In retrospect, maybe I was a bit too critical, too soon, on Tuesday night. As I read the other Flames blogs, which merely focused on the game in posts of reasonable length and simple bitterness at the Flames blow a Game 7 they had a good chance of winning if they came out with a good effort. And then I went back to my long, rambling post which practically put the game completely in the background and focused on the bigger picture - not just complaining about the Flames blowing the series, but how far they've fallen from Cup contenders to first round exits three years in a row and why - and had to laugh. I like to pretend that, although I hate losing as much as anyone, I am still a reasonably rational fan - but I suppose I'm just a bit more reactionary. Perhaps this analysis would have been better timed if it wasn't posted mere hours after the Flames' elimination. Oh well. That being said, as promised, here's part 2 of my post-mortem analysis/rant of the Calgary Flames and the future of the team. In this edition, I'm going to analyze each player's performance this year and offer my speculation for their future. This is by far the longest post I've ever made, and although I've done my best to cut down the wall of text, this isn't one to skim over.
The Gonzo Squad
The only player I can certainly say is in this category is Kristian Huselius. The Flames can't afford him, and his playoff performance proved it wouldn't be worthwhile anyway.
When the puck pundits offer optimism for the Flames, they point to their foundation. Outside of every questionable move that Darryl Sutter has made the past few years, he has got to be one of the best in the league at understanding the value of keeping his core. Jarome Iginla, the face of the franchise, is locked up in Calgary at a bargain price for at least the rest of his peak years; I don't need to explain how untouchable he is. The other utterly untouchable player is Dion Phaneuf, whose new contract has really prompted this mini-rebuild (six years at a $6.5 million hit). Then there's shut down defenceman Robyn Regehr, who has one of the best contracts in the NHL at just a $4 million cap hit over the next five years starting next year. Of course, this contract makes him the most tradeable player in Calgary's core, but remember that he signed well below market value because he wanted to stay in Calgary, and with that comes a no-movement clause.
That leaves the final stone of the foundation, and probably the most important and intriguing: goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff. After three seasons of near-superhuman play, the Kipper fell apart last night in Game 7 and was pulled from the net halfway through the second period. His collapse is undoubtedly the hottest topic in Cowtown that came out of Game 7. Kiprusoff has a six-year, $5.8 million hit extension with a no-movement clause, but the most critical question after Game 7 was: can Mike Keenan and his goaltender co-exist? I still think that part of the reason Kiprusoff struggled early this season was unfair criticism by Mike Keenan. If Iron Mike and Kipper actually get in a public clash of egos next season, one of them will have to go, and Darryl Sutter would be completely foolish not to let go Keenan in that situation. He is still utterly untouchable unless Sutter decides he values a coach who hasn't changed anything over his franchise saving goaltender. Even if his play declines more in 2009, nobody will want his contract.
Daymond Langkow doesn't exactly belong in this category, but it's safe to say he's untradeable if the Flames manage to re-sign their top center. The rumored deal is 4 years and $20 million, for a hit of $5 million. Whether or not you think that's a worthwhile deal, it considerably complicates things.
The Cap Conundrum
This post would probably end up just being a frustrated post-season rant were it not for the Flames' cap situation. The Flames have a whopping $44 million committed next season to just 13 players. If Daymond Langkow re-signs at the rumored price ($20 million for 4 years - a cap hit of $5 million), that will rise to $49 million. What happens next might be largely determined by how much the salary cap rises. Since the end of the lockout introduced the cap, it has gone up from $39 million to $44.5 million and to $50.3 million for this season. If that trend continues, the cap will rise to $56 million in June. However, that's the high number; I have heard as low as $53 million, and one has to wonder how much the sinking U.S. economy will affect the NHL. But even if the cap does get to $56 million, the Flames will only have $7 million to spend on at least nine players, which in my mind isn't nearly enough to significantly upgrade the team without replacing significant contracts with much cheaper ones (examples: Tanguay, Aucoin, Sarich). Unless that happens, even the most optimistic Flames fans must face the facts: 2008/2009 will be a much different Flames team, with a forced youth movement the most likely forecast. I'll expand on this in my final point.
Alex Tanguay, with his $5.25 million cap hit, is the most intriguing "bubble" player - one that could just as easily be dealt or kept. He was a subject of trade speculation all season due to his contract and underachieving status. Tanguay has gone from 27 goals in his final year in Colorado to less than 20 this year with the Flames. He went through well-publicized streaks. His strength still lies in his passing, but he often has a frustrating refusal to shoot. I convinced myself at the trade deadline he was a better player than Kristian Huselius, which definitely proved right down the stretch; however, in the playoffs Tanguay was just as much of a ghost as Huselius despite usually producing decent stats in the post season. I still much prefer him on the team to Huselius, and think he could be better statistically next year with a bigger role. But though I don't want it to happen, I have a feeling he will be dealt in the offseason, if only to shed his salary, which I don't deny is too much for him.
There has been debate over Matthew Lombardi. Lombo is undoubtedly the fastest skater on the team, and his speed is definitely needed on the Flames, but my main problem with him is that he has no idea what to do with his speed once he gets in the offensive zone. However, he displayed a good show of heart in Game 6 with a clutch PK performance. I have pretty much given up on Lombardi in terms of offense, but he could still have decent value on the market as a young, fast center. I think if an offer with the right roster replacement or draft pick comes along, Sutter will jump at it, but anything less than at least a second round pick or good roster player will not be worth it.
