This will serve as my technical midseason review, even though the Flames passed that mark two games ago. I'm splitting this post into two parts: first, a general review of the season so far, examining defense and offense, and then I will discuss if anything can - or needs - to be done to improve the team via trades. Now that we're approaching the heat of trade rumour season - with Jason Spezza now becoming the token Calgary rumour that Olli Jokinen used to be - I figured now was as good a time as any to look at the Calgary Flames as a team and whether or not it's possible - or even desirable - to improve the team. I warn you, this post is very long so brace yourself. But hey, I haven't written blogs nearly enough this year, this is how I'm compensating.
Last night's win over the Sharks, the first such regulation victory ANY team has had in San Jose this year, was a textbook "statement game". The team matched the Sharks physically, did not get overwhelmed offensively, and played so well as a team that Miikka Kiprusoff couldn't even be named one of the three stars. They won a game that was a better, more even tilt than any of the seven playoff games against the Sharks last year. In doing so, the Flames further proved that they deserve to be ranked in anyone's top 10 rankings right now - perhaps even top 5. As a game that served as a microcosm of the Flames' standing at the midseason mark, it got me thinking: is there a transaction that can be done to improve this team? And if there is, should it be? Right now, I'm actually leaning towards "perhaps" on the first question and "MAYBE" on the second.
After a horrible start that was looking to prove every naysayer's concerns (including myself) well-founded, the Flames turned it around and suddenly, all those concerns were put to rest. The first concern was in goal Could Miikka Kiprusoff return to form? Well, not entirely. But Kiprusoff has had a few vintage games, and most of his struggles came before the 6-1 drubbing at the hands of the Sharks on November 13th, a game typically credited as the turning point of the season so far for Calgary. Before that game, Kiprusoff's GAA was 3.35. Since then? 1.92. This can be directly attributed to Calgary's improvements on defense. Up to the November 13th game, the Flames were averaging 33 shots against, a mark that would be second last in the NHL today. Since then, they've averaged 29. This boosts their mark to 29.5 overall, which ties them for 5th among playoff teams. On defense, Adrian Aucoin has been a very pleasant surprise on the top pairing with Robyn Regehr. In addition to his efficient offense, having Regehr next to him has made his defense better (Regehr can at least help cover some of his mistakes). There is no doubt that Dion Phaneuf has taken up the title of defensive scapegoat that Anders Eriksson and David Hale left. His terrible +/- has been well publicized, as has his decreased offensive production. I really have nothing to add on this subject, other than I now see why his Norris nomination was so controversial. I also think Mike Keenan should play Dion a bit less than his near-30 minutes a game, particularly less on the penalty kill. As for offense, though, it's clear Dion has not been the same since the infamous Sean Avery incident. However, I feel it's just a typical cold streak that I'm confident he'll snap out of. It's Dion's partner, rookie Adam Pardy, though, who has really shined. Since replacing Jim Vandermeer on November 11th following Vandermeer's injury (this was just a game before the season-changing rout in San Jose. Coincidence?) he has become a very dependable second-pairing defenceman. It's gotten to the point where I don't know where Vandermeer fits in anymore (more on that later). But Pardy has been one of the Flames' best defenders in the second quarter of the season. On the third pairing, Mark Giordano has steadily gotten better as the season has gone on. And while Cory Sarich's position on the depth chart doesn't justify his salary, he is doing reasonably well there.
