I think one of the big mistakes by rebuilding teams is to concentrate solely on draft picks and big whale hunts. Improving a team can also be done in smaller, incremental steps by making a series of good bets like buying low on the Froliks and Burmistrovs of the world.
I left that in a comment yesterday, but I think I should expand on it further since the idea could use some clarification.
As we’ve discussed previously, when hockey fans think "rebuild", they seem to think of the "scorched earth" variety where the organization simply liquidates any and all worthwhile assets over the age of 25 in an effort to gather draft picks and also be bad enough to finish in the lottery.
Although I have been a vocal advocate of trading guys like Iginla and Kipper for a couple of years and admit the Flames org needs to improve its prospect base and find new cornerstone players, I am also adamantly opposed to purposely clear-cutting the roster and drifting to the bottom of the standings. In this, at least, I agree with Flames management.
The guiding principle for any NHL GM should be to find good players. More accurately, it’s to make good bets on players given their age, perceived value and contract. This principle, if followed correctly, will lead to a quality roster and success in the long-term. Although a GM’s short-term priorites might change depending on how close or how far his team is from contending, the need to identify and retain good players is axiomatic in hockey management.
*"Good", of course, is an on-going subject of debate amongst fans and decision-makers alike. We’ll assume a well understood, universal standard for the purposes of this discussion.
The Flames current reality is they have aging stars on expiring contracts, are not a true contender to win anything and have a lackluster prospect base from which to draw. Over the next 12 months, they will have the option to sell former star/cornerstone pieces like Jarome Iginla, Miikka Kiprusoff, Mike Cammalleri and Jay Bouwmeester to improve their stock of futures and leverage assets that are either depreciating rapidly or unlikely to stick around. These are guys a high-end contender might be tempted to hang on to in an effort to press for a cup (although I would argue a well run organization would consider moving them anyways), but that’s not in the cards for Calgary.
The common error at this juncture for some rebuilding teams, I think, is to throw the baby out with the bath water so to speak. On top of moving Iginla and Kipper, a scorched earth advocate would probably sell off Giordano, Stempniak, Glencross and Hudler, pick-up some draft picks and kids and watch the lottery tickets roll in. Getting the next "face of the franchise" or superstar often becomes a fixation for bad teams who are actively rebuilding, sometimes to the exclusion of all else. The Edmonton Oilers over the last 5 years are more or less an object lesson on how not to rebuild correctly – for example, they spent more than one summer engaging in fruitless whale hunts for the likes of Marian Hossa, Dany Heatley, Nikolai Khabibulin and Thomas Vanek, but have failed to retain, acquire or develop a meaningful collection of support players behind all of their showy draft picks. Which is why they still kind of suck despite boasting the likes of Eberle, Hall, Yakupov and Nugent-Hopkins.
Over that period, the club lost quality guys like Curtis Glencross, Kyle Brodziak and Raffi Torres, either to free agency or for magic beans. This deterioration was also accelerated by the Oilers continued obsession with "toughness" and collecting marginal ruffians to patrol the bottom end of the roster to "protect the kids" instead of actual NHL-level talent.
There’s no question the Flames will also have to go looking for new stars in the coming seasons, whether they retain Iginla and Kipper or not since neither guy is at the point in his career where he can carry the team. However, that priority need not override the guiding principle of finding or keeping other good players, even if they aren’t quite the difference makers the team needs so desperately. A universal truth of great teams in the NHL is they boast both elite players and quality roster depth and that both are essential to contend. Poorly run clubs and teams with limited budgets are typically those unfortunates that are stuck on the eternal treadmill of trading one for the other in an effort to get over the hump.
short version: even as the Flames enter a rebuild mode (whether the management calls it that or not) they shouldn’t stop making good bets on players at all levels of the roster. The goal should be to improve the team at all times, whether that be by hitting a homerun at the draft or simply knocking a single down the line. To extend the baseball analogy – you improve your chances of scoring by having as many runners on base as possible.
To take this out of theoretical, here’s how things would probably work for the Flames over the next 12 months if I was in charge:
– Auction off Jarome Iginla for package of picks/prospects and a roster player(s)
– Investigate market for Roman Cervenka, Anton Babchuk, Cory Sarich, Chris Butler, Blake Comeau and Matt Stajan
– Move Cervenka and company for anything, but retain Stajan in absence of worthwhile offer
– Look into asking prices for Burmistrov, Grabovski, Couturier, Frolik and Gardiner
– Investigate market for Kiprusoff at draft. Trade him if quality offer emerges, keep if not
– Target UFAs like Alex Semin, David Clarkson, Damien Brunner, Patrik Elias, Viktor Stalberg, Nathan Horton, Clarke MacArthur, Val Filppula, Chris Higgins, Ryane Clowe, Ladislav Smid and Stephen Weiss, depending on availability and price
– Avoid overpays and long-term deals, however
– Re-sign Mikael Backlund and TJ Brodie for 3+ years each
– Sign Karri Ramo
– Re-sign Lee Stempniak half way through year for 3 years at reasonable raise if performance is close to current levels
– Investigate Jay Bouwmeester’s willingness to stay with team at approximately $4M/year for 4 years or less. If interest level is low, auction him off at trade deadline
– If Kiprusoff is still with team, trade him at deadline
– Investigate Cammalleri’s interest in staying with team at $3.5M/year for two years. If low, auction him at the deadline with Kipper and Bouwmeester
– Investigate market for Stajan if he’s still with the team. Ditto Derek Smith
– Gauge Alex Tanguy’s performance/decline. Determine whether to keep or trade at deadline
The above would be my roadmap for the team, assuming no unforeseen changes, speed bumps or opportunities. In this scenario, the club leverages certain expiring assets, some of which should bring decent enough returns while others might get you middling prospects or picks. However, the club is still actively pursuing other decent options from the UFA market and retaining good bets from within the org as well.