A thorough season review seems redundant at this point – not only because we’ve been picking through the wreckage for several weeks now, but because this outcome has seemed inexorable for a long time. I titled my Flames season "Battling the Inevitable" for that reason and recently in the year-end roundtable no one admitted to being shocked by Calgary’s plummet to the bottom of the standings. It’s been prognosis negative for several years now and the diagnosis finally – mercifully – proved terminal this season.
The death knell to the Iginla era was a combination of the club’s fundamental flaws, the lock-out shortened season and the utter implosion of the Flames netminding. The organization’s insistence on banking on aging former stars as if they were still cornerstone pieces was inefficient and doomed to failure, but until now was always at least strong enough to keep the club in playoff conversation, although not actually contenders of note.
In aggregate the Flames were more or less the same team they were last year – the one that battled for 8th in the west and convinced Featser to add expensive pieces in the off-season – with the very important difference being in net. In 2011-12, Miikka Kiprusoff stood on his head and papered over many of the team’s galring issues. In 2013 he went the other way, putting up the worst numbers of any regular starter in the league. Feaster and company didn’t build adequate depth in the crease behind Kipper, meaning they propped a $60M+ roster precariously upon the single, wavering tightrope wire that is a mid-30’s netminder who was bound to regress from a high water mark. The competency and adequacy of this management group will be argued at length this summer no doubt, but I suspect one the gravest indictments in retrospect will be not trading Kipper for some sort of return last summer as his value crested a wave before ultimately crashing back to shore.
The best management isn’t merely reactive to disasters, it works preemptively to avert them.
Bob Hartley and Martin Gelinas were hired in the wake of Brent Sutter and, as predicted, a coaching change did not prove to be a panacea. Hartley did a few things right as the season went on – he was the first coach to dump Jarome down the rotation a bit in response to his possession issues. He took a liking to both Brodie and Backlund and he didn’t trust Anton Babchuk for a second. In terms of style and systems, the team didn’t seem perpetually locked in the restrictive and bland defensive-first, dump and chase brand of hockey Sutter retreated to in the end.
That said, we didn’t necessarily see anything overly unorthodox or progressive out of the new bench boss either. Midway through the year the Flames re-acquired Brian McGrattan, I assume at Hartley’s request, because for whatever reason designated enforcers (the NHL’s Tiger Repellent) are still seen as necessary and indispensible by many folks at the highest levels.
Hartley didn’t manage his players zone starts in any sort of notable way either. The Flames generated a paucity of offensive zone faceoffs at even strength this year for a variety of reasons and, like Sutter, Hartley more or less spread out the draws across his regular skaters without much predjudice (the only guy to be notably sheltered was…Brian McGrattan. A waste of offensive zone draws, but then one has to be brave to start out a goon in the defensive zone all the time too).
It’s hard to judge a coaching staff based on some 48 games when they suffered through a seismic shift in roster type/focus and battled through the worst goaltending in the league. My feel for Hartley so far is he’s a competent NHL level coach who has a decent feel for talent, but certainly isn’t going to work any miracles. He’s going to need the horses to move the cart forward, so the hope that a change in coaching was going to advance the Flames cause has proven misbegotten.
The Bright Spots
Amidst the deepening gloom there were a few pin holes of light. Mikael Backlund and TJ Brodie had undeniably strong performances despite the failure and disappointment that rippled through the roster. The emergence of both guys is represented and expressed by strong underlying numbers and not something more fleeting like a spike in shooting or save percentage. TJ Brodie in particular went from a promising question mark to an established, quality NHLer in the space of a few months, a development curve so steep I can’t think of its equal in recent memory, at least not in the Flames organization.
In addition, Sven Baertschi, John Gaudreau and Jon Gillies are the sort of youngsters the organization hasn’t boasted for a long time. We’re likely more than a few years away from any of those guys truly making a difference at the NHL level, but their emergence as legitimate prospects as well as the play of Backlund (24) and Brodie (22) means the Flames aren’t starting their rebuild entirely from scratch.
Of course, the most positive outcome from this season was the franchise finally admitting the staid and stagnant strategy of building around Iginla and Kiprsuoff was doomed to failure. The club’s inability to transition its former heroes to support type roles – both in fact and in sentiment – as they drifted past their primes was the ultimate cause of the Flames falling out of the ranks of the league’s contenders.
Moreover, the constant insistence by Calgary’s management until now to pretend otherwise extended the pain and deepened the problems, resulting in ever more expensive (and less efficient) rosters and eroding asset values. A couple of seasons ago, it was rumored the Kings offered a first round pick, Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn for Jarome Iginla (a package that ultimately landed them Mike Richards). Last month, Jay Feaster traded Iginla for a late first round pick and two prospects most of the Pittsburgh fanbase had never heard of.
However slowly, though, the band-aid has finally been torn off. The
heeling healing can finally begin.
The Blank Cheque
Jay Feaster’s tenure as Calgary’s GM has been difficult to judge overall. Individual moves have been arguable as good or bad along the way, but the erswhile Lightning executive has more or less been labouring under the long shadow of the previous regime, more or less tinkering with Darryl Sutter’s patchwork legacy roster.
That burden is gone this summer. Jay Bouwmeester, Jarome Iginla and (likely) Miikka Kiprusoff have moved on, and with them their giant cap hits and whatever lingering remnants of the 2004 Stanley Cup run that loomed over this organization for so long as both touchstone and curse.
Gone are the various restraints left by Darryl Sutter’s descent into madness but so too are any plausible excuses that could be employed to shelter Feaster and company from criticism. In addition, Calgary’s management boasts three first round picks and more than $20 million in cap space to spend. An embarrassment of riches compared to just about any other off-season in the team’s history, but also a stiff test for the intelligence and prudence of this front office. Even the modern NHL, bound by the restcitions of a salary cap, is replete with examples how easily a fool and his money are soon parted.
A big budget and impetus to spend it has proven an overwhelming temptation for more than a few GM’s over the years (Dale Tallon and Dacry Regier/Terry Pagula are recent examples) so even as the Flames wander into unknown territory with a purse full of gold coins, they will have to be careful not blunder into a clutch of brigands or a clever conman on their new path.
For good or ill, the summer of 2013 could prove to be one of the most important off-seasons in the Flames history. The club is facing a period of both unprecedented change and opportunity, so what the decision makers do here will mean the beginning of a new era of either prosperity or futility. The results of the Flames 2013 season weren’t notable or important in and of themselves, but the repercussions for those outcomes may well be felt for years to come.
Don’t forget to play StreakCred the new playoff pool game from the Nation Network. You can win a trip for 2 to Oktoberfest in Germany among the awesome prizes up for grabs. Only $20 and a portion of the proceeds go to Edmonton Charities.
Sign up here.