The 2002-03 campaign was, in retrospect, a season of many different kinds of turning points for the Calgary Flames.
The team’s newfound saviour, Jarome Iginla, took a step back in part due to injuries, and the team attempted to surround him with a more balanced supporting cast as a result. The ongoing war of words between Marc Savard and Greg Gilbert turned nuclear and, in moves that defined his tenure as general manager, Craig Button got rid of both of them. And in his third season as GM, and facing the end of his initial contract, Button made the typical rookie GM mistakes of becoming impatient and become reactive rather than sticking to the plan.
The upside is that the absolute mess that was 2002-03 set the table for the magical 2003-04 campaign.
The 2002-03 Calgary Flames were slightly better and slightly worse than expected. They also saw themselves deal with slightly fewer and slightly more off-ice distractions than expected.
On the “slightly fewer distractions” front, Jarome Iginla signed a new contract before training camp really got going, eliminating the thoughts of a potential second hold-out from everyone’s minds.
On the “more distractions” front, Iginla was slightly less amazing than he was in 2001-02, Marc Savard and Greg Gilbert continued not to get along, and Craig Button was entering the third (and final) season of his initial contract as general manager. These conditions created a perfect storm as Button made a series of moves likely designed to spark the team, but ended up coming across as him trying to save his skin.
Here’s three moves in three months that best exemplify this season:
October 1: Button makes a big swap with the Colorado Avalanche – a division rival – sending Derek Morris, Dean McAmmond and Jeff Shantz to the Avalanche for Stephane Yelle and Chris Drury.
The Flames went 5-6-3-3 to open the season. With Savard and Gilbert remaining a distraction, Button made a second move.
November 15: The Flames trade Marc Savard to the Atlanta Thrashers for Russian prospect Ruslan Zainullin.
With Gilbert having won the feud with his star player, you would’ve expected the team to be more focused and unified. Right? Right? Nope. They went 2-7-0-0 in the next nine games.
December 3: The Flames fire Greg Gilbert and replace him on an interim basis with Al MacNeil.
The Flames ended up keeping neither their star player or their up-and-coming coach. The team continued to amble along for the rest of the season, but they finished well outside of the playoffs in a division where everybody but them qualified for the post-season.
The bright side of all of this chaos was that Darryl Sutter, freshly fired by the San Jose Sharks after Christmas, was hired by the Flames after MacNeil’s 11-game stint as interim coach. Sutter managed to get a 42-game head-start on the next season and, after Button’s contract wasn’t extended following the season, Sutter was named general manager as well. The time he had at the tail-end of the 2002-03 season to evaluate his club would prove invaluable once he got into the GM’s chair, as he didn’t need to functionally waste a year on player evaluation.
Roman Turek (.913 even-strength save percentage) and Jamie McLennan (.898 even-strength save percentage) were Calgary’s net-minders. Turek was pretty solid for most of the season, but McLennan won just two games and the team rode Turek hard as a result.
Compared to previous seasons, Craig Button was busy on the trade market.
- October 1: traded Derek Morris, Dean McAmmond and Jeff Shantz to Colorado for Chris Drury and Stephane Yelle.
- November 15: traded Marc Savard to Atlanta for Ruslan Zainullin.
- January 22: traded Jamie Wright to Philadelphia for future considerations.
- January 22: traded a sixth round pick to the NY Rangers for Mike Mottau.
- Feburary 9: traded a conditional third round pick to Pittsburgh for Andrew Ference.
- March 11: traded a fifth round pick to Colorado for Dean McAmmond, who could not play for the Flames for the remainder of the season due to an obscure CBA rule about requiring a player during the same season.
- March 11: traded Rob Niedermayer to Anaheim for Mike Commodore and Jean-Francois Damphousse.
- March 11: traded Mathias Johansson and Micki DuPont to Pittsburgh for Shean Donovan.
In retrospect, many of these deals weren’t horrible, and he quietly amassed some nice depth players for Darryl Sutter to work with the next season. But that Savard/Zainullin swap is legendarily bad.
On the flip-side, Button was rather inactive on the free agent side. He signed Martin Gelinas and made the minor signings of Martin Sonnenberg, Jason Morgan and Robert Dome. But beyond that, he made the majority of his moves via trades.
Darryl Sutter took over as general manager in mid-April, and handled things at the draft – including making a minor draft day trade, trading down in the third round with San Jose and gaining two fifth round picks.
Over a decade later, the 2003 Draft is best remembered for Dion Phaneuf and a bunch of guys that the average Flames fan has never heard of. (Which is a shame, because Cam Cunning was actually a pretty useful depth AHLer…)
RETHINKING THE 2002-03 FLAMES
The 2002-03 season was where the PDO Pony bit the hand of the Calgary Flames. They were the second-worst PDO team in the NHL, primarily because of their god-awful team shooting percentage. As previously-mentioned, their goaltending wasn’t exceptional, but it wasn’t also bad enough to kill their playoff chances.
But Jarome Iginla having an off year, and dealing with injuries, and the departures of Dean McAmmond and Marc Savard really hurt the team’s top-six depth and made it tough for Iginla to prop up a tremendously anemic offensive group.