Chemistry Exam – The Flames Rebuild Begins off The Ice as Well



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(Steve MacFarlane is a veteran sports writer here in Calgary. Once upon a time he was a fixture at the Sun, but has since moved on to bigger and better things. We’re trying to add Steve to the permanent roster here at FN. For now, we debut his first exclusive piece for us today. Enjoy!)

By Steve MacFarlane

The Youth Movement. It’s about time.

While covering the Flames on the newspaper beat for seven seasons — from lockout to lockout — the team’s biggest problem became more and more evident each year. Too many veterans playing the latter half of their careers. Not nearly enough kids hungry to prove deserving of a spot in the NHL. That much was obvious to everyone.

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But it was a subtle side-effect of that lopsided mix of age and experience over youth and exuberance that I’ve always believed really caused the gradual disintegration of the team’s success on the ice: The players’ off-ice chemistry.

By the time the spring of 2004 rolled around, Jarome Iginla was 26. His best friend Craig Conroy was one of the older guys on the team at 32, but as everyone found out during that Cup run is one of the greatest social butterflies the world has ever known. Andrew Ference had just turned 25, Robyn Regehr 24, Rhett Warrener was 28, and their Scandinavian pals Miikka Kiprusoff, Marcus Nilson, Toni Lydman and Ville Nieminen were 27, 26, 26 and 27, respectively.

There was raw youth mixed in with Jordan Leopold (23), Matthew Lombardi (22), Lynn Loyns (23), Chuck Kobasew (22) and Oleg Saprikyn (23).

Some of the young members of that core were married or in serious relationships, but they still made efforts to get together as groups in Calgary. They flocked together on road trips in massive numbers for dinners, drinks or movies. These guys were more than teammates. They were friends. They didn’t want to disappoint each other. They knew they had something special and they wanted to win for each other as much as themselves.

After that unfortunate series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, head coach and general manager Darryl Sutter made the statement his team needed to get older and get faster.

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For Everything, There is a Season…

And they indeed got older.

Over-the-hill veteran re-treads like Tony Amonte, Jeff Friesen, Darren McCarty and Bryan Marchment were brought in at the expense of giving the prospects opportunity to show they belonged.

Those dinner, drink and movie groups grew smaller on the road. Good friends got traded away. Even the core group of players that hadn’t changed began to separate. There were more responsibilities than ever at home.

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Iginla became a father during the lockout in the fall of 2004. He’s since had two more kids. Regehr and Warrener — two of the more notorious promoters of fun after hours — both married and eventually started families, too. Accountability, over the years, became associated with life outside of hockey as opposed to inside the dressing room and on the ice.

It’s a natural progression. Priorities change, even if it’s subconsciously. You can’t blame players for having kids and growing up, but it’s up to the coaching staff and management team to make sure the chemistry continues by adding the right pieces to the mix.

So if the Flames have now finally realized they need to turn to the young prospects and watch them find their way together, I have higher hopes for the future — at least in terms of the chemistry in the room. With a little luck, that will translate into wins on the ice, too (although the Oilers have shown there are no guarantees there).


Already you can see a difference in the Flames locker-room atmosphere with guys like Max Reinhart, Sven Baertschi and Roman Horak getting a real opportunity to show what they can do. T.J. Brodie is thriving with his additional minutes since Jay Bouwmeester was traded away. The pressure of making the playoffs is gone, but for the kids, there’s still a feeling of expectation. They don’t want to disappoint. The others being shuffled from Abbotsford have to make the best of their opportunity. As does former Penguins prospect Ben Hanowski when his chance arrives this week.

“For us young guys, I think there’s more pressure now than before,” Baertschi told me after their overtime win against the Coyotes. “We’ve got to step up and be really good players. We want to stay here for a long time. We want to make their decision for next training camp as easy as possible.

“My goal is I’m not going back to Abbotsford. I did it this year once or twice. My goal is to show I can actually play at this level. The pressure is even higher than before.”

The more of them who show they should be a part of this team moving forward, the more change we’ll see on and off the ice. New dinner bonds will be formed. The young players will grow together as people and players, and form a new core capable of the kind of hunger we saw in 2004.

It takes time, but it’s worth it.

Recently Around the Nation

  • MacT named as new Oilers GM. I really love that the Oilers fans had the “well at least there’s a worse GM than ours” argument, and now it’s up in smoke.

