Blake Wheeler and Martin Erat last year. That means he’s worth about two wins per 82 games more than your typical replacement level player. That’s something, but it doesn’t turn a lousy team into a good one, nor a good team into a basement dweller.

The Flames fortunes don’t necessarily turn on the presence of Jarome anymore. Once upon a time that was undeniably true and his long history as the club’s lone, implacable, elite forward is why his presence seems persistently crucial to the line-up. It doesn’t help perceptions that the team has been unable to internally groom a replacement or two to take the torch from Jarome’s hands as he ages, but the fact remains the bottom wouldn’t suddenly fall out if Feaster finally decided to leverage Iginla for a good return. At least, no moreso than it would anyways.

That realization gives the organization options. Trading Iginla or Kipper isn’t an acknowledgement that the club is terrible and needs to be ripped apart at the seams. Meaning, an Iginla trade doesn’t have to inexorably result in a cascade of other trades where the org liquidates Bouwmeester, Cammalleri, Tanguay, Giordano, Hudler, Wideman, etc. because, hey! they are going to suck anyways, right? 

Let’s be very clear then: the Flames aren’t too bad now, they can continue to be not too bad even without Iginla and they therefore have an opportunity to leverage an asset or two and avoid a full tear down in favor of a quicker re-stock.

Moving Forward

Trading Iginla or Kiprusoff as they near the end of their tenure here isn’t absolutely required either. What is needed is the Flames management to alter the staid and stagnant formula which has been used to create the roster over the last decade: namely, build around the iconic Iggy and Kipper. Erect them as untouchable pillars in the line-up and assume with the right alchemy the rest of the team will come together behind them and experience some sort of renaissance. 

Those days are past. The Flames have plenty of good to very good NHLers, but no true elite talent. The top-end is expensive and doddering and you can count on two fingers the number of prospects who are a good bet to be impact NHLers at some point in the next 4 years. The goal now isn’t to supplement Calgary’s former superstars – it is to find their replacements, one way or the other.

  • Matty Franchise Jr

    I’ll give credit to the guys on the FAN960 for having that conversation, but I think they’re about 3 years behind the curve. Ahead of Feaster et al though.

  • Matty Franchise Jr

    @Kent

    I mainly agree with you article. I don’t think a blow it to the ground rebuild is necessary, and the direction of the team is somewhat encouraging. Likewise I don’t see trading Iggy as some sort of acceptance of an Oiler style 5 year tank job.

    That said, the thing I don’t understand from you and many others is the aversion to going for a lotto pick this year. I would absolutely love to continue to see the strong underlying numbers, learn Hartley’s system, develop some youth AND get Nate McKinnon. This would make our rebuild be 1 year.

    I understand the argument about how you can’t ask players to lose. Of course you can’t. But I don’t understand why Featser feels the constant need to plug holes with veteran waiver pickups in an attempt to hang on. Why couldn’t we trade Iggy, Kipper and maybe a few others we feel aren’t part of the future. And replace them from within. We get to see what we have in Irving. We get to develop players and put them into roles they aren’t used to. It tests them out and helps access what we have. AND it most likely will result in us falling into the lottery.

    I just don’t understand the people who want to keep plugging holes with temporary fixes and try to claw into 9th or 10th place. Would it be so hard to have some patience and write this season off completely and aim to reset Sept 2013 with a new leader, a fresh start and Nate McKinnon.

    • I have no aversion for a lotto pick, as long as it happens organically and doesn’t occur because the club trades all of it’s quality players.

      It’s possible it will happen if the Flames bad percentages continue for much longer. Plus, another injury to a top-6 forward like Tanguay with Backlund already out would make winning that much tougher without having the decision makers tank the thing on purpose.

      • NateBaldwin

        Well of course you don’t have an aversion to a lotto pick once we had one. Who wouldn’t want one!

        I guess what I meant is an aversion to accepting the process it may require to attain a lotto pick. Where we differ is that some want to still try to compete and if things sour and the chips fall a certain way then be happy with a lotto pick. On the flip side we can accept it NOW, accept our slow start and injuries and make subtle moves to start thinking about next year instead of next game. Stop filling holes with waiver pick ups or thinking about trades to help the team now.

