Your Calgary Flames are hurting, friends. It’s all hobbles and limps and hip flexors in Flametopia, and it sucks.
Mike Cammalleri, hip flexor. Sven Baertschi, hip flexor. Miikka Kiprusoff, MCL sprain/smokers lung. Mikael Backlund, heartbreaking knee injury.
Jay Feaster, jimmy legs.
Point is, they are beaten up. Cammalleri is supposedly on the verge of checking back in, and we’re told Sven is getting his skate on, but he’s not due back immediately, and it’s meant calling up some rainy day players in Abbotsford. And THAT has exposed something we all already know: The Flames depth pool is awfully shallow.
The Baertsch plays into where I’m going with this, I promise. Just read all the words and then we’ll talk about it, okay?
First of all, let’s just get this out of the way. Injuries suck. They are not fair. While many of you in the comments section will disagree, when the Flames had the luxury of spitting out their full, unharmed compliment of hockey players, they were actually kinda good. The standings don’t reflect it, but the underlying numbers, the score lines, and some seriously dominant stretches of hockey over the first 6 or 7 games (Chicago, anyone?), those do. They’re not necessarily a good team, by any stretch, but they’re certainly better than what the standings show.
Mikael Backlund, as an example, was in the throes of the best hockey of his young career, before having all his progress derailed by his knee. His future in Calgary is as uncertain as it’s ever been, and that in and of itself is almost as distressing as the current injury plague.
But this is where we are. These are setbacks. EVERY TEAM HAS SETBACKS, and they cannot be used as an excuse, because there are other squads that get through it. The teams that weather the storm are the ones with the organizational depth to push them through.
This is a problem in Calgary. When a centerman goes down, an already glaring weakness becomes even more dire, and your only immediately available option is to toss Steve Begin into the lineup.
Steve Begin. Seriously.
But of course, he’s played in almost every game, because he’s on the payroll and in the press box and ready to go whenever you need him. He’s a backup. Very good way to think of Begin, as a backup.
Beyond that, you need to call kids up from the farm. And that’s when things get scary.
Ben Street is a perfectly fine hockey player. He’s got some offensive touch, a nose for the net, and is by all accounts a very decent playmaker.
At the AHL level.
In the big leagues, I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would posit the notion of Ben Street being the centerman who lines up betwixt Jiri Hudler and Roman Cervenka on your ad-hoc second line. Those two Czech Mates made Matt Stajan look good, so Street looks better in there than he should and he’d still probably reach some lofty benchmarks for his own personal career, but this is certainly not what Feaster and Friends had envisioned when they were prognosticating their lineup earlier this year.
And yet, there he is, playing 13 minutes a game (or was. Maybe predictably, Street has been sent back down to Abby, but it’s cool though because they recalled Paul Byron, so that should go great), on an impromptu first or second line with Jarome Iginla and Hudler. You could say between his admittedly not too terrible play and a scarcity of legitimate centermen on the big squad that Street earned his ice time, but I think if you’re willing to concede that, you at least have to acknowledge the bigger scenario at play here.
The top players on the Heat read something like the following: Street, Kolanos, Walter, Breen (and Barry Brust, but for the purposes of this exercise, he doesn’t count, despite the fact that he is still amazing and I want him to be my best friend). This is not exactly an intimidating list, and if you’re the GM of rival teams, you’re looking at your own farm system and thinking "well hey, it could be worse" (except Columbus right? Like they HAVE to be even thinner) While these guys have been capable AHLers, these are all borderline journeymen players, and if they ever had what it takes to stick in the NHL, they would have shown it by now. Roman Horak might be the only guy you would say you’d be comfortable with giving regular NHL minutes to, and even then, that would only be as a bottom 6 forward (although the definition of a bottom 6 forward in Calgary is a touch murky this season, isn’t it?)
The point here is what we’ve all already known: short term, there is no depth. There’s a lot of talent on the way, don’t get that twisted. Markus Granlund looks like he might follow in his brother’s footsteps as he’s showing the potential to be a serviceable NHLer. Tyler Wotherspoon continues to develop the right way in Portland. Gaudreauby Baker looks poised to become a star in Cowtown, but he’s still a few years away from achieving that status. The future looks pretty decent.
But right now, Abbotsford can offer you warm bodies, and that’s about it. If the Flames are going to navigate through these murky waters of organizational uncertainty, they’re going to need sound strategy, not a bolstered roster, to help guide them through.
We’re looking at you, Sven.