    Replacing incompetence with drunken incompetence.

        • RexLibris

          I’m not very pleased with it, to be honest. And I am a fan of MacTavish as a player and coach.

          The bright side of this is that if MacTavish fails, and it might take three years for it to happen if at all, then Lowe will follow him out the door. This is likely Lowe’s last hire.

          So long as Howson is just responsible for correcting Morey Gare’s mistakes (pro scout), then I’ll tolerate him in management again. MacTavish is a smart man, and he called it correctly on players like Penner and Schremp. But he is going to be haunted by his “Toby Petersen is a lot like Joe Sakic” comment until the end of his days.

          Lowetide often uses the poker reference of the team having their Jacks and Kings in place, but shy the sixes and sevens. If anyone can spot a six or seven in the NHL hinterland, MacTavish probably can. I would have preferred Fenton, but we’ll see. I suspect that the next GM hire will be in Calgary in a little over a year’s time. Odds are the Flames will have a better chance at an upgrade, unless they default to Weisbrod.

          One note that I feel is worth mentioning, and this isn’t directed at you specifically, SG: we, as observers, often critique managers on how they come across as people. Ken Kings seems like a blustery windbag, Lowe like an arrogant jerk, or Burke like, well, Burke. But I think we also need to keep in mind that their personality does not necessarily reflect on their ability to locate and acquire hockey talent. It may make them intolerable to deal with, and annoying as all get-out, but these men have often climbed organizational ladders fraught with obstacles and opponents. That they are sometimes egotistical or arrogant may be distasteful, but not entirely relevant to their abilities. The same holds true for many hockey players. We love to cheer them on the ice, but as individuals perhaps they might not always be people we would look up to or wish our children to emulate.

          • Scary Gary

            That’s a good point regarding personalities. However, I would say the ability to both answer media questions and to construct a consistent message prior to a press conference is a pretty standard expectation regardless of the personality type.

            I wonder who is in charge of their internal communication/media.

          • Scary Gary

            I agree with your last point Rex, this is very true. Lowe’s ability to read and write doesn’t effect his ability judge talent etc in the same way that Bill Clinton’s life choices didn’t effect his ability to run a country BUT when you’re dealing with the masses in a public position it sure helps if you sound confident and reassuring. Perception is reality. Kevin Lowe is more George W than Clinton.

  • RexLibris

    Nice piece Steve… and welcome!

    Now quick somebody stomp out all this youthful exuberance and get back to the task at hand, losing. Another win tonight and we’re going to seriously start jumping over teams and our top 3 pick is going to turn into 7 or 8!

    Wow just watched the press conference in Edmonton… AWKWARD. Kevin Lowe can barely read… blamed winning all those cups in the 80’s on their struggles now, 30 years later. WTF? But then used those same cups to assure everyone that he “knows something about winning”

    • RexLibris

      Kevin Lowe is in the same class as Ken king, rude,arrogant and truly believes that he and only he possesses the answers.Flames gotta go hire Burkie now, we can at last get to see the Red Deer barn match. New BOA.

  • RexLibris

    moral of the story: a young team goes out for dinner more… so they play hockey better?

    I don’t want to poop all over the article, because I think it’s well written. I just also think it’s fluff. You could have written the exact same article and instead of chemistry, used “confidence”, “playing free of pressure”, “learning how to win”, “having fun out there” or whatever other cliche.

    • mk

      Hi mattyc. I’m glad you think it’s well-written, and sorry you think it’s fluff.
      You’re not wrong that other factors like confidence and playing free of pressure and having fun are all part of team chemistry (cliche as they may be).
      But yes, the moral of this story is that a team that hangs out together off the ice often makes for a better team on the ice.
      Having been in that dressing room all these years after the Cup run, it’s one area I’ve seen a huge difference in.

      • Vintage Flame

        Fair enough – as you say, you’ve been in the dressing room and seen all this stuff, so it’s probably worth reporting on. Having said that, I remain very skeptical that it makes much of an impact on the win-column. The new kids that have come in and changed the social dynamic in the room are the same ones that were struggling in Abbotsford. For an NHL example, we don’t have to look much further than the mess up highway 2 to see a young team that probably goes out for dinner a lot and still sucks (as you also alluded to).

        Thanks for the article – if it generates discussion, it was worth writing/publishing.

  • RexLibris

    This is an excellent piece.