        I don’t suggest we trade away every good player. I’m just suggesting we trade away Iggy as well as 1-2 others we decide have no long term future on the team. Then, MOST IMPORTANTLY, do not replace them yet. Trades should involve draft picks and/or prospects only. Its a proactive step that helps us develop our prospects, assess our team and secure a lotto pick.

        Instead of just seeing where the chips fall and being happy with the outcome.

          • NateBaldwin

            I disagree. Sure Iggy isn’t 30 goal superstar Iggy, but to suggest his loss, with an AHL replacement wouldn’t make the team worse is a bit much. Same with Kipper.

            This team is doing a pretty good job of getting into the lottery with those guys. Unless you think Iggy is so bad that he is detrimental to the team…. I can’t imagine this team not finishing bottom 5 if we play Irving every game and trade Iggy for draft picks.

            Maybe they will do awesome, kids will step up and over-perform and Irving will be lights out and our new #1 goalie. If that’s the case so be it. That wouldn’t be a terrible outcome….

          • NateBaldwin

            I’m not saying losing him won’t have any impact, but if you agree with Iginla’s suggested GVT in this article, then he’s worth about 2 wins over a replacement level player. That won’t make a middling team a lottery team.

            As for Kipper, he’s a career average goaltender so unless Irving/Macdonald/whoever gets lit up all season, then letting him go shouldn’t have that tremendous of an impact either.

          • supra steve

            If that ‘Iginla is worth 2 wins’ theory is true, then we better keep quiet about it. Why would any GM give up their first rounder in 2013 for 2 wins (or is that 1 win in a 40ish game season?)? I know that playoffs may prove Iggy’s true value, but that 2 game thing is kinda hard to stomach.

          • RexLibris

            So what are you suggesting Nate? That we keep Iggy? Re-up? Trade away more draft picks to fill in the holes and try to make a run for it with this team? How do we address #1 C of the future? How do we get some elite prospects? (don’t tell me we already have elite prospects)

            There is no way this team is a contender right now. None. Even a delusional fan couldn’t put this team up against Pittsburgh, Chicago or Vancouver and pretend its a fair fight.

            You claim we are “too good” to get a lottery pick even if we trade away our #1 goalie and captain. I’d like to know what you think is the plan forward given that we are so deep and incapable of CONTINUING to lose.

            I’d just like to hear your plan for the next 5-10 years.

          • NateBaldwin

            🙂

            If I had it my way we would have traded Iginla 3 years ago and Kipper this past offseason.

            I’m not saying that we have a cup contender on our hands, I’m just trying to convey the message that I think Kent was trying to convey. Trading Iginla and Kipper won’t sink this team.

            In fact, at the beginning of this season I was hoping that we’d lose out and draft high because I thought that from a dollars perspective, if the flames iced a losing team, it would have minimal impact in a shortened season. Couple that with the draft being as strong as it is,and this could be the ideal year to launch a quick turn around.

            BUT… I don’t think that moving Iggy and Kipper will make that happen. In fact I think the skill level across this team is too balanced for any two players to have that sort of impact this year.

          • supra steve

            I wanted to trade Iggy and Kipper last year…. Hear on there.

            I guess the general disagreement is just the impact of Iggy/Kipper. I think trading those 2 would hurt us 10% which would be enough to sink into the lottery. I guess there is no way to prove it either way.

            If your assessment that we are too good to suck, but not a contender is true, and there is nothing we can do about it not even trading our #1 goalie and captain… well then. F Bombs. Good job Feaster. You’ve built the perfect team that to middle in mediocrity forever….

            Not a contender, but too good to get a high draft pick. Sound familiar?

            #SameOldSameOld

          • In general, people tend to overestimate how many wins individual players are worth in a team game. I mean, two wins above replacement for one guy in a 20+ player line-up isn’t too bad. Iginla placed inside the top-100 by that measure last year.

            The players with the most impact are almost always goalies by GVT…the elite guys are usually worth about 25-30 GVT a full season (so, about 6 wins). The elite skaters might get to the 20 GVT level, but then we’re talking about the best in the biz.

