I had a look at the Flames depth chart the other day.
I thought the situation for this season was going to be grim going into October. In fact, I was pretty sure that Feaster was positioning the team for a top-five pick in this year’s draft deliberately. The quote from the Calgary Flames’ website the other day about his perception of the talent available in the 2013 free-agent crop seemed to be sane, realistic and arguably backed up this belief.
“At our meeting with ownership on May 9, we presented a preliminary list of unrestricted free agents at that time,” Feaster said, according to the team’s website. “One of the things we said to ownership was that we didn’t believe the answers to our problems, our situations, our needs were necessarily going to found in unrestricted free agency.”
Then I looked at their roster situation and depth chart and I had to laugh. The kind of laugh that comes out unbidden, when you see someone quite serenely and soberly walk into a calamity of their own volition, and it would appear to be the most natural thing in the world, except that it has everyone around them looking and thinking "what the-?!"
In the Deep End
The current depth chart for the Flames at center, according to capgeek, begins with Matt Stajan, moves on to Mikael Backlund, and then progresses (regresses?) to Blair Jones. Corban Knight appears set to take over as a 3rd or 4th line center, but he has never played an NHL game and with Sean Monahan coming in this year (a prospect whom I was hopeful the Oilers could select) this could result in the Flames dressing two rookies at center along with a developing 2nd line center in Backlund and perennial whipping boy Matt Stajan.
I shouldn’t have to tell you that that is not a good thing.
The wings offer Calgary’s one hope for fighting chance this season, but this is where the story takes another twist and leads to the heart of the matter.
Of the top-six wingers currently on the team, four arguably have the distinction of being considered bona fide top-six talents: Glencross, Hudler, Cammalleri and Stempniak. Cammalleri is over 30 now and his production is likely to decline (if he isn’t post-apex, he can at least see it from here), and Stempniak is a prototypical depth winger. Scott Cullen has a terrific review of NHL rosters every off-season and includes a rating system for forwards. Stempniak makes the cut for a top-six forward just barely. On top of this, these same two wingers are pending UFAs at the end of this season. This is arguably the good news, as it means that the opportunity exists for the Flames to move both for picks or prospects at the deadline and rid themselves of two players who no longer fit the needs of the team.
However, this leads into the other free-agents-to-be for the Flames. This coming season Chris Butler, Kris Russell and Derek Smith are all set to become unrestricted free agents. None of those are crippling losses for the roster as they are all 3rd pairing blueliners. However, it does bring attention to an oft-overlooked weakness of the Flames organization: a dearth of prospects on the blueline. Here we get into the real crux of this article.
Kent Wilson has summed up the Flames development system in a very concise and accurate fashion before by simply saying "they need everything". This was prior to the 2013 draft, but still it could be considered to generally be true. Yet there are some areas that are more pressing needs than others.
To demonstrate, let’s run a scenario.
If we were to assume that the Flames lost all three of those players listed above to free-agency, something I think is unlikely given Jay Feaster’s penchant for offering contract extension to blueliners early in the season (see Sarich, Cory), it would mean that the team is almost certain to pursue at least two of those three positions through free-agency next summer.
There are very few internal options ready to step in and play at the NHL level right now.
Mark Cundari did have a short spell at the end of last season, and by eye performed well enough to give him another chance this coming year. However, it would be rash to expect him to graduate to a 3rd pairing NHL job next season this early in his development. There is also the towering Chris Breen who has been a top-4 guy in Abootsford for a couple of years. Breen could be a bottom pairing option if his lack of mobility and puck skills aren’t too crippling. Fans have hopes for Tyler Wotherspoon, but at this point we don’t know what kind of pro he might be.
At the same time there is nothing to suggest that there would be significantly better options available through free-agency next summer. The end result is that the Flames may let some free-agents go only to replace them with statistical dopplegangers who do not move the dial. Without internal options to improve, and with the roster built such as it is, it becomes highly unlikely that the best free-agents would choose to sign in Calgary until the team is competitive, it is difficult to project a scenario that seems marked improvement in this area either this season or next.
Now bottom pairing defensemen are generally cheap, so this isn’t meant to suggest that the sky is falling. But it is a symptom of a larger problem within the organization.
For the most part, I don’t have a great deal of faith in Hockey’s Future prospect rankings. Where I do find them useful is in how they can provide all of the names of prospects broken into forward, defense and goal positions. The Flames are currently listed with seven defensive prospects in their system. If we account for the general rate of attrition amongst prospects, that would mean that one of those bodies is likely to become an NHL player. And that excludes the higher rate of lost prospects amongst defensemen due to injury.
Of all the names on the Flames’ list of blueliners developing, I’d put money on Wotherspoon at this stage. He’s made it this far. Sieloff has come along well, and Cundari has already played some NHL games, but it is a long, long way from prospect to player.