    It’s absolutely true that environmental factors (as simple as whether or not guys even like each other) are, in the NHL (where skill differences are marginal in almost all cases) terribly relevant to individual and team success.

    This is the grain of truth in the “good in the room” BS. Well done, Steve.

  • Captain Ron

    Pardon me for being off topic but after watching the Oilers press conference I came away from it being thankful for what we have in comparison to that.

    Kevin Lowe was absolutely awful during that press conference. The guy could have at least tried to memorize his opening speech instead of hanging his head and reading it like a grade 6 student. Boy did he ever get defensive when asked tough questions. How pathetic is it for him to keep trotting out the “Only one other guy still in the business with more Stanley Cup wins than me” line when speaking to his qualifications for the job.

    Good article Steve. The culture change in the dressing room is happening starting now. The youth on the Flames is bringing the work ethic and enthusiasm that this team has so desperately needed for a long time. There will be some growing pains, and long stretches without a great deal of success but will be well worth it down the road.

    • mk

      No kidding. We’ll see how many he wins as GM and then compare him to the great GMs of our time. My bet is it will be hard to top some of the boys on the scene now.

  • mk

    Thanks for the warm welcome all. And yes, Ben Street has been sent down to make room for another youngster’s NHL debut. Should be fun to watch Hanowski tonight.

  • McRib

    Great article the Flames Dressing Room became far too much of a “Country Club” mentality the past four or five years. Family men Olli Jokinen, Jarome Iginla, Kipper etc. Lived the family life even going to church together and “collected a paycheck” playing hockey on the side.

    Look at the top talent/teams in the League…. (Toews, Crosby, P. Kane, M. Richards, Doughty, C. Girouix, Ovechkin, C. Perry, B. Ryan, Seguin, Subban, Tavares, etc) are all young players who have a serious amount of swagger in their lives and games, that creates an energy in the dressing room of which the Flames were seriously lacking.

    If I was an NHL GM I would never sign someone for more than three years, the minute they get that security they get too comfortable. There is a reason why players have sophomore slumps and huge UFA contract years!

  • acg5151

    As long as the Flames avoid Edmonton’s pitfalls by holding onto guys who can fit in on the bottom six in the future, and can draft better than the Oilers did, the Flames have a good shot at this rebuild. Realistically, I don’t see why the Flames couldn’t start clawing their way out of the basement in 3 years and maybe get really competitive in 5. It’s a while but hey, better than just being mediocre for the next few years.

    Who do you think the Flames will target in the upcoming draft, and who do you think they ought to go for? I’m thinking that they might be wise to draft Nathan MacKinnon if Calgary’s picking that high, which I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t be. Even if some other team wins the draft lottery and drafts Seth Jones, and assuming Colorado drafts Drouin since they’re already loaded on centers, I could see the Flames going with MacKinnon.

    • RexLibris

      My advice would be to take a centre with the first pick and if he is available with the 2nd pick perhaps Lazar, not as a center, but as an eventual RW. His game would translate well as a power forward on the wing and the Flames need some prospects on that side.

      The last one probably could be used as trade bait. Maybe see if they could entice the Devils to part with Adam Henrique. A centre depth chart that ran something like MacKinnon/Barkov, Backlund, Henrique and Stajan would be something to get excited about.

    • RexLibris

      If I’m the Flames I’m probably a little gunshy about making a mistake, so this draft I’d rather be fourth overall and pick the guy the top three don’t take.
      I don’t see teams passing on Jones and MacKinnon first and second (maybe not in that order). Barkov and Drouin could prove to be just as good in the NHL, though.

  • McRib

    Great article the Flames Dressing Room had far to much of a “Country Club” mentality the past four or five years. Family men Olli Jokinen, Jarome Iginla, Kipper etc, lived the family life and “collected paychecks” playing hockey on the side.

    Look at the top talent/teams in the League…. (Toews, Crosby, P. Kane, M. Richards, Doughty, C. Girouix, Ovechkin, C. Perry, B. Ryan, Seguin, Subban, Tavares, etc) are all young players who have a serious amount of swagger in their lives and game that creates energy in the dressing room of which the Flames were seriously lacking.

    If I was an NHL GM I would NEVER sign someone for more than three years, the minute they get that security they get too comfortable. There is a reason why players have a sophomore slump and huge UFA contract years!