Here’s The Plan
Okay, so as it’s been mentioned, despite the record, your Calgary Flames haven’t been too terrible for a lot of extended moments this 2013. You’d hope the wins would have surfaced as a result, but hey, Two Broke Girls is still on TV, so as a result we can still say life is unfair. As Kent continues to note, the team is regularly outshooting the opposition, and the possession numbers look good. Winning a faceoff every now and then wouldn’t hurt, but there’s been a lot of bad puck luck and goaltending early on that has really put Calgary behind the 8 ball. Amazingly enough, the talent is there, it just needs to be coaxed out a little more.
Indeed, the Top 6 is not an indictment against the team. Hudler and Cervenka have absolutely been the best players on the team since making their debuts. Meanwhile, while the numbers are not being put on the board, Jarome Iginla has looked like a younger version of himself for more stretches than not this season. He’s still prone to the bone-headed defensive lapse, but on the good side of the blueline, we can be assured he’s about ready to notch a few G’s to help the cause. Same with Cammalleri. You can only keep him off of the scoresheet for so long.
Once both players remember how to shoot, they’ll be tickling some twine. And if not, they’ll keep dishing to Alex Tanguay, who has learned how to be more selfish (FINALLY) this season. To say nothing of Lee Stempniak’s regularly scheduled hot streak, and you have the makings of a capable goal scoring Calgary Flames.
The top 6 (through maybe 8), as a result, is more or less set, leaving your "energy" guys to play their role. The Flames have been employing something of a "Three Second Line" strategy, which is really cool, but it’s time to abandon it. Let the Hudler-Cervenka-Warm Body line get their scoring chances, let Iggy, Cammy and Glencross find their games while Tanguay continues to score. And then let the bottom of the lineup do the bottom of the lineup things. I think we’re all perfectly fine with any combination of Comeau/Jackman/Jones/Begin on the fourth line, remembering that it’s the fourth line and only all star teams have goal scorers manning the bottom trio, and well. it’s not like you can just go and trade Comeau.
And then, as much as we would all really hate to see it, you send Sven to Abbotsford. It’s cool, Tarasenko is winning the Calder anyway, there’s no reason to keep him around this season. There’s a good chance he’s going there when he gets out of sick bay anyway, but it’s really the best thing for the prodigy, and the best scenario for the Flames.
Before the injury, our hero was playing 5 minutes a game on the 4th line. While every other combo was averaging somewhere between 13-16 minutes a game, Sven’s line was getting mop up duty. That’s no good for the kid, even if he was playing with Blair Jones, thus making me giddy beyond belief as a result.
You would much rather have Baertschi be the best player in Abbotsford, pulling in 18, 19 minutes a game, getting better with each passing day instead of having him learn how to play hockey on the bench with Tim Jackman? He’s not in a position in Calgary right now where he’s being counted on to be offensive, might as well put him a place where he is.
And then he represents actual depth! I know it’s sort of a cheap workaround, but it’s still true, Sven becomes your go to guy when a player goes down with injury, and that way you don’t have to worry about how many minutes you have to give to Krys Kolanos, who just wouldn’t know what to do with them anyway. Sven is a guy that if one of your top 6 forwards went down with, let’s face it, another hip flexor, you would call Baerstchi in to pick up the slack and not worry about him getting the ice time of an elite forward. It sure worked last season when he was brought in as an emergency call up, there’s no reason think he can’t do it again.
Death, Taxes, Injuries, Cliched analogies. These are the only certainties in life, and it’s identifying your Calgary Flames right now. No one wants players to go under, but it happens, and teams figure out how to move on. Adapt or die.
So the Flames find themselves at a crossroad, again, where they may not be good or lucky enough to compete past 7th spot in the Western Conference (if that), and we are now officially beyond a feeling out point in a shortened season where points are at a premium. It’s time to gauge now what direction they’re going in, and how they are going to use the lineup they have. But it’s appropriate to state that no one is expecting anyone called up from Abbotsford to have too many goals hidden in their sticks to carry the load for the team. Not even Sven. If the team is to win games, everyone is going to have a role, and everyone needs to commit hard to it for the team to have success. If it means less goals for Iggy or Cammy, so be it. If it means spot duty for whoever the hell is going to backup Leland Irving, that’s great.
If it means sending an offer sheet to an incredibly available Ryan O’Reilly, the Flames should be doing that immediately, I have no follow up for that. (#offersheetoreilly)
Because he’s available, and he would help. But those prospects are slim, so the time is now for Calgary to sink or swim with what they’ve got, because help is not on the way…