Could Rene Bourque and Todd Bertuzzi be the top six forwards Calgary needed them to be? The answer is a resounding yes. Bertuzzi has established himself as one of the team's top passers, and is on pace for a 60 point season, which is twice what Owen Nolan did in the same role last year. Bourque, on the other hand, has been the Flames' most pleasant surprise, on pace for 30 goals and 60 points while being one of the Flames' most defensively responsible forwards and best penalty killers. The offense hasn't stopped there. On the third line, Curtis Glencross has been an absolute perfect fit, on pace for a 51 point season. (By the way, this is more than Erik Cole by a good margin, and equal to Shawn Horcoff). David Moss is on pace for 25. Even Dustin Boyd on the 4th line, getting a criminally low amount of minutes, is on pace for 16. Daymond Langkow is on pace for 70, Mike Cammalleri 75. The only problem on offense, perhaps, remains - surprise! - the issue of a number 1 center for Jarome Iginla. While Langkow has proven himself more than capable in that role, the frequently used Bertuzzi-Langkow-Bourque second line is showing such chemistry that even Mike Keenan is having trouble breaking it up. That only leaves Matthew Lombardi and Craig Conroy. Lombardi continues to make me cringe every time he enters the offensive zone, but Conroy continues to show chemistry with Iginla when they are paired. However, the issue of whether 37-year-old Conroy can handle the minutes he's been sometimes given for the second half of the season is the key issue. But if there was ever a season to dispel the "Jarome Iginla NEEDS a true number 1 center!" argument (though pretty much all of Iginla's seasons dispel it), this would be it. Iginla's on pace for a 91 point season playing mostly with a 37 year old on pace for only 11 goals and a center whose primary skillset is penalty killing. In the past, the team has needed a "true number 1 center" more than Iginla himself, but with the secondary scoring in place, there is absolutely no need for anyone to put together proposals for a Spezza or Lecavalier. This brings me to the second part of my post: the trade market and how it relates to the Flames.
What do the Flames need? If you'd asked me a year ago, my answer would have been a true number 1 center, better defense, or other secondary scoring. The Flames have proven that they don't need a true number one center if they can get secondary scoring and two good top line wingers. They have had the wingers in the past, but they have not had the secondary scoring they have this year in a long time. The defense is still a bit of a work in progress, but there is little that can be done there. Dion Phaneuf's struggles cannot really be helped. There are the Spezzas and Lecavaliers and Kaberles and Antropovs and every other prize that some are salivating over, but take a serious look at the Flames' current standing and assets and think about whether it would be a good long term idea. None of the Flames' core of Iginla, Regehr, Phaneuf, or Kiprusoff is going anywhere, end of story. The Flames have just three draft picks in the first three rounds of the draft this year (Montreal's second round pick will likely go to Chicago as part of the Rene Bourque trade, and Calgary's third belongs to Philadelphia) in a draft projected to be extremely deep. Of the Flames' thin prospect pool, there are six players who I find it extremely difficult seeing Darryl Sutter trade - Mikael Backlund, Dustin Boyd, Keith Aulie, John Negrin, Matt Keetley and Leland Irving. Backlund and Boyd could be part of the Flames top six in the years ahead. Aulie is looking like a promising shutdown defenseman, while Negrin has potential to be a great puck moving defenseman. The only prospects who may be expendable are Keetley or Irving, but that's only because there may not be room for both of them in the Flames' future. Of the roster players, the only players I can see as trade chips remain Lombardi, Sarich, Aucoin or Jim Vandermeer. Lombardi is playing himself out of any value right now. Sarich has the Flames' worst contract and would be very difficult to trade. For the primary depth role that Vandermeer plays, his $2.3 million is also unattractive. Aucoin perhaps has the most value but I can't see the Flames trading him, not with his strong play. From a front-office point of view, the Flames' biggest priority should be figuring out what to do with their limited cap space next offseason when they have two top six forwards (Mike Cammalleri and Todd Bertuzzi), a potential 25 goal third liner (David Moss) and a top four defenceman (Adrian Aucoin or his replacement) to re-sign (this will be the topic of a future blog post, but I'm too happy right now to approach the subject).
After 43 games, the Flames strike me as a team basically in control of its own destiny. They have shown that they have secondary scoring, relatively decent defense and goaltending, strong performances from their top six forwards, and a strong penalty kill. This is clearly the best Flames team in two years. As top ten (I still don't want to use the word "contenders" yet) teams go, they may be a bit unorthodox, but their place there is not undeserved. As far as improving the team goes, there is little that can be done in the trade market. If the Flames follow pace in the second half of the season, they could prove that there was no need for an effort to improve via trade.
(Just a FYI: the original title of this blog was "Do The Flames "Need" Anything? Midseason Thoughts." for some reason that title did not process, and it was just "Do The Flames". So i changed it to "Midseason Thoughts". If the title appears