          • supra steve

            Kent I tend to agree that any one player isn’t that big of a piece. This has been shown on the flip side when a huge star is acquired and can’t really help a struggling team.

            BUT – we are in 15th place right now. The margin of victory/loss is so slim in the NHL now. I just think that Iggy’s loss will have a deeper impact than you are suggesting. I also think if Iggy and 1 or two others are replaced by draft picks it will have a severe psychological impact on the team. When the Oilers traded Ryan Smyth and just replaced him from within (back 5 years ago when he was their heart and soul) they lost like 20 games in a row. I don’t think I’m exaggerating, I honestly think they lost 20 in a row. Or something like that….

          • They did, but that’s because the Oilers were terrible. They ran into injuries and a bad run of percentages anyways.

            As for trading Iginla, Flames would ideally hold out for the deadline, when I assume the fate of the team will be more or less set. Even if it isn’t by then, the effect of one guy for the last couple weeks of the season is pretty minimal, outside of, say, replacing a Dominik Hasek with Vesa Toskala.

            A guy like Iginla is probably worth 2 wins over 82-games, but over something like a 10 game sample, he’s probably only worth 1.5 goals more than a replacement level player on average.

  • RexLibris

    Kent, this may be one of your finest pieces ever.

    Very insightful, honest, and poignant.

    The Flames have branded themselves so intricately with Iginla that the darker side of that relationship is now coming home to roost. I’ve been kicking around the post-Iginla identity idea for awhile now, wondering what it might look like. Not being in the city and having that sort of immersion to the fan base, though, it requires comparison and contrast.

    In Edmonton, the loss of iconic players, leaders and hockey heroes, resulted in a long stretch of reflection and re-orientation to a new normal.

    It might take something similar in Calgary. What I do fear, though, is management seeking to deflect potential bad feelings by anointing the returning assets as the heirs apparent to Iginla. No player should be saddled with that kind of baggage as a new arrival.

    A good read, Kent. Thank you.

  • supra steve

    Good article. Agree completely. I think that it is time for the organization to move on from Iginla and Kiprusoff. I dont think that they have a chance to make the playoffs this year so moving Kiprusoff is not a big deal. Next year Ramo will come in and that was more or less going to be the end of the Kiprusoff era.

    Iginla has been a shadow of himself the last few years and it is becoming painful to watch when he is placed into top line situations time and again. Time for him to move on, into a support level role in a contending organization.

    The other moves I would make would be to get rid of Cammallari, Stajan, and Sarich. I would never have resigned Sarich and I think that he is too old and too slow to be on the team. I dont think very highly of Stajan and believe that Horak, Street, Walters, Kolanos could fill his spot with Jones just as easily. Cammallari is over priced, and has lost whatever sense of swagger that was making him have to prove people wrong. For what he is making the returns are not good enough for this Flames team, and he would be better suited in an organization that can put him on the second line in a support position.

    Cammallari would fit into Pittsburgh or Boston, Iginla would fit into Philadelphia or San Jose, Kiprusoff would fit into San Jose or St Louis, Sarich would help out a team like Ottawa or Philadelphia, and Stajan would be okay in St Louis or Vancouver.

    Almost everybody can come to the agreement that Iginla needs to be moved, either for his sake or for the team, or both. The bigger problem is what do you get back for him? People that believe we are going to get a young player, top prospect, and first round pick are dreaming, because I dont think that will happen. I am not sure if you would be able to two of those back.

    Come the end of March, the market is going to be based on the teams with injury needs, and a market will be there for the Flames to cash in. Sad thing is that the Flames will be in the 12th spot and be buyers because they think “intellectually” that they “honestly” have a chance to make the playoffs.

      • Matty Franchise Jr

        So you don’t want Iggy back at all? Just curious, because it seems that everybody is expecting Iggy to get another $7million contract wherever he goes.

        • supra steve

          And that’s another reason why he should be traded. There will be big money offered to him as a UFA, but the Flames are in a position where giving Iggy a lot more money over the next 5 (or 4, or 3) can not help them, only hurt.

          • Willi P

            Pretty much the same start as most years and still ends up with 30+ by the end of the year.