  • Vintage Flame

    Good Stuff Steve.

    I have to agree with you on the whole inner-team moral boosting philosophy.

    You have been able to tell from the stands for years that this team’s cohesiveness off the ice was about as apparent as it was on the ice.

    I always found it funny to hear that the Flames would often try staying in hotels while still in Calgary as to mimic the group atmosphere that is on the road.

    I laughed because I wondered, what did it matter where they stayed, at home or on the road, if they didn’t hang together.

    James Earl Jones had a great line in that crappy movie, Best of the Best;

    “A team’s not a team, if they don’t give a damn about each other.”

  • Vintage Flame

    Great article Steve. Glad to have you aboard.

    “Accountability, over the years, became associated with life outside of hockey as opposed to inside the dressing room and on the ice.”

    This right here sums it up perfectly. “Accountability” Without it any team is just going to flounder around and play the game without having to go through a wall to achieve anything.

    Go back through history and look at the differences that took place when you added in a Tonnelli, Risebrough, MacDonald, and Gilmour. Along with moving out somebody like Nilsson because he had all the skill in the world but none of the heart.

    The “young guns” era was a classic example of an organization with no accountability. It had lots of excuses with the Canadian dollar, and veteran players leaving, and small budgets but the truth is that it lost any accountability to be good on the ice and achieve anything. That changed when Darryl Sutter took over and became the leader of the hockey team and demanded there be accountability again. As long as Darryl was in the room you had to be accountable in the dressing room and on the ice. When he moved out it was so the players could show that they had that leadership within and it was something they have not been able to develop.

    Moving out players like Iginla, Bouwmeester, and Kiprusoff have removed a certain stagnant level of complacency in the dressing room and have allowed the young kids to come in with passion and compete for a spot. I think that Cammallari, Stajan, and Sarich are probably going to help with the transitions for another year and be dealt at next years trade deadline. Though I have to wonder if Tanguay stays a Flame in the offseason because he looks like somebody that is deperessed because his best friend moved away and that friend was the only reason he was here. It is time for the younger player to start leading the team, start creating an identity, and start caring for each other and what happens on the ice.

  • Scary Gary

    Now that the players have “won the rights to single rooms” I wonder if that will change the comradery at all. I’d also be interested to know if teams that travel by bus (eastern) have more “off-ice chemistry” with each other than those that don’t.

    I definitely agree with the point that a team shouldn’t want to disappoint each other.

    • Vintage Flame

      Good question. I wonder that myself. There are some great shared room stories out there.

      There was a time when certain players would just physically pound on others who refused to give their best efforts every night. Those days are long gone.

  • Vintage Flame

    “The inches we need are all around us. I want you to look at the guy next to you and I think you will see a guy that will go that inch for you”.

    Great chemistry can come with those coming up “together”.

  • Scary Gary

    Watching that Oilers/Flames game was the first time I’ve had hope in about 5 years. That’s what youth provides, “hope.” It was also the hardest 60 miutes of hockey I’ve seen the Flames play since 2004. May ruin their draft position, but I absolutely LOVED watching that game.

    Teams that care about each other and socialize outside of work are better teams, for sure. Why the Flames (so I’ve heard) don’t do shared rooms anymore is beyond me. Seems like backwards step.

    Every winning team needs that “follow me up the hill” guy. I’m starting to wonder if a guy like Monohan might end up being the best of the centers from this draft when all is said and done?

    • Scary Gary

      re: Monahan

      Might be he will. I’m more confident in him becoming a great 2-way center (who maybe pots 70ish points in a good season) rather than a star, but there doesn’t appear to be much downside to him at all. Kind of like Couturier.

      He sort of flies under the radar in this draft, but he’s got a great skillset and he managed a great season on a truly horrific team. The only real worry is the birthdate, as he’s one of the oldest of the 1st year eligibles (along with Shinkaruk).

    • Scary Gary

      The shared rooms thing is a concession under the new CBA. Players want their own. Presumably so they can control the remote and avoid tredding on Dion Phaneuf’s dirty underwear.

    • seve927

      I was looking over the draft rankings this weekend and was wondering the same thing. Kent’s article on Gaudreau and % of team offense made me look back on the list with that in mind. Monahan had 78 points in 58 games, for a team that only scored 208 in 68. That’s almost 45% of the teams goals he had a part in.

      It made me feel a little better about the Flames sliding down the draft board anyway.

