Although nothing has materially changed for the Flames recently, it has nevertheless been quite the roller-coaster ride for Calgary fans and management over the last four or five days. Where ever you fall on the "blame Feaster" spectrum, it’s clear the failed Ryan O’Reilly bid blew up spectacularly in the organization’s face. Absent Chris Johnston’s revelation about the O’Reilly’s waiver eligiblity, Feaster and company are congratulated for the effort and everyone moves on. Now, the front office has to bury it’s head and ride out a public relations nightmare, hoping perhaps the team on the ice enjoys a winning streak and the entire kerfuffle blows over.
There is a strong element of politics to just about everything that takes place in the public eye and managing a professional hockey team is no exception. Although winning cures all ills in hockey, only a small amount of teams every year are actually elite contenders. The guys in charge of the rest of the middling or worse are left selling hope or managing perceptions in order to maintain their positions. That’s why GM’s tend to be overtly secretive with the media, publicly over-confident about their teams and players and generally dismissive of criticism. The PR paradox is: it’s essential to always look like you know what you’re doing, but particularly when your club is mediocre or worse. If you can’t inspire confidence with success, then at the very least you need to strike a confident pose.
Which is to say, the ROR affair is a black eye this management team could ill-afford given their club’s start to the season. Since taking over from Darryl Sutter, Feaster has consistently preached present-term competitiveness even as the club has run in place. With the Flames facing a 4th straight year outside of the playoff picture and its expensive core aging rapidly, Feaster’s sway over Calgary’s fans grows ever more tenuous. I argued in the summer that the team would have to make very real changes in its direction and philosophy in order to placate a frustrated fan base:
I’d say this summer is perhaps Jay Feaster’s best opportunity to make true changes to the direction of the team. The fan base is hungry for a new path and the spectre of Darryl Sutter’s reign will begin to dissipate with the ouster of his brother and so much money coming off the cap.
After this summer, this truly becomes "Feaster’s team" in the eyes of the faithful, rather than a stagnant club burdened with the mistakes of managers past. If the organization stays the course and runs aground for a 4th straight season, there won’t be enough pitchforks and effigy material to pacify the increasingly frustrated and disillusioned fans in town. What’s more, Feaster et al. wo no longer be able to point to Darryl Sutter’s madness as a reason for the failure. Ownership and the executives will bear the brunt of the backlash.
A very real change in personnel and philosophy and the franchise can effectively market the team even if they miss the dance.
The O’Reilly offer sheet could have been marketed as a very real step forward. Or, at least, a legitimate attempt at taking one. Now, it’s merely considered more evidence that the management doesn’t really know what they’re doing.
– The political aspect to managing hockey teams and the need to always seem confident and "in control" is one of the reasons NHL coaches and GM’s tend to be conservative and cleave to convention more often than not. It’s easier to defend common, middle-of-the-road moves than it is outside-the-box tactics, particularly when those latter sorts of gambles fail. I think one of the reasons I defended Feaster in the Ryan O’Reilly situation is I personally don’t want the resultant backlash to chill future creative problem solving from the Flames front office. As I mentioned in my previous article on the subject, judged as purely hockey move, the ROR offer sheet was the right one. I’d like to see more of that from Clagary moving forward rather than less (assuming they can also appropriate navigate the intricacies of the CBA next time, of course).
– Another thing I talked about in the summer was "asking the right questions", or the conventional ways in which decision makers seem to go awry in the NHL. One of the big ones was teams acquiring certain one-dimensional skills or "roles" for their team, regardless of the players ability to actually do useful things on the ice.
To illustrate, the Flames and Oilers recently acquired Brian McGrattan and Mike Brown, respectively. Neither is a legitimate NHL level talent, although Brown is probably closer to your average 4th liner. McGrattan is below replacement level and is strictly here to drop the gloves. Both teams are below water in the West and bad bets to make the playoffs. Neither will be meaningfully improved by the addition of such nominal talents, however tough they may be. In fact, Calgary’s 4th line will probably be worse at actually playing hockey whenever McGrattan is dressed.
In and of themselves, moves like this aren’t all that important. They don’t cost the teams much of anything and the guys in question usually don’t play enough to move the needle in one direction or the other. What it does signal, however, is that the decision makers may not be asking the right questions of themselves or their rosters, instead focusing time and energy on things that, at best, don’t make a difference (or make their team worse). It speaks to less than optimal processes in the machinery or structure of the management, even if the outcomes are mostly irrelevant.
– The Abbotsford Heat are starting to suffer from the roster attrition forced on them by the end of the lock-out and Calgary’s roster moves/injuries. Since the middle of January, they have lost TJ Brodie, Sven Baertschi, Joe Piskula, Danny Taylor and Paul Byron for extended periods of time. Barry Brust has also come back down to earth, so the goaltending that was propping up their record before has fallen away. The Heat have lost 9 of their last 12 games and are now the second lowest scoring club in the Western Conference behind the Hamilton Bulldogs.
Abbotsford is still in a playoff spot thanks to all the points they banked when they had thebest goaltending in the league, but that cushion could evaporate rapidly. If Danny Taylor rejoins the team in the next week or so and can continue to put up good-to-excellent numbers, then the club may be able to hang on to a post-season position.
– Last night was the second or third time this year Bob Hartley has purposefully and consistently sheltered Jarome Iginla from the opposing team’s best line. This time, he chose to match Glencross – Stajan – Stempniak with the Sedin brothers and by eye it seemed to help Iginla get along at even strength. On the other hand, it shows the sort of desperate position the Flames are in when the coach’s best option for matching the Sedins at home is Glencross, Stajan and Stempniak. That’s not an insult to those guys, but on a legitimate contender they are all third liners (facing other third liners).