We discussed some of the silver linings of the Flames collapse this season on Saturday, but today I wanted highlight and clarify some of the more noteworthy positives for the team moving forward. Let’s start with the fact that the Flames probably aren’t as bad as they seem…
Curse of the Puckstopper
Calgary’s near league worst record can be blamed on a number of factors, but the primary one is the goaltending. No collection of puckstoppers has managed a worse save rate than Calgary’s sad bunch this year. Heck, none of them are even replacement level. Kipper has played the most games (20) and hovers around .881 at even strength. To put that number in perspective, it is several ticks below league average and well behind his SV% last year (.928). Hell, he hasn’t stopped pucks at league average rate in any game state, ES, PK (8.13) or PP (.857).
Some of this you can put down as the culmination of poor management/planning around the goaltender position, some you can put down to Kipper aging and the team playing poorly in their own zone on a few nights, but a lot of it is a huge heaping of bad fortune. It was fair to expect Kipper to regress somewhat from his performance last season, but not to crater to this degree (or to get injured for nearly half the season to boot).
The effect average goaltending would have on the current iteration of the Flames is prfound. Even if we just apply it to Kipper’s 20 games played, the difference between his actual save rate and the league mean at even strength alone would save the Flames 17 goals (53 vs 36 goals). If we apply league average to all the puckstoppers for the entire year, the difference is (100-71) about 29 goals, which would theoretically be worth almost five wins or 10 standings points (and take their goal differential form -34 to -5). That wouldn’t make them a contender or anything, but it pulls the Flames out of the basement and thrusts them into the playoff race.
Finding average goaltending should be relatively easy in the next year or two. Even if Kipper decides to play out his final season in a platoon with Kari Ramo, there’s little chance the netminding will be this terrible again in 2013-14.
In a way, the cursed goaltending has been something of a blessing for the organization. It broke the spell of the Iginla/Kiprusoff era and prvoided an impetus for the decision makers to move forward. It will also likely deliver the team a lottery pick and perhaps the sort of talent the club can start building around.
TJ Brodie and Mikael Backlund
Usually when teams run aground like this, there is almost nothing in the organization worth talking about. That’s not quite true with the Flames given how their only pair of notable NHL youngsters have performed this year. Of Calgary’s regular skaters, Mikael Backlund leads everyone in terms of relative corsi (+10.6/60), while Brodie is second on the blueline (+6.9/60) to Dennis Wideman (remember that the kid played on the top pairing with Jay Bouwmeester before the latter left town).
Both players have performed well in terms of possession in the past, so this isn’t an aberration based on easy minutes or sample size. Neither guy is starting more often in the offensive zone nor seeing muffins, so their outshooting is real.
Starting out a rebuild with a couple of kids who can effectively drive possession already and who aren’t going to cost an arm and a leg to re-sign is good news. Backlund’s SH% has rebounded to 12.2% in 22 games this year, so there’s also some indication the kid isn’t destined to shoot pucks into crests the rest of his career.
There are other prospects to be excited about in the system: Sven Baertschi, Johnny Gaudreau, Jon Gillies and Laurent Brossoit, for example, but for now Backlund and Brodie are the skaters who have established that they can not only hang with the big boys, but move the puck in the right direction as well.
Lots o’ Cap Space
This is a topic we will tackle in far more detail in the off-season, but with the sale of Iginla, Bouwmeester and (probable) retirement of Kipper, the Flames will enter free agency with as much as $26M in cap space.
One of the key differences between this rebuild and the horror of the Young Guns era is the Flames now have the financial wherewithal to pursue and pay for quality plater. Probably no other club in the NHL will have the combination of cap space plus the ability/willingness to spend dollars like the Flames this coming July, which puts them in the catbird seat thanks to a dropping cap ceiling.
There are traps here if Feaster is foolish or imprudent, of course. The impulse to overpay marginal UFA’s with recognizable names might prove to be overwhleming (see; Ville Leino). Also, a lot of clubs will line-up to dump their junk on Calgary in an effort to clear budget room (see: Gomez to Montreal).
Still, all things being equal, it’s better to have cap space than to not. If the Flames void the obvious landmines they should be able to leverage their position both in the UFA pool and/or the trade market to add a few meaningful pieces.
The Stajan Resurgence
Because he was the "centerpiece" of the disastrous Phaneuf deal and because he was miscast as "Jarome’s next center" when he came to town, Matt Stajan descended into a punchline under Brent Sutter.
We were talking about Stajan as the Flames probable compliance buyout candidate as late as January of this year, but under Hartley the former Maple Leaf has proven he is still a viable NHLer. Stajan has faced the toughest competition on the team this year (!), but still has a marginally positive corsi which is all you can ask of him in such circumstances. I suspect to some degree it is Glencross and Stempniak (his frequent linemates) driving thw bus, but nevertheless Stajan certainly hasn’t been an anchor.
Matt Stajan has one more year left on his contract. If he can carry this performance forward into next year, the Flames won’t have to worry about paying him to go away. Instead, they’ll either have another viable asset to move at the deadline or the option to keep him around for cheap as a roster veteran to help the kids find their legs.
Three First Round Picks
The St. Louis Blues are all but guaranteed to make the playoffs now, so the Flames should have three first round picks in the upcoming entry draft.
Calgary has never picked higher than 6th overall in the draft and have never had more than two choices in the first round, so 2013 will be an unprecedented event on a number of fronts for the franchise. In addition, this year’s crop of prospects is rumored to be one of the strongest in recent memory, at least when it comes to the first round. Seth Jones, Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin and Alexsandr Barkov would all be candidates for first overall in other years, while high-end kids like Max Domi, Hunter Shinkaruk, Curtis Lazar, Ryan Pulock, Adam Erne, Kerby Rychel and Nicolas Petan (to name a few) will be available a bit later in the rotation.
With some savvy drafting and a bit of luck, Calgary can vastly improved their organizational skill level and depth in one fell swoop.
The one thing Jay Feaster did well at the recent deadline was avoid the compuslion to simply host a yard sale. I’m sure guys like Mark Giordano, Curtis Glencross and Lee Stempniak could have fetched a pick or two in return, but the truth is they are guys who are affordable, capable and will be able to provide structure and shelter for any youngsters who make their way onto the roster in the coming years.
To circle back to the first note on goaltending, the Flames aren’t nearly as terrible as they seem this year. Their fenwick close (possession rate corrected for score effects) this season is 19th overall (48.53), which admittedly isn’t good, but also isn’t awful. Clearly improvement is needed to make the club a contender, but things could be a lot worse as well. There is a foundation to begin building on if the team has the sense to keep all of the current good bits together.
All hope is not lost. The Flames won’t be challenging the Kings or battling for cup next year, to be sure, but they don’t have to be languishing at the bottom of the league for five seasons either. The difference between the 9th placed Flames of 2011-12 and the 14th placed Flames of 2013 is more or less luck and goaltending.
If management can successfully leverage their enviable cap position and collection of futures in this upcoming draft as well as fix the goalie situation, Calgary can be relevant again sooner rather than later.