Five things: What you need to compete

1. Let’s talk about it

Last week I inadvertently set off yet another fire storm by having the audacity to suggest the Flames’ winning ways weren’t well-founded in “The Process” that successful teams actually have when it comes to winning over 82 games or more. I seem to recall that a lot of people suggested the Flames are closer than I think to being a competitive team in the NHL.

I wonder two things about this:

a) How one defines “competitive.” 

(Because to me merely getting into a playoff for which eight of 14 teams in a conference end up qualifying doesn’t really do much to make you actually competitive. Your mileage may vary on that, I guess, but if I’m a fan of any team I’d rather see them finish 30th than 16th or whatever. If you’re not competing for a Cup, you’re not competing for anything worthwhile. Lots of teams make the playoffs and lose in the first round. They’re called “The Calgary Flames 2005 to 2009.”)

b) What makes people think that’s the case.

That second one is what’s of greater interest to me, but I think it’s pretty apparent that the Flames are miles away from having what it takes to be true Cup contenders. The needs they have supersede the few admittedly very good building blocks already under contract.

They say — over and over again — that the NHL is a copycat league. What people generally mean when they say that, though, is that teams copy each other’s styles. Bruins win the Cup, everyone tries to get tough. Kings win the Cup, everyone tries to get big. And so on. It never really works out for teams that push all in on any one strategy in that regard, but that doesn’t stop anyone.

But it is a copycat league insofar as the recipe that teams in the salary cap era have used to win the Cup really doesn’t change very much year-to-year. I’ve long had my own theories about what makes a team a reasonable bet to win the Cup every year, and I think they hold a lot of water. Not that they’re groundbreaking or anything, but go back and look at any legit Cup contender of the last decade or so and you see the same characteristics over and over.

And while slight shortfalls in one area can be more than made up by excesses in the others — and you’ll see what I mean in a minute — the last four or five years have really settled into a nice rhythm in this regard. (It also goes without saying that you need a good coach and good supporting cast and blah blah blah, but the farther down you get in the lineup, the less you need guys who are high-level at those positions. You don’t need The Best Fourth Liners In The NHL or anything.)

Here’s what you need…

2. Elite No. 1 center

It goes without saying that you need an elite center to win the Stanley Cup. The Kings and Blackhawks of the last five years have had Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews, respectively. The Bruins had Patrice Bergeron. The Penguins had Sidney Crosby. The Red Wings had Pavel Datsyuk, the Ducks had Andy MacDonald(???), the Hurricanes had Eric Staal.

At the time they hoisted those Cups, those guys were among the five or six best centers in the sport, with the obvious exception of MacDonald. But he was riding shotgun for a 94-point, 48-goal season from Teemu Selanne back in ’07 (meanwhile the team’s No. 2 center was some 21-year-old kid called Ryan Getzlaf, who put up 25 goals despite just 15 minutes of ice time a night, but we’ll get to that in a minute). Apart from MacDonald, who was still very good in his day, these are all guys who would be the No. 1 on just about any team in the league by a pretty wide margin.

And look at the centers the teams those Cup winners beat had. In reverse chronological order: Derek Stepan, Bergeron, Patrik Elias (maybe not an elite No. 1, but he was centering Ilya Kovalchuk), Henrik Sedin, Mike Richards, Datsyuk, Crosby, Jason Spezza, Jarret Stoll (okay, that was just a weird season).

The question of whether the Flames have such a player is an easy one to answer: They sure don’t. Not today, at any rate. Sean Monahan is the functional No. 1 right now, playing tough competition and all that, but he’s not exactly piling up a ton of points like most of these guys tend to do. And Mikael Backlund, while he continues to be a driver of possession, seems like he’s never going to be more than a 50-point guy. Not that this is a knock on him, but y’know. The point is he’s not ever going to be an elite scorer.

A best-case scenario is that in three or four years Monahan or Sam Bennett are able to provide that, but right now, not so much. And really, if you can get any kind of legitimate No. 1 center you should feel blessed, let alone an elite one. They’re so rare in this league.

The likelihood that any center, let alone the two real candidates the Flames have, develops to that level is extremely low, and they’re pretty much always acquired via an extremely high pick. Maybe you say Bennett has that ceiling, but I’m not so sure.

3. Elite second-line scoring that drives possession

It’s hard for teams to have two really strong centers, so if you can slot someone who’s a possession-driving scorer into just about any position on the second line, you’re going to do well for yourself there, too.

Again, go down the list: Pick one of Jeff Carter, Marian Gaborik, or Justin Williams fit the bill for the most recent Kings run (god that team is great). Patrick Kane for the Blackhawks. Carter or Williams again. David Krejci and Milan Lucic for the Bruins. Kane again. Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh. Henrik Zetterberg or Johan Franzen in Detroit. Getzlaf or Corey Perry in Anaheim. Williams or Rod Brind’Amour in Carolina.