            With the exception of the last two games, he played a much better team game in the first 8 and had 5 assists to go with his goal. Kent had commented several times (in a positive way) about his play in those games.

            Reclamation project after 10 games? I bet just about any team in the league would like to “reclaim” him. I bet it is a different tune at game 20 and game 30.

          • Willi P

            Ya, I listened to the interview. Rhett’s a retired player that wasn’t very good (as a player and he is a worse radio talk show person), living off of the coat tails in radio of a few seasons with the team. Boomer was just piling on. Rhett may have been in the room for a few years but from listening to him on the radio and his constant negativity, I doubt he had much respect in the locker room and suggest that there might be some hard feelings on his behalf.

            Iginla looks more frustrated (at his back luck) than unmotivated and we have seen that before at the start of seasons. I am sure all of this noise from the media (and FN)doesnt help.

          • Scary Gary

            Warrener was a pretty good D man in his prime with Florida and Buffalo, he also went to three Stanley cup finals, his bod/shoulder just gave out near the end and he ended up looking terrible. The guys in the dressing room loved him, he’s typically hilarious, if you’ve met him it’s near impossible not to like him.

            Like Kent said, Iggy’s will get hot and start putting the puck in the net closer to his career average, but so what? We’re still not a playoff team, just improved over last year.

          • Danger

            If he’s a reclamation project, why on earth would we give him 5 years at 3.5M per? Heck, I don’t think anyone would give him more than 2 years, even as a UFA. Dude is way too long in the tooth for a five year deal.

          • Danger

            It might not be, but if he passes on those terms then I guess you trade him at the deadline. I’m inclined to think they should do that regardless, so no big loss either way if you offer him that contract.

          • Danger

            Yeah, good point. I think he probably would take a trade to a contender, but that is why it’s a bad idea to hand out NMCs like candy at Halloween. Speaking of which, wonder if the kids in Viking all get NMCs in their loot bags from the Sutter house every year?

          • Avalain

            And what are those teams going to give up? I’m think a #1 pick, at best – which of course will be a later in the round. No top prospects.

            Isn’t that a lot less than what people are hoping for?

          • supra steve

            Four options:

            1. you compete with the market and resign him for too much $$ and term

            2. he signs for a lot less $$ to stay in Calgary

            3. he walk as a UFA and the Flames have nothing to show for their loyalty to this player

            4. trade him for the best package you can get. If you were going to lose him to free agency and you get more then nothing, then it’s enough.

          • SmellOfVictory

            I don’t think Iginla is seen as a depth scorer in the NHL. He’s not a heavy lifter possession-wise, but he still, as of last season, scores like a top line forward.

  • Scary Gary

    The theme the last 5 years or so has been the same, “We just aren’t good enough”.

    Jarome and Kipper use to be able to carry the Flames but they have been in steady decline since 2004. As you pointed out Kent, a lot of pieces have come and gone around them but no effort has gone into replacing them. Management has failed at accuiring top end talent and this in turn has made Calgary a team elite talent is avoiding.

    We just aren’t good enough. Echo, echo, echo….

    I am tired of the same old. As a cap team we deserve better. At least the Oil can rerun 5 cup title seasons. With that in mind we are much more due than they are.

  • Iginla’s had bad luck through the first 10 (although he was lousy in the last two games as well).

    He is what he is. He’ll get his goals and points eventually because things will turn around and the Flames play him enough that he’ll be able to shake the funk.

  • I fear that the fast developing Trade-Iggy-Saga badly for the Flames and its fan. As recent flames fans have wrote, we will be selling Iggy well past his peak trade value. However, the bigger problem is the Flames Management (both Sutter and Feaster) and worse yet Ownership have shown a terrible weakness to “reward loyalty” or “exceptional short-term performance” with badly structured contracts.

    Take the cases of Feaster resigning Babchuk and Sarich for US$2.5mn and US$2.0mn. Not only were both players overpaid and provided no-movement clauses, they provided them to third pairing defenders at best. I can see providing NMCs or NTCs to top four defensemen or top four forwards.

