Flames 2014-15 Season Preview: Pouring the Foundation

2014-10-06 20.17.25

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.

The Forwards

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. 

The Defense

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.

Goaltending

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.

Conclusion

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.

  • Lordmork

    Great article. One more season of drafting high, a shot at McDavid, and then next year the team starts to improve. Seems fair and tolerable and even exciting. I’m looking forward to seeing which kids can make it to the NHL and stick.

    That said, there’s a part of me that wonders if the team might exceed expectations. With the exception of Mike Cammalleri, it’s much the same team that was performing very well in the second half of last season and goaltending has improved.

  • Bean-counting cowboy

    The “window” to which you refer is something that has been on my mind lately. Do we push to accomplish something while Gio is still here, or does trading him become part of the solution?

    I have changed my stance on this as before I was in favor of an eventual trade. At 31, I personally think that in 5 years he can still be a good 2nd pair defenseman as part of a team that competes for a Stanley cup. What he provides in shelter and leadership for younger players in the meantime is invaluable.

    • Parallex

      I don’t think we try to force any timeline with respect to a single player. I think we move Gio only if Gio wants to be moved. If Gio likes Calgary, likes where he is with respect to his life, and wants to be here then so long as a fair deal can be reached we reach it.

      Gio strikes me as a guy who will age well. His best attribute is between his ears and you never lose that so even if he loses a step as he ages he’ll still be able to play. By which I mean he’ll be able to legitimately hold a starting six spot for a long time. And considing that I view the biggest future organizational deficit as the blueline that in and of itself is very valuable.

      • Jeff Lebowski

        Agreed. But like to add:

        -His best attribute is his competitive drive. I think it’s what makes him a star on the ice and dedicated (to fitness) off it.

        Gio is like a Tom Brady. When you have your best player also your hardest worker and most competitive guy – you hold on to those types for as long as possible.

        I think that with the ever increasing knowledge and emphasis on fitness, the old parameters of peak ages, when to retire etc have to be adjusted.

        I mean look at Chelios.

        Gio also comes across as quite intelligent, well spoken etc. He just fits so well with what it seems they’re trying to accomplish here that I can hardly see any circumstance where they would even consider moving him.

  • JMK

    Kids update:

    Kanzig and Carroll won 6-2 last night. Kanzig had an assist, -1, 2 shots and 2 PIMs. Carroll had a Goal, an assist, even, 2 shots, 2 PIMs. Carroll is now on 7 points in 5 games.

    • everton fc

      I get a similar vibe from Carroll as I do with Ferland, though in a much lesser role. Ferland is someone we’ll see up soon, and long-term. Carroll is another guy who can skate, has decent hands, can score some, and play w/grit.

      I like him.