It only took about five years of faltering results, increasing budgets and doddering superstars, but the Flames flipped the page on the Iginla era when they finally traded Jarome last week. The quality of the return as well as the integrity of the process can be debated forever, but there’s no question it’s something that had to be done.
Not merely because Iginla isn’t elite anymore or because he may have walked away for nothing in the summer. Moving the captain wasa recognition by the powers that be that the recursive act of "building around Iginla" over and over, seemingly in a compulsive, ritualistic manner, was a fruitless strategy. I’ve noted here more than once recently that the Flames don’t necessarily need to tear the team to it’s foundation to start again: the renewal is more about changing how they do business in a fundamental way. Instead of erecting golden idols of former stars based on past glories, the team needs to search for new stars.
Let’s first establish that trying to leverage Iginla and Kipper’s star power wasn’t always a senseless strategy built on sentiment and habit. In Sutter’s early years as the organization’s GM he did an admirable job of adding complimentary pieces to the team in effort to contend. Langkow, Huselius, Glencross, Bourque, Hamrlik, Tanguay, Cammalleri, etc. were all acquired in an effort to get over the hump.
Unfortunately for Darryl and the rest of the franchise, the team more or less peaked in 2008-09, at least in terms of the depth and balance of the skaters. Iginla and Kipper had already begun the slow downward slide by that time (in fact, before this season, that year stood as Kipper’s worst in Flames colors), but the rest of the roster was as good as it had ever been, post-2003. It was goaltending and injuries (plus awful cap management – *cough Jokinen trade *cough*) that sunk the Flames ship that season.
Calgary never really recovered. Sutter and the front office became more frantic in their efforts to compete for the cup in the wake of that failure, which ultimately led to Sutter’s downfall and set the team on the path they currently tread.
It took a handful of terrible trades, some needlessly expensive rosters, four straight playoff-less years, at least two coach firings and a GM dismissal for the franchise to realize it had wandered too far into the woods to turn back. The hope now is the club doesn’t have to grope around in the dark for too long to find its way again.
I think a relatively quick turn around can be accomplished with prudent management and some luck. Even now while languishing at 14th place in the Western Conference, the team isn’t wholly devoid of good players and decent assets which can either be built around or leveraged to improve things moving forward. Examples:
– Trade off marginal assets as much as possible. This is something I wish the Flames would have done more often in the past. I’m looking at Sarich, Babchuk, Butler, Comeau, Cervenka, etc.
– Shop guys like Cammalleri and Bouwmeester who are unlikely to stick around past next season, but realize there is no impetus to move them immediately. Trade them sooner rather than later only if the return is worthy of the rush.
– Commit to improving the team incrementally (through a series of smaller good bets) rather than simply swinging for the fences all the time. The organization needs new stars to take the next step, but that doesn’t mean it should stop looking for good value in other places as well.
There are decent players and quality assets here and the Flames could have a decent nucleus, add to their stable of futures and move forward with lots of cap space if they play things right. On the other hand, as we’ve seen up north, rebuilds can become indefinite death marches of suck if done improperly.
So of course this can all go terrible wrong as well. I’m hoping Feaster can avoid a few common "rebuild" errors. Most notably:
– Ignoring players who aren’t considered THE SOLUTION.
This is the antipode to improving incrementally: lousy clubs in the first throes of a rebuild will often go whale hunting in free agency or lottery ticket hunting in the draft, to the exclusion of all else. As a result, they miss chances to acquire or re-sign decent middle-tier options who, if/when they hit a sort of critical mass, can help lift the club out of the dirt. The Chicago Blackhawks didn’t win the Stanley Cup simply because of Kane and Toews – they also had Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and John Madden for example. When Edmonton was shamelessly pursuing guys like Hossa and Heatley one summer, they let Curtis Glencross walk for nothing. Etc.
Although the frame and focus may be on competing in the more distant future, the club should nevertheless always attempt to make as many good bets as possible, even if a sinlge acquisition is unlikely to be the one that turns the whole thing around.
– Doing something for the sake of it.
It’s easy for fans and GM’s alike to be caught up in the frenzy of trading players for futures or to be so utterly disillusioned with the current roster that they rush to hold a fire sale. Disgust with failure or excitement about prospects can blind decision makers to probabilities or undermine their evaluation of current assets. Not everything the Flames have now is irredeemable refuse and only a small percentage of draft picks ever turn out to be worth a damn. Feaster and company should write that sentence on a chalkboard somewhere and refer to it whenever one of their vulture brethren swoops in looking to pick at the carcass.
It has all gone wrong for the Flames on the ice this year, but the lousy record is something of an opportunity if viewed from the right angle. The terrible record has forced the Flames front office to reconsider it’s basic assumptions and strategies, perhaps leading to a long required renewal. In fact, the lousy goaltending, which is a major factor in the Flames lack of success this season, would be a curse in almost any other circumstance.
Instead, it has tarnished the franchise’s idols just enough to convince management to move on and will likely deliver the club a lottery pick in what is considered to be one of the strongest drafts in recent memory – even though the collection of skaters probably isn’t "lottery bad". The Flames true talent level likely would have emerged over a full season, of course, but the lock-out shortened year may be another blessing in disguise.
With some savvy, opportunistic management and a bit of luck, the Flames could avoid the perpetual rebuild and rebound sooner rather than later.
Reminder – Tilted Kilt for Battle of Alberta Tonight!
Friendly reminder to join us at TK tonight to take in the Battle of Alberta. Originally we set this up because it was likely to be Iginla’s last game, but that train has left the station.
Instead, come by because the Flames are sitting in a win-win scenario: a loss means they are one step closer to drafting MacKinnon, Barkov, Drouin or Jones while a victory means they cripple the Oilers chances at making the post-season.
Either way, good times will be had. Also: there’s a jersey give-away, puck contests and beer specials. Come by even if you’re a traitorous Oiler fan living in Calgary…