See: the previous year in review.
That’s more than a tab glib, but the truth is despite the change in management and other shuffles in the upper office, the Calgary Flames season was more than a little reminiscent of the one before it: the club came out of the gates slowly, sunk to the bottom of the western conference by Christmas and then rebounded just enough in the new year to challenge for a playoff spot, eschew any meaningful roster changes and then bow out of the playoff picture in the last week or two of action. A familiar script three years running.
So because of that – and the fact there has been no 2012-13 action to talk about to date – there’s little to discuss on the ice. At least at the NHL level.
Prospects and Managers
Off the ice, things were much more interesting. Jay Feaster had his first calender year as the organization’s GM. John Weisbrod, Craig Conroy and Martin Gelinas are now permanent parts of the management/coaching regime. Brent Sutter was ousted in favor of Bob Hartley. Chris Snow was hired as a video/new stats analyst and the team starting looking beyond the WHL to places like college hockey and Quebec High School leagues for prospects.
Perhaps the most notable news in Flames land over the last year was the rise of Sven Baertschi and Johnny Gaudreau, both 2011 draftees. Baertschi scored at a two point per game pace for the Portland Winterhawks in his final junior season and then managed three goals in three games during an emergency call-up with the parent team. There’s no question Baertschi is best forward prospect the Flames have had in at least a decade and that he would be plying his trade in the NHL right now if games were being played.
Gaudreau was the ultimate darkhorse when he was picked – the smallest player ever chosen by the franchise, his point-per-game freshman season turned out to merely an appetizer for his rise as a Boston College leader and favorite for the Hobey Baker award this year. Gaudreau is still very small and there remains sizable obstacles in his path to the NHL, but his rapid development since being chosen in the 4th round in 2011is compelling. Baertschi is the best prospect the team has seen in a long time, but Gaudreau might be the most interesting.
Of course, the main question in the hearts and minds of Flames fans is if and when the team will actively begin to rebuild. There was a sense the tear down may begin this summer after a third straight year of high payroll and no post-season action. Instead, Feaster more or less chose to stay the course by hanging on to guys like Iignla, Bouwmeester and Kiprusoff while supplementing them with additions such as Dennis Wideman, Jiri Hudler and Roman Cervenka.
So while changes swirl behind the bench and in the Saddledome’s offices, the stage was set for more of the same on the ice this season.
As mentioned in this space previously, the club is stuck in a sort of nebulous grey area from which there is no obvious escape; not bad enough to necessarily warrant blowing everything up and starting fresh, but not good enough to reasonably compete for a championship. The club’s primary difference makers are, to a man, past their prime. The roster is especially light on guys in the 23-28 age range. On top of all that, Jarome Iginla and Mikka Kiprusoff are entering their late-30’s and rapidly approaching the final years of their respective contracts, meaning there’s a non-trivial chance one or both will either fall off a cliff performance-wise or be playing elsewhere in the near future.
The DNA of the Flames has for so long been based on a model of "play Iginla and Kipper as much as possible and, uh, find some supporting players" that the organization doesn’t seem to have the emotional or intellectual wherewithal to deviate from that roadmap. At some point, though, the issue is going to be forced upon the decision makers one way or the other and that day looms larger every time the sun sets.
What the club does to prep itself for the inevitable change over will determine how successful – or how painful – the immediate aftermath of the post-Iginla/Kipper era will be in Calgary.
At some point action will resume (probably) and we will finally get a chance to see what impact additions like Bob Hartley and Dennis Wideman will have on the ice. The primary narrative going forward, however, is the enduring game of chicken the org is playing with a rebuild. The team won’t be able to spin it’s wheels as 9/10 club in the west in perpetuiuty, so the question is: will they be able to heave themselves above the playoff fold again? Or will they bottom-out completely and face an Oilers style reconstruction?