A Grizzly Situation
Going into and out of the 2007-2008 season, the most important question relating to the Flames' success was the performance their grizzled veterans could turn out. They were the third oldest team in the NHL, and it was proven that the Flames were simply too old and slow. Luckily, though, the Flames have an easy way out of most of these contracts. 35-year-old Craig Conroy and 33-year-old Stephane Yelle are both unrestricted free agents. I think that Darryl will keep, at most, one of these two. Conroy has been on the Flames since 2001 (save for his brief stint in L.A.) and is a great locker room presence. However, Conroy is a primarily defensive player and he perhaps showed signs of rust in the playoffs, leading the Flames in penalties in a series where the power play was one of the deciding factors. In addition, Conroy had a $2.5 million cap hit this season. Unless he lowers his price, it may be time to part ways for good with the energetic center. On the other hand, Stephane Yelle is two years younger (although he plays a more demanding game), showed down the stretch that he still had some left in the tank, and only commanded a cap hit of $1.4 million. Does the Yeller still have some excruciating blocked shots left in him?
The other pending UFA veteran forward who I have not mentioned is Owen Nolan, and with very good reason. He is the only greybeard on the team I am completely convinced it would be worthwhile to keep. I initially dismissed him as another over the hill forward like Tony Amonte and Jeff Friesen had been, but he completely proved me wrong with his beast like performance in the playoffs. The look on his face during the handshakes with the Sharks, after he had scored a goal that had put the Flames briefly in the lead, was heartbreaking and I hope that if he doesn't come back to the Flames, he signs with a legitimate contender.
The Defence Dilemma
When Flames fans see the word "expendable", the name that probably crosses nearly everyone's mind is Anders Erikkson. The spare-part Swede defenceman is probably the most hated Flame among fans, the defensive liability of the year. Yet for whatever reason, he was on the powerplay often, despite his lack of offensive skill and proneness to horrible giveaways and penalties. Most Flames fans would probably agree that Erikkson and David Hale are the Flames' most unreliable defensemen. Erikkson has another year on his contract at $1.5 million, and Hale will become a free agent, and one has to think that at least one of these liabilities will be gone next year. But will they be replaced with another liability?
On the subject of the defence, another player who has probably played his last game as a Flame is Rhett Warrener. The former mainstay on the Flames' blueline has been reduced by a string of bad injuries to a frequent healthy scratch, and was in the press box for the entire playoffs. Warrener's style of play has caught up with him, and while I love his heart when he does play, the Flames cannot continue to justify his $2.35 million cap hit, especially since they are in a cap crunch. I think Warrener is a very likely buyout candidate.
Adrian Aucoin is another defenceman to consider. Chicago gave him away to the Flames for ten cents on the dollar on draft day last year because of his $4 million contract. Statistically, Aucoin had a successful year with his best season since leaving the Islanders after 2004 (10-25-35 points, and a +13), but down the stretch I felt that his lack of offensive output didn't compensate for his bad defensive play. Overall, though, I think he'll be back next year, for no other reason than the fact that that expensive $4 million contract runs through next season.
Jim Vandermeer is the last defenceman worth mentioning. The result of Darryl Sutter's only trade of the 2008 season, the Caroline, AB defenceman added some grit down the stretch, was paired often with Dion Phaneuf, and was played several times on the left wing. Vandermeer will be an unrestricted free agent, and although some of his mistakes definitely showed why he was traded from the Flyers, I would bet on him being re-signed, especially given his cheap price.
One final, positive note regarding the defence. I won't pretend to speculate on who the Flames could go after to replace whichever defencemen leave, but Mark Giordano is a good bet to return to the Flames after a year in Russia. He has been named as an alternate to Team Canada at the world championship, and the Flames have his exclusive rights until July 1 when he becomes a restricted free agent. Darryl Sutter made a mistake in his refusal to give Giordano a one way contract, and hopefully he won't make the same mistake twice.
The Deciding Draft
The draft is the most important factor in making a team stay consistent, for better or worse. And while Flames fans haven't had to significantly face their future for Darryl Sutter's entire reign (save for Dion, Eric Nystrom and David Moss), this draft and the success of the prospects thrust onto the team next year could be the things that ultimately determine Sutter's legacy with the Flames. The Flames have been ranked 25th out of 30 teams by The Hockey News, and 14th by Hockey's Future.com. THN urged the Flames to draft a legitimate top-six forward soon, while HF concludes that "overall, the Flames do not have elite franchise talent." The 2008 class has been called the deepest since 2003, the year Phaneuf fell into the Flames' laps at no. 9 overall, and for that reason I am more anxious about this draft than I have been since that historic one. There is nothing specifically noteworthy I can add about it, but the Flames will probably have a late teen-early twenties draft position, as they did last season, and they do not have a second round pick, as that went to Los Angeles when they re-acquired Craig Conroy.
The Flames are probably going to have a forced youth movement next year. They will most likely have to struggle to make the playoffs, as they don't have enough cap space to significantly improve the team. I wouldn't be surprised if the Flames and Oilers switched positions in 2008-2009, with the Flames struggling to make the playoffs and the Oilers managing a 6th-8th position. But if they do, unless Darryl Sutter applies a Paul Holmgren-esque makeover to the Flames, don't expect the Flames to advance past the first round. The good news is that none of the Flames' core seems in any danger of leaving to me. But Jarome Iginla is in the last years of his peak, Robyn Regehr is approaching that, Miikka Kiprusoff just came off the worst year of his career, and Dion Phaneuf won't reach his peak until his contract expires.
(This post took me so long to write I didn't even have time to get in my second round predictions. Even though the Habs-Flyers and Wings-Avs are now in progress, here's my picks anyway: Habs in seven, Wings in six, Pens in six, Stars in seven.)