Monday morning breaks with the Flames sitting in 15th in the Western Conference, albeit with a few games in hand on everybody else. The California swing went about as expected, though they lost by perhaps a slightly wider margin than one may have initially guessed. I can’t even say the Flames played all that badly given the circumstances and their roster, but that’s the state the team is in.
A lot of Feaster’s off-season bets have fallen gently to one side or the other this year, but the truly team deflating gamble turned out to be the goaltending. Kipper has been both injured and terrible to start the season and with absolutely zero worthwhile redundancy behind him, the Flames puckstopping has been its undeniable Achilles heel. The rest of the roster has various issues, but there’s little doubt the club would at least be in the thick of the playoff battle with at least league average goaltending.
They aren’t, though, and with just 25 games left in the season there’s precious little time to right the ship. You can count on, well, no hands the number of teams who have crawled their way out of the basement and into a playoff spot with the quarter of a normal regular season to play in the modern NHL. It’s not over, but it’s over.
Meaning unless Feaster sells his soul and the Flames win the next 10 games before the end of the month, the club’s true priority should be the trade deadline, the June draft and the future beyond. According to Elliotte Friedman, Jay is still adamant that the Flames will not pursue a "tear down" rebuild model. Which is fine by me, depending on how the team defines "tear down". Calgary need not raze the thing to the foundations and trade every halfway useful vet at the deadline for magic beans. What the org does need to do, however, is get over the idea that Iginla and Kipper are elite can be ridden back to the top of the standings. These aren’t players to build around anymore – they are former stars nearing the twilight of their careers and need to be dealt with as such. If the club can’t be ruthlessly, brutally honest and unsentimental in this regard, I’m not sure they will be able to traverse the very rocky terrain that is looming on the horizon.
The challenge facing the team now is finding new stars. The failed Ryan O’Reilly offer sheet demonstrated (on a number of levels) just how difficult it is to get above average NHLers at or before their prime without drafting them. Signing difference makers on the open market is difficult (because they are rare) and often prohibitively expensive as well. It’s sometimes possible to trade for quality players, but then one needs to have the trade assets to make that happen. The draft is perhaps the only viable option left, the accompanying risk being destroying the team to the degree you can’t build it back up again, even if you draft new high-end talent.
So the issue for the Flames isn’t if they are going to rebuild or not – they’re going to have to, to one degree or another, starting very soon. The organization’s inability to pick and develop worthwhile players (my guess is no team in the league has less home grown skaters on their roster than Calgary) has led them to the precipice. The question now is: can limit the pain to a short-term Flyers or Kings-like rebound or do they completely run aground like the Oilers and spend 5+ years scrambling around the league’s basement?