  • Scary Gary

    CENTERS CENTERS CENTERS!!! and dmen. That’s what the Flames need and, best of all, those are likely to line up with BPA in the Flames’ draft spots.

    I’m not too worried about the perceived lack of RWs for a couple reasons: one, because almost all wingers can play on either side; two, because several centers currently in the system (Jankowski, Horak, Reinhart) have spent significant amounts of time on RW, and another (Arnold) looks like he’d make a great one–and then there’s Hanowski, who apparently plays all 3 forward positions.

    As long as the Flames steer away from some obvious pitfalls (Kerby Rychel) and avoid overdrafting some players who are overrated for no particular reason (Curtis Lazar) they should be fine.

    On another note, I’m conducting an experiment on my blog, which would point to the Flames drafting one very specific player in the top 8ish. I won’t name names because I want to see if I’m cursed or something re: predictions.

  • BurningSensation

    Î just can’t see Monahan being a guy we land. He falls too low to be taken with our top 5 selection, and he’ll be long gone by the time the St Louis 1st (I’m betting it’s 19th overall) is useful.

    Aside from doing a package deal to move up (or, ugh, down), I just don’t see him being someone we end up with.

    My chips are all in for Barkov. Florida and Colorado will take Jones/MacKinnon, and Drouin is the next obvious guy off the board, which leaves us free to take Barkov.

    • Truculence

      Monohan will be gone by the 8th pick. Either he or Elias will most likely be available at 7 th.

      That being said, Monohan is a big, very effectivtwo way center with above-average passing and finish, while Barkov is a big center with elite vision and finishing, but is not as physical or efficient in the two-way game.

      Plus, too many guys are forgetting about Elias Lindholm. The guy would have been a top -4 pick in the preivous four or five drafts. This year he can be had at six or seven. European scouts are raving that this kid also has the potential to be a franchise center -the kind of kid you build around.

      In other words Mackinnon and Barkov are not the only elite centers to be had during this draft. Monohan and Lindholm may score fewer points over their careers than the former, but they are heart-and-soul players who perform very well in all 3 zones and still have the potential to put up 60-80 points a year.

      These guys may not score at the rate of a Stmakos, but are instrumental in winning the Cup because they drive possession much better than centers whose game is only elite at the offensive end. Give me a Bergeron over a Stamkos any day of the week.

  • loudogYYC

    Nice article, Steve. Welcome to FN!

    The Flames are about to enter a very exciting time how well the kids gel together will be a huge part of how well/poor they do.

    @RexLibris: I’ll be going to the Hitmen-Oil King series, what would you say is Lazar’s greatest asset?

    • RexLibris

      Re: Lazar

      Greatest asset? Not certain there. But here is a rundown of traits that I have noticed from the games I have seen.

      He can carry the puck into the zone with control, pass it to an open player then make a line right to the net. He tends to drive all of his play towards the proverbial kill-floor, those 10 feet in front of the net.

      He has good speed and is able to hold off a defender with one arm while driving the net and still get some height on a one-handed shot. His passing is decent to above-average.

      You may not notice him a lot defensively, but few forwards at this level have that game down. If he plays with Samuelsson, which is likely, watch them give and go. They will cycle and take turns cutting to the front of the net. Between the two, getting under the opposition’s skin is something of an understatement. Samuelsson is a jerk on the ice and Lazar plays a physical game.

      The best NHL comparable centre that I can think of, in terms of playing style and point-balance, is Jeff Carter. Not that Lazar has the same ceiling, but just in terms of size, style, and being a goal-scorer more than playmaker.

      If he is still around when the Blues’ pick is up, the Flames would be adding a very good potential winger at that draft point, in my opinion.

  • RexLibris

    Re: Monahan

    From what I am hearing here in Edmonton, Barkov is a player the Oilers covet with Monahan either just behind or tied with MacKinnon, in terms of centers.

    So taking that information to a Flames perspective, I think I would rank them thus: MacKinnon, Barkov, Monahan, Nichushkin (if he is a center, I’ve heard conflicting reports), Lindholm.

    It all depends on if the Flames draft 2nd overall or 5th overall. The good news is that if they do end up drafting slightly lower than expected, one can almost guarantee at least one reach pick in the top five this year. Some team will have Lindholm rated higher than Monahan or will take Pulock ahead of Nichushkin or something like that.