1. An interesting question from an unlikely source
One wouldn’t normally turn to the Edmonton Journal’s Cult of Hockey blog for anything particularly enlightening about the Calgary Flames. David Staples is an unapologetic homer and thus everything he deigns to write about the Oilers’ southern neighbors is very heavily tinged with trollisms, as you’d expect. Which is fine, because you wouldn’t normally come to Flames Nation or any other Calgary-based site for the kind of unbiased coverage of the Edmonton Oilers.
Now that the tables have turned, and it is the Flames who bleed goals, the site seems to be reveling even more in every Calgarian failure. But in doing so this weekend, I noticed that they asked a pretty decent question: Where, exactly, does Calgary finish this season? The informal poll on the site, which got a little more than 1,100 votes from people you’d mostly assume to be Edmontonians, seemed largely skewed toward "very bad indeed."
More than 81 percent of respondents said they thought Calgary would finish somewhere between 26th and 30th, and they’re probably right. The 81 people who voted "In the playoffs" are clearly joking or mentally unstable, and either way need some serious institutional help. But it got me thinking: I’ve joked a lot about how Calgary is going to be the worst team in the league this season, but are they really going to be THAT bad?
You have to be unremittingly awful more or less from front to back these days to finish dead last, and there is more than one team that fits that bill this year. After thinking about it, though, I’d say, yeah I do think Calgary is in the running for 30th in a pretty clear three-horse race with Florida or Buffalo. And I think both of those teams have pretty creditable reasons why they won’t finish last. I’m not sure the Flames do. Here are a few reasons why.
2. This might be the worst forward group in the league
When you’re going through a rebuild obviously you are going to shed your better, older players to stockpile picks and prospects. I sincerely doubt the Flames are expecting anything much in the way of offensive production from the guys they got from Iginla and Tanguay and to a lesser extent Comeau and Bouwmeester, and they’d be right not to.
The problem with this is that the Flames finished with 128 goals last season, already below league average and right at the league mean. They lost something like close to 40 from the team last year, and I don’t know where they get anywhere near that many back. Even if you’re insanely optimistic about Sven Baertschi’s ability to score — and I’ve seen people predicting him for 50 points this season, which is crazy — the team’s only replacements for the lost goals were David Jones and TJ Galiardi, who combined for 23 points last season.
Matt Stajan has caught a lot of undue flak both around here and league-wide in the past two years, when he’s been perfectly fine (but overpaid and overprotected) for the role he’s been given. Now, though, he’s looking like the No. 1 center. You can’t be overly excited for that if you’re hoping the Flames score more than 2.4 goals per game or so.
This is a team built with "checking" forwards who are "tough to play against" but not tough to keep the puck against and probably not tough to score against. This is going to be a major point of concern. Maybe the team’s biggest.
3. A very, painfully average defense
It must be said that any blue line headlined by Dennis Wideman and Mark Giordano isn’t exactly going to inspire confidence, but beyond that, there’s TJ Brodie and his great experimental contract and…
This defense is patchwork or worse once you get outside the top-3, and the top-3 is already neck-and-neck with Edmonton for the worst in the division. You’re going to have to get used to the idea of seeing one of Chris Butler, Derek Smith, Shane O’Brien or Kris Russell getting close to or slightly above 20 minutes a night. Every night. All season. Does that make anyone else dizzy just thinking about it?
Giordano and Wideman topped 23 and 25 minutes a night last year, and someone has to replace the 25-plus Bouwmeester also received. That is almost certainly going to be done by committee.
This isn’t an outright bad defense, I don’t think, but it’s also shallow as hell, and if anything happens to anyone in the top-3 (say, underperformance or an injury) then this is going to be a catastrophe. Especially because…
4. The goaltending is anyone’s guess
Obviously this is the big question mark, isn’t it? What does Karri Ramo do in his first year back in the NHL? Boom, bust or right in the middle, no one knows for sure. Even if he’s average, though, you’d expect him to be in line for picking up a lot of losses. Not that he’s not used to it.
And if things go sideways for Ramo, which they very well could, the other options are career backup Joey MacDonald and the third- or-fourth best goalie in the Swiss league last season. Again, I think this is something that’s done very much by committee unless Ramo really knocks everyone in the league on their asses with a big season. That, like Baertschi’s first 50-point season, seems a bit of a pipe dream. If Ramo is anything better than average that’d be great for him.
Of course, this all ignores that the Flames’ goaltending gave up 32 more goals than the average offense scored last season, and its goalies were statistically the worst since the 2005 lockout, meaning that even if Ramo really tanks it he and his buddies might not be as bad as Kiprusoff and Co. was last year.
In the end, though, I think even a substantial improvement in goaltending wouldn’t get around to making up for the fact that no one on the team can hold the puck well enough to save this team from itself. Are they a 30th-place team? If, like, two things go wrong, I think that’s a very reasonable expectation.
5. You know what that means…
I really gotta update that.