The long summer doldrums will soon be at an end. Next week is the young stars tournament in BC (and yes, the Nation will have people accredited and in arena to cover it) and then shortly after that is rookie camp, main camp and the pre-season (yay!).
Prior off-seasons have been spent debating the organization’s direction, but this year the way forward was devastatingly obvious – like creeping out of the basement after a tornado has ripped your home from its foundations. There’s only one option left – to rebuild.
– On that note, I was recently asked over email whether the Flames are setting up Karri Ramo to fail or not. My more thorough response to him can be summer up as "probably", but I’d like to add here that the question is more or less moot. To put it another way, the organization learns a lot more if Ramo succeeds in spite of the roster in front of him. Given where the team is currently, it’s more important to understand Ramo’s true skill level, which is much easier to discern when a puck stopper isn’t sheltered behind a team that doesn’t surrender a lot shots or who scores a lot of goals (or both).
Ramo’s going to see a lot of rubber this year and the Flames probably won’t be outscoring their problems. His personal success or failure isn’t really a concern – the club’s long term success is. If, over the next two seasons, Ramo manages an average or better SV% even as the skaters struggle, it’s an excellent sign moving forward. If not, it means the organization will have to continue to hunt for an answer in net.
– Of course, I’m assuming Ramo is going to be judged appropriately by the decision makers (that is, by save rate metrics and not useless stats like "wins"). As I’ve detailed in the past on many occasions, NHL GM’s (and many fans) haven’t really determined how to accurately assess and predict goaltender skill. Some of the most irrational discussions I’ve participated in and seen have centered around goaltenders because team accomplishments and past reputation seems to have an undue influence on judging their abilities.
So in terms of Ramo, if he finishes his two year contract with an average save rate of .924, but an abysmal W-L record owing to the low strength of the club, I’d hope he’d be judged on the former rather than the latter.
– In addition, I hope the team isn’t going to search in vain for "the next Kiprusoff". Elite goaltending is great to have, but it can be a fool’s errand to pursue at times. If Feaster and company have that sort of goal in mind, it can make the perfect the enemy of the good. Cheap, competent goaltending should be the baseline expectation.
– Although this season is going to be interesting from a young player/prospect perspective, there actually isn’t a lot to be excited about in Abbotsford this year. Max Reinhart will spend of the his season there absent significant injury woes to the Flames, but the other exception on the farm is Markus Granlund.
Already a "veteran" of pro hockey after a few years in the SM-liiga, Granlund has plenty of skill and probably has the highest ceiling of any of the Heat kids this year. Of course, we don’t have any idea how well he’s adjust to NA ice (his more skilled older brother scored in the AHL but struggled hugely for the Wild last year). The goal for Granlund should be to play in the club’s top-6 and score at a decent pace (0.7 or more and/or top-3 in Heat scoring).
– The only other thing I’ll be keeping a close eye on in Abbotsford this year is the goalie battle. The Flames org has a lot of interesting question marks in Berra, Ortio and Brossoit poised to battle it out for playing time down there, so it will be noteworthy to see if at least one of them pokes his head above the crowd.
– We’ll do a full season preview for the Flames as things get closer, but here are the org’s key questions heading into the season from my perspective:
– Is TJ Brodie a legitimate top-4 defender?
– Is Sven Baertschi a legitimate NHLer?
– Can Mikael Backlund score at a reasonable rate while driving possession?
– Is Karri Ramo at least NHL average?
There are more questions – many more, of course – but the above four are the hot buttons for me. Backlund, Ramo, Baertschi and Brodie would be key building blocks if the answer is "yes" in each instance.