The only other area in which the Flames are more desperate for prospects, warm bodies even, would be at Right Wing. Presumably the organization felt that this position was more or less taken care of for the foreseeable future when #12 was on the roster. Today, they have four names listed as RW prospects: Greg Nemisz, David Eddy, Ben Hanowski, and Tim Harrison, although left shooting Emile Poirier can apparently play both wings. Of those, Hanowski is closest to the NHL and will begin his first full professional season this year, likely in the AHL. Nemisz and Eddy are AHL-level talents and Harrison was a 6th round pick this past draft.
Wing is a difficult position to nail down as some players can switch sides, however for the most part a player has a clear preference or competence for one side or the other. Either way, RW is an area in which the Flames would be well-advised to spend some time acquiring and developing prospects or younger players at least.
The Flames have one area of prospect development that is brimming with bodies: goaltending. However, as has been discussed here at FN, that is also one of the least efficient areas of development in which to invest. The percentage of players who turn into useful NHL guys is notoriously small, and when taken in conjunction with the almost voodoo-like methods of discerning goaltending talent amongst prospects, it is a stock portfolio heavily leveraged in lottery tickets. If it pays off, you’re set. If not…
But What Comes Next?
So the Flames have a shortage of NHL-tested centers for this coming year (nothing new), a paucity which may force or entice the team to push recent draft Sean Monahan into service. The club is also heavy with wingers whose best-before date is quickly approaching or whose ceiling is well-below elite and are set to become free-agents, a shortage of internal options with which those roster spots can be replaced, and a defense corps that is set to lose marginal supporting players to free-agency thus raising the even-more-terrifying specter of re-signing those players to retain some semblance of an NHL roster, with no obvious TJ Brodie-like internal replacements on the horizon.
But what might be the bright side of this situation? There is a concept known as creative destruction, highlighted in the book "Why Nations Fail" by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, which can be defined as the opportunity which arises from the collapse of a system, leading to the creation of an innovative and adaptive new system in its wake. For the Flames, the collapse of their previous roster paradigm – centered around Jarome Iginla, Jay Bouwmeester and Miikka Kiprusoff – has already occurred and a new one is waiting to be established.
It should be noted that the collapse of an institution or system does not inherently demand the creation of a new one to take its place. A vacuum can exist following such a collapse, with no new paradigm or structure emerging to take its place. In NHL terms, this would be those teams who wander the proverbial desert.
For the sake of argument let us assume that the roster holes that exist today will be filled with upgrades, even minor ones, via trade and free-agency, the alternative is the status quo and as much as that has been the norm over the past few years for the Flames, it almost certainly will not be so any longer.
If the Flames address their pending roster holes (on the wings and the 4,5,6,7 slots on the blueline) through free-agency they must run uphill to attract quality, impact players who will improve the team by their mere addition. A difficult sell when the team had a fighting chance, now that they are rebuilding this is a virtual impossibiity. An alternative is that they will have to settle for the second-tier UFAs who can, at the very least, sustain the team and help support those players already there as they continue to develop.
The latter is the option that I believe is most feasible and will be the most desirable in the long-term as it will allow the team to come to rest in its most natural setting and draft accordingly. Thus creating an opportunity for value-added restructuring through improved draft position.
Crafting A Solid Foundation
The Flames have begun to assemble a collection of prospects around which the team intends to build. Statistically speaking, of the past three drafts, it would be reasonable to expect that the Flames will graduate approximately two impact to elite-level NHL players and three to four NHL players at or slightly above replacement level over the next five years.That is in total, not on a per/year basis, for the draft years extending from 2011 to 2013, and obviously this is based solely on those prospects currently enlisted.
Based on that rough projection, and factoring in a rate of attrition with an older roster and impending free-agents coming due over the next three seasons (nine in 2013-14, four in 2014-15, and three in 2015-16) that would require the Flames to graduate an astonishing number of rookies into their NHL roster over the next few years. Upwards of four or five next season, though declining after that. Simply put, their current development system and talent pool does not support this level of elevation.
Obviously this won’t happen and they will try to augment this roster need by re-signing some free-agents and acquiring new ones. I’m leaving out trade possibilities because it is impossible to predict.
The rebuilding of the Calgary Flames is currently focused on their drafting and development. However, management has shown a willingness, eagerness even, to pursue trades as a means of adding prospects further along in their development than those currently available.
Regardless of the team’s record in either of these departments, the former is the most enticing and ultimately promising area of franchise expenditure. Draft picks are a renewable asset with an historical rate of return – depending on position – and, when handled properly, offer a cheap influx of talent on an almost annual basis.
The rebuilding effort underway in the Flames organization today begins, correctly, with the drafting and developing of a core of players. However, there are several areas of development and multiple factors at play simultaneously. Free-agency, recognizing and re-signing important depth pieces of the roster, leveraging current assets to support the larger long-term goal, and establishing a balance within a poorly maintained talent pool are all requirements. The task ahead would be like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube by moving all sides at once.