I am currently in the middle of building a new home. We’re at the beginning stage, as pictured above, and it struck me recently just how apt an analogy it is for where the Flames are in their rebuilding efforts.
The first step is to dig a big hole in the dirt. Then, you pour the foundation. If that all goes well, you backfill, frame and finish the structure. Unless, of course, you’re the Edmonton Oilers. Then your build goes something like this:
The Flames are now entering the foundation phase. The hole is dug and what remains to be seen is if the organization can build something meaningful now.
In: Mason Raymond, Devin Setoguchi, Brandon Bollig
Out: Mike Cammalleri, TJ Galiardi, Lee Stempniak, Tim Jackman, Kevin Westgarth
The issue here, of course, isn’t really the additions and subtractions, which boil down to a series of lateral moves at best. The Flames aren’t a squad built to win anything this year. Compete, sure, as they did in their semi-heroic second half last season, but not contend.
The veterans added in Setoguchi and Raymond are more or less placeholders meant to lend some structure and respectability to the roster as the new foundation cures. Setoguchi, a late signing at a bargain basement price, is a decent buy low gamble who may become an asset of note if he’s able to recapture his 20-goal, 40-point form. If not, like Raymond, he’s another established player who ensures the club isn’t forced to install teenagers and hopefuls in roles they can’t yet readily handle.
The balancing act for the Flames is twofold this year.
On the one hand, they will need to sift through the existing assets and discover which of them are worth keeping around long term. For the kids, that means sorting through a whole host of bodies ranging from scorers like Sven Baertschi, Markus Granlund and Johnny Gaudreau, to support type skaters in Bill Arnold, Max Reinhart, Corban Knight, Michael Ferland, David Wolf, Josh Jooris and Kenny Agostino. Not every youngster is going to be able to break out owing to the numbers, but the goal should be to graduate (or disqualify) at least a handful of these guys so the roster is able to take a step forward in its evolution next year. The reason to watch the Flames in 2014-15 will be to see how the kids fare and if any of them can poke their head above the crowd*
*(ironic veiled reference to Johnny Gaudreau)
The same goes for the veterans, though the process will be different. The Flames will need to identify guys based not only ability, but career arc and salary demands (plus their willingness to endure a rebuild) as well. Curtis Glencross is the most notable of the pending UFA’s in question, though Jiri Hudler, Dennis Wideman, David Jones and Mark Giordano are also question marks – either because of their seeming obsolescence in the face of the rebuild or because of contract status by 2016.
On the other hand, the Flames must try to remain at least somewhat competitive despite the fact they are very obviously a favourite in the Connor McDavid race. The ease of icing a loser club is unfortunately doubly matched by the difficulty in building it into a winner again. In addition, even with low expectations, the scent of failure can cling to all involved if it hangs around – the longer the team lingers in the basement, the more difficult it is to both acquire and retain talent. So while the club is free to experiment and tinker in the shade of lowered expectations this year, the goal is to not dig the hole so deep that it’s impossible to get back out again.
In: Deryk Engelland, Raphael Diaz, Corey Potter, Sena Acolatse
Out: Chris Butler, Shane O’Brien, Derek Smith, Chris Breen
Like the forward ranks, a few deck chairs were shuffled on the back-end. Deryk Engelland was given too much for too long in part to ensure the club could get over the cap floor and in part because he was apparently the “good character guy” du jour in the UFA frenzy (meaning the Flames had to grossly overpay to land him). The good news is Engelland’s contract isn’t so long or so expensive ($2.917/year for three years) that it will prove to be an obstacle down the road. For an obvious available example, look no further than the readily buried Shane O’Brien and his $2.0M contract last season.
The names listed above are all depth defenders of varying quality; not enough to move the needle one way or the other for a club like Calgary. It became clear last year that the Flames badly need to improve their depth beyond the surprisingly effective duo of Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie. That remains true today, even if Dennis Wideman manages to somehow bounce back from his hideous season last year.
In: Jonas Hiller
Out: Joey MacDonald, Reto Berra
The one area the Flames made a legitimate improvement this summer is in goal. Calgary has suffered through some of the worst goaltending in the league the last two seasons, but the signing of veteran netminder Jonas Hiller promises to stabilize things closer to league average in the short term. Inked for two years, Hiller may be past his prime at 32 years old, but has an established record of above average save rates in the NHL. His presence – plus a potential step forward by Karri Ramo – could prove to be the one thing that keeps the Flames out of last place in the NHL.
This year isn’t about wins for the Flames. The goal of the season, however, should be to make it the last such season in Calgary’s current rebuild. The club has a short window to move some kids from rookie to difference makers while a few of the pillar skaters like Backlund, Brodie and Giordano are still around in reasonably close to prime condition.
In addition, the last time the organization made the playoffs was 2008-09, already five years in the rearview mirror. The previous and most notorious spate of ineptitude for the Flames was the young guns era, which stretched from 1997 to the Cinderella run in 2004 – seven years that seemed like an eternity for those who lived through it. Keep in mind, that version of the franchise was battling much longer odds in the form of a 65 cent Canadian dollar and Satherian spending by big money teams in the league.
So this club has both practical and reputational motivations to start climbing out of the basement after this season. For now, Flames fans are left to watch Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and TJ Brodie and dream of a success filled future, however far away it may be.