By: Sapp MacIntosh
Caveat: I follow the Flames pretty closely but emotionally I’m a little distanced after the ’04 Cup run. I promise not to write about the Flames too much, despite this being Flames Nation, and despite being a pretty hard-core Flames fan all my life. But I hate endlessly banging my head against a wall.
The reason I am hesitant to espouse upon the Flames is summed up in two words: Intellectual honesty. This is the phrase Jay Feaster used when asked to assess his sudden change of course, trading away Jarome Iginla and Jay Bouwmeester. In trading these two players, Feaster set the Flames on a course to ‘rebuild.’ This act signified an acknowledgement from management that the Flames’ horses couldn’t and wouldn’t be winning the Kentucky Derby.
Recognizing the Flames’ would be going nowhere was an important step. As Dr. Phil says, ‘you can’t solve a problem you don’t acknowledge exists.’ (I swear I will keep the daytime tv references to a bare minimum!!). This tells us about Feaster’s thinking up until this point, and I think one of several things must have been happening:
1. Feaster did know the team wasn’t good enough but lied to himself
2. Feaster did know the team wasn’t good enough but decided to rely on getting lucky and stumbling into the playoffs
3. Feaster did know the team wasn’t good enough but had incentives to keep the dog and pony show going
4. Feaster did not know the team wasn’t good enough and conducted himself accordingly
Now, if I’m being intellectually honest with myself, those are some pretty ugly possible states of mind for an NHL GM. Do any of these options give anyone a sense of comfort as to who is steering the good ship Calgary Flames? Do you want a man in charge who is incapable of being honest about the cold hard truth? Do you want someone in charge who doesn’t acknowledges luck plays a large part of success, but instead relies on it for success? Neither of these possibilities suggest ‘competent manager’ to me.
I think there is a pretty good argument number 3 is the true state of reality. The Flames are basically an annuity for the owners in Calgary. Ever since about 02-03, the Saddledome has been packed with people who have forgotten there was a 7 year playoff drought for the team (‘Young Guns’). The NHL is a business, and in Calgary, business is pretty good. The city is large enough to pack in 20k or so fans per night, and if you keep the team in the playoff race until the All-Star break or so, those fans have plenty of opportunity to be a little intellectually dishonest (or delusional) with themselves about the Flames true playoff chances. I think arguing that there is a financial incentive to keep fans in the stands is a pretty easy: keep your bosses happy, keep your job.
This raises the question of whether Feaster is really in charge of making Flames hockey personnel decisions. It has been suggested to me from various Flames fans that Feaster is simply a puppet for another person in management/ownership who is actually making the decisions. The puppet master could be anyone in the front office, from Ken King, to Murray Edwards, and I think this is a plausible theory.
The only particular evidence against Feaster-as-Puppet is the rumor that he left Tampa Bay being due to his frustration with the interference of management by Oren Koules and Len Barrie. Unfortunately, newspapers are dying so Canada.com no longer hosts the original story by Calgary Herald’s Scott Cruickshank. Many in Edmonton questioned, and still question, whether Tambellini was making player decisions, or whether Kevin Lowe was still the guy calling the shots.
I think now that we see Craig MacTavish making some moves which are distinctly ‘un-Tambolike,’ we can at least say Lowe is not making ALL the decisions. With the Flames, I’m not so convinced that we have seen a particularly distinct pattern emerge from Feaster as from Sutter. Darryl never seemed to invest all that much in the future, mortgaging it as he saw fit to plug current holes in the roster. I don’t recall many age for youth trades under the Sutter tenure, and until Iginla and Bouwmeester were traded we didn’t see any under Feaster. But with Kiprusoff on the last year of his deal, Iginla at the end of his contract, I think everyone involved in decision making realized that the jig was up in 13-14, no matter what. Iginla was going to be on his way out of town, and that was that.
An intriguing possibility is Jay Feaster simply didn’t see the Flames’ implosion coming at all, and in some ways, I think this is the most defensible position. If you can believe it, the Flames were 5th(!!!) in the League at Fenwick %, 9th in CF%, and just below average PDO, at 5-5 EV yet still missed the playoffs in 10-11, the season Feaster took over. That was an improvement over the year before, in which the Flames were a respectable 9th in CF%, and 14th in FF%. The Flames’ SH% went in the tank that year, and another playoff miss. Going into 11-12, you could argue that maybe the Flames aren’t that far off a legitimate contender. But the bottom REALLY fell out in 11-12, where the Flames beat only the Leafs in FF% and they were 26th in CF%. That is a BAD hockey team. Just awful. But do you look at the previous two seasons and say they were the anomaly, or do you look at the 1 season out of three and believe IT is the anomaly?
Now, 11-12 was clearly not the anomaly, even though I think the team might’ve been a bit better than their stats showed. But at least being fooled by the team the previous couple of seasons is at least a defensible mistake. But this is not the mea culpa Feaster produced for us fans. And even more distressing is his insistence that in the 13-14 season, playoffs is the goal. I don’t know if he’s looked at the roster lately, but there is a lot of necessary churn before this team even sniffs the playoffs. I think Feaster may still be being intellectually dishonest with himself.
Or maybe he just sucks at his job.
Either way: I don’t predict a real improvement in the Calgary Flames until whoever is making the decisions is replaced by someone who understands what it takes to win (find good players, keep good players), the Flames are going nowhere. Maybe that guy is Burke, although there are still real questions about how that addition will play out.