Runners-up? Same story: Rick Nash, Krejci/Lucic, Zach Parise, Ryan Kesler, Carter (in Philly), Zetterberg/Franzen, Malkin, Mike Fisher, Ryan Smyth.

As for the Flames, they’re also deficient here. Again, they might be able to develop it, and obviously you’d put the chances of a Monahan/Bennett/Backlund working out to be this kind of player a lot higher than you would for any of them becoming an elite center.

But the fact is that if you project them to top out at this level, having three of them doesn’t help very much. Many teams have more than one second-line center (St. Louis, for instance), but they don’t break through to that next strata of true Cup contenders.

4. A great No. 1 defenseman

This is where you start to see a little bit of wiggle room here, and I think a lot of it is due to so few guys being head-and-shoulders above the rest of the pack of regular old “Really Good No. 1 defensemen.”

The Kings have Drew Doughty, the Blackhawks Duncan Keith, the Bruins Zdeno Chara. That covers the last five Cup winners and it’s pretty straightforward. The Penguins’ best defenseman was Sergei Gonchar back when he was still a very strong contributor. Back to reality, the Red Wings had Nicklas Lidstrom, obviously. The Ducks had both Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer, which doesn’t seem fair. The Hurricanes had … Bret Hedican? (Again, that first post-lockout year was so weird.)

The runners-up had Ryan McDonagh, Chara, Marek Zidlicky(?), Alex Edler/Christian Ehrhoff, Pronger, Lidstrom, Gonchar, Wade Redden, and Pronger again.

These are mostly defensemen you’d murder your own grandmother to have on your favorite team. It’s really that simple. (Aside: Chris Pronger went to three Stanley Cup Finals with three different teams in five years. We don’t talk about this enough. What a difference-maker. Amazing.)

The good news is the Flames have this in spades, with TJ Brodie and Mark Giordano both currently playing at this level, though one has to wonder how much longer Giordano can play at this level, given that he’s already 31. Still, young Brodie will probably be able to play high-level defense for close to a decade, so it probably doesn’t matter for the Flames even if you don’t think they can be Cup-competitive within the next three years or so (which they cannot)

5. Competent goaltending

It is super-interesting to me that you very rarely see teams win Stanley Cups with actual elite goalies. Obviously, they give you a better chance to go far, but they’re not quite a necessity. They basically need to be only a little above-average, whether it’s just for a few rounds of the playoffs or throughout their careers.

To wit: Jonathan Quick turns into a monster in the playoffs but isn’t great. Same for both Cory Crawford and Antti Niemi. Tim Thomas bucks that trend. Marc-Andre Fleury and Chris Osgood not so much. JS Giguere and Cam Ward were both very good at the time but never, like, Vezina candidates.

The guys that lost the Cup Finals these last nine seasons were in the same boat: Henrik Lundqvist is one of the best goalies of all time, and Tuukka Rask is certainly headed on that path as well. But an ancient Marty Brodeur isn’t. Roberto Luongo is very good-to-great, but with the rest it drops off a cliff: Michael Leighton, Osgood, Fleury, Ray Emery, Dwayne Roloson.

The good news for the Flames is that it’s really easy to find affordable, league-average goaltending that you can then hope “Gets Hot At The Right Time.” They have that kind of thing now with Jonas Hiller, but I’m not sure he sticks around longer than this one contract of his. The Flames won’t be competitive by then anyway.

So yes, the Flames have some of the building blocks in place to get this kind of thing going. They’re missing the most important one, though. Or at least, the one that’s hardest to find. 

Which is why I’ve always thought tanking was so important. “Look at the Oilers! They’re terrible!” is true, but Ryan Nugent-Hopkins isn’t a true No. 1 yet (I still think he gets there soonish), and they have neither competent goaltending or a great defenseman. Years of mismanagement will do that. I might have taken Ryan Murray over Nail Yakupov, for instance. 

But you see my point. I hope.

  • RKD

    A competitive team to me is the following: a team that finds a way to win consistently, a team that consistently outplays and outchances their competition, a team that can outshoot the other team consistently, a team with a strong powerplay and strong penalty kill with the ability to score short-handed as well. A team that competes with effort each and every shift of every period of every game. The Flames are playing well and probably over their heads and they have areas they can still improve in. Hopefully at some point, our forwards become as strong our defencemen. If the Flames start beating more of the stronger teams more regularly by playing well, not just with really strong goaltending that might indicate a change is happening. If we don’t land #1 picks we just have to develop guys like Monahan, Gaudreau and Bennett as much as possible, surround them with the right players and spread the offense around more lines and the d. It may just have to be scoring by committee. I don’t see the Flames adopting the Kings or the Hawks style. Personally, it looks more like a hybrid of the two, they’ve got some players with size and power and some skill and play the dump and chase. Other guys are smaller, shifty craftier, more creative and strong puck possessors. Even when Buffalo drafts McDavid, I think they will have a much harder time rebuilding even if their GM surrounds him with the right players. Maybe in Buffalo their rebuild method is acceptable and their fans have bought into their plan. In a place like Calgary, I’m not so sure wallowing at the bottom for years hoping to hit the jackpot with McDavid is the right strategy would it fly here. The Flames maybe far away from being a Cup contender but rebuilding from the back end is the right way. The Flames have a lot of good pieces in the lineup now and coming through the pipeline. I think the team will become a lot better once we see the likes of Bennett, Poirier and Wotherspoon as regular NHLers.