    Fast forwarding to the present, imagine what the Flames would give to Iggy if they choose to resign him, who is now looking more like bottom-six role player. Not helping matters, Flames management have said they will not go out and trade Iggy unless he requests so. This is not management’s role. Management is suppose to look after the team’s best interest, not the player’s. You cannot let a player dictate the team’s future (look at how this has boxed in Gillis in Van). Worse yet, the rest of the league knows Iggy is on the steep downslope of his career and the speed of new league has changed dramatically.

    Even Ryan Smyth, who is still a stronger, faster skater than Iggy, is sitting out games. The bottom line is that Iggy’s trade value has diminished vastly. The only saving grace is that Flames management need to hope that some cup contenders (eg. Bruins, Pens, Kings, Hawks) suffer some key injuries and need a sniper to ride shotgun for the short-term. Otherwise, the Trade Iggy Saga ends very, very badly.

  • Willi P

    Oops, I wanted to also say that the growing tendency to “Reward Loyalty”, I believe, is a by-product of previous Flames management in the 1990s, who did the opposite, where they quickly ties quickly despite exceptional strong performance. Take the cases of Doug Gilmour, Al Macinnis, Joey Mullen and Joe “I Score When I like” Niewendyk. I think Flames Ownership in retrospect realize this unexpectedly led to not only a sharp collapse in the performance of the team but in the support of the fan base. So collectively, Flames Ownership, not management, is reluctant to repeat this scenario despite the nature of the salary cap structure. The only problem is that Flames Ownership (e.g. Murray Edwards) really doesn’t understand how the league has changed since the end of the dead puck era, which the Flames temporarily benefitted from briefly during the cup run. The bottom line is that Flames Ownership ‘apparently’ only care of making dollars, not necessarily building a cup winner. This is why Sutter and recently Feaster, with the consent of Ownership, have continued to trade draft picks away and grind up against the salary cap. Until Ownership decides that it truly wants to win a cup, which is likely a 10-year rebuilding process, the Flames will continue sit outside of playoff contention but yet never plummet to depths of the bottom of the league. Although I could be wrong this year.

  • Scary Gary

    wow, i have been calling for this for a couple of years now. heres a new angle, seeing that iggy is doing the sundin, offer him an extension of 2 years at 1 million per. if he wants to remain a flame take a big hometown discount and help the very people who rewarded him with hefty paycheques. the franchise benefits tremendously as nobody wears the black hat, also iggy can smile gees schucks it all he wants during the retooling process. test iggies loyalty if he feels insulted trade him. see what kind of leader he realy is. also jettison cammi and any other dead wood in the organization.

  • T&A4Flames

    Speaking of trading for players according to Dreger Avalanche are asking for a roster player and a prospect for O’Reilly.

    Only problem in my eyes is that we don’t have many players that are great contracts for the value ( or really just cheap players as that is what Colorado wants)

    Glenx is maybe one, buttler is another but not really a motivating player…

  • Willi P

    @HongKongHockeyFan wrote ” ”

    “imagine what the Flames would give to Iggy if they choose to resign him, who is now looking more like bottom-six role player”

    ???????????????

    If Iginla is bottom-six, I would take a team of bottom sixes and kick a$$

    “Even Ryan Smyth, who is still a stronger, faster skater than Iggy”

    ???????????????

    Ryan Smyth has never been faster than Iginla or 99% of players in the NHL

  • loudogYYC

    Warrener didn’t pull what he said out of his @ss. At worst it was his opinion and it sounded a lot like what Playfair said a few years ago when talking about Iggy and Doan as captains.

    Kypreos and Maclean had a little argument on their afternoon televised radio show and talked about this. Kypreos agreed with Rhett in that Iggy looks frustrated and uninspired, difference is Kypreos fully believes he’s still a 30 goal scorer and that he should get out of the comfort zone that he’s in here.

    I agree with that 100%, he’s a professional athlete, not a senior board member of some oil company.

  • loudogYYC

    @ Kent – I agree with everything in your article, but one point and that is I think there’s a real psycholigcal road block in Calgary ownership and management as long as Iginla is there.

    The team is still trying to build around him as though he’s 26 and not 35. That, I don’t think changes until he’s gone. As far as team performance, I’ve stated before that the team wouldn’t even know he’s not out there.

    Hudler for Captain!