    • BurningSensation

      “I don’t see the Flames adopting the Kings or the Hawks style.”

      I see them adopting the Hawks style to a ‘T’!

      Smaller, high-skill possession forward who will lead the team in scoring? (Gaudreau)

      Big, strong, two-way pivot?

      A mid-size two-way defender who can run the powerplay and push the river 5v5?

      Scoring depth?
      (Poirier, Klimchuk, Bennett, etc.)

      So, yeah, Hawks it is.

    • supra steve

      JG could be very, very good. But if you classify generational talents as the likes of Gretzky, Lemieux, and Crosby (and I do), then your statement sounds a little optimistic.

      • Kevin R

        Yes, but Gaudreau has dominated at every level and let’s be honest, the kid (Gaudreau, not Gretzky) is driven. He’s got some insane talent, and I am happy he is here and not elsewhere.

        • supra steve

          Hey, as long as you can back up your “generational” claim with nuggets like that, who am I to argue otherwise?

          I have high hopes for JG, but the word generational is not among those hopes. I reserve that label for a different level.

          • supra steve

            I never back up claims with “who I am to argue with …”

            I generate arguments.

            That’s why we’re here.

            Gaudreau is great, he is handicapped by a mediocre team, but he’ll figure it out. That’s what great players do. And great players lift sub-par individuals to a higher level.

            I would rather have Gaudreau than MacKinnon. That is why I like Johnny Gaudreau. He is worth cheering about.

          • supra steve

            Umm, you didn’t back up your claim at all, except to say that you have a big old man crush for JG. You wrote:

            “Yes, but Gaudreau has dominated at every level and let’s be honest, the kid (Gaudreau, not Gretzky) is driven. He’s got some insane talent, and I am happy he is here and not elsewhere.” to support your claim that “Johnny Gaudreau will be the Flames’ version of a “generational player.””.

            Let me say again, I am hopeful that JG could become a very good NHLer. Could he rival Patty Kane? I could see him do that in a best case scenario. But P Kane is not even close to generational. Bobby Orr was generational.

            Picking JG over MacKinnon, at this point, would be unwise.

            I’m done. Have a good night.

          • piscera.infada

            Gaudreau has come in and been very good. He’s still learning the ropes but in his first games has lifted the team and improved those around him, all the while at or near leading in rookie scoring, +/- and league take-aways. If he continues on this path he definitely has the potential to be in the =Patty Kane conversation.

            Whether he is “generational” or not I think depends on your definitions. Bobby Orr wasn’t generational either. He was better. Orr is arguably the best defenceman of all-time. He not only had a great personal career, and dragged his team to several championships, but altered the course of hockey forever through his dynamic and passionate play.

            Savardianspinorama qualified his comment as being the Flames equivalent of a generational player and I would agree completely that JH could be. Gaudreau so far in his College career has been generational, being the best scoring dynamo in College ranks for the last twenty years, literally.

            Whatever he becomes “generational” or not he’s a heck of a hockey player that’s an important piece of the Flames now and into the future. If the Flames can keep adding/developing a few more like that we’ll be doing well..

  • Greg

    Lambert, sometimes I feel like you should get a big group hug just to offset all the hate you get. Lol. I’ll go on record as saying I enjoy your articles. Not everyone is a hater. 🙂

    I think you are correct that some people have a different definition of success. I don’t agree it’s top-5contender or bust, but I except that’s a bit toungue in cheek for you as well. Ya, it’d be frustrating to be a perennial also-ran like SJ, but I would definitely take the persistent regular season success and playoff hope they’ve had as an example. I think if you’ve got any chance to make the playoffs and be more than just cannon-fodder, you take that every single year.

    But where you are totally right, and where many (not all) of your haters are wrong, is this flames team has ZERO chance of being anything but that. They aren’t going to make the playoffs and if they are this years Avs and somehow do, they’ll be this years Avs and be done in one. Anyone claiming this team is close to contending is out of their freaking mind, and is too busy pointing at Edmonton’s “losing culture” to notice their Corsi is like 20% better than Calgary’s. Calgary has some awesome peices in place, and with good management can turn this around with a lot less pain than Edm had, but there are still a lot of holes to plug to get there.

    The problem is people tend to overvalue prospects. They see a guy who has first line LW potential and pencil him in like it’s already done, only to realize later that guy was Baerstchi and, whoops, maybe we don’t have our top line LWer yet. They see Bennett and think we’ve got our freaking Doug Gilmour and forget that he might only be our Kyle Turris. You can’t count your chickens before they hatch.

    That can go for draft picks too though. You can’t lose at all costs and assume that will get you the peices you need to win down the road. It improves your odds, but doesn’t guarantee them any more, it just guarantees you have a bigger hole to climb out of.

    So in short, I agree with you – this is not a good team, they won’t make the playoffs, and it’ll be frustrating if they don’t get a top 10 pick either, cause they need to keep collecting those high end odds to eventually cash in enough to become a contender again.

    But I also agree with others here that you can’t allow for losing to be acceptable, and you have to create an environment that gives your prospects some wins to help the confidence not get crushed along the way.

    For the most part, I think BT and Hartley are doing reasonably well at walking that fine line. I just wish BT hadn’t signed Hiller cause that’s the sole reason this team is in the top 10 instead of bottom 10 right now. You could easily in still the same work-ethic-losing-is-unacceptable culture but minus that goaltending still pick up another really high end prospect no?

  • Greg

    @ Lambert

    I dont think everyone here rejects your opinion on tanking. The question is how would you go about realistically without setting some of your players back.

    Right now to tank we would have to park Brodano on the bench because they are too good… and instead of playing the kids Mcgrit and guys like Bollig would getting the minutes. That is not great for development.

    Dude… i think people totally get the easy logic of tanking but you havent explained how we could go about it.

    Your opinions conflict with it as well. On one hand you think that the face puncher acquisitions are stupid. I dont disagree… we need to play the kids but in all honesty it is the kids that are driving the bus right now.

    Outside of some devastating injuries i just dont see how it is possible currently.

    • Greg

      I can’t speak for Lambert, but personally I would:

      – not sign Hiller. I’d have taken whatever asset Carolina was offering to take Ward off their hands, and market him to season ticket holders as a veteran who would stabilize our goaltending (while knowing full well he’d cost us games)

      – I’d keep players out of the lineup when moderately injured. Backlund for example I wouldn’t have rushed back from abominable injury at the start of the season

      – I’d keep good junior players down in the minors to ripen as long as possible. Totally ok with guys like Granlund getting deserved call ups, but I’d make it clear this is a development year and that going back down shouldn’t be taken as knock on how good they are but as an opportunity to work on applying what they learned during their call up to improve for next year.

      – I’d keep guys like engelland and mcgratten around. Make the culture change from face-punchers to skilled 4th liners once you’ve got the skill to do it. 🙂

      None in that is deliberate tanking but does tilt the odds against winning a little. And it is mostly what they are doing.

      Like I said, I think BT and Hartley are doing a reasonable job balancing being competitive and losing games, aside from the Hiller signing. They’ve had a relatively soft schedule and lots of Lady Luck on their side so far. No doubt in my mind they’ll start falling down the standings fairly steady from here out.

  • Rock

    The Kings scraped into the playoffs sitting 8th in the west for there first cup win. At the time people were saying they hired a old out dated coach. A team you lambert says should of tanked for a draft pick. what place were the Kings in last year to win the cup? So in one season there should be 29 teams trying to tank for a draft pick.

  • Canrock 78

    I have watched flames nation for some time and never commented. I have seen the lamberts of the world warm the seats in the stands while we bleed on the fielder the ice. My question to you Ryan is have you ever been a captain of a team, had to hire or fire anyone, I was lucky enough to know some of the cup winning management and staff and when we talked about winning the cup the discussion was never about elite skill it was about the team. The die for each other bond that that team had.
    We need more skill no doubt but a player that players with his heart will always be better than one that playes for a pay check. Stay the course, continue to build the culture, let the young talent develope. Never ever surrender that’s what sheep do. Sheep don’t win cups they get slaughtered.

  • Canrock 78

    @Ryan Lambert
    I still think Monny is going to have a monster season. I think sometimes we forget how much a flu can devastate a players production. As someone who caught the flu about a month ago and only just got over it, I can empathize with Monny. Before I got sick, I was in the best shape of my life and extremely active. When I had the flu, I could barely do any physical activity, lost about ten pounds of muscle and had a period of 4 days where I could barely get out of bed. I don’t know how Monny was playing hockey at an NHL level if he was feeling anywhere nearly as bad as I was. But you can see ever since he got over the flu, his production has improved by leaps and bounds and I expect that to continue. I don’t think we can judge him by the first part of the season. I still see him turning into a Eric Staal when he was at his best type centre. And as you said that is the type of centre you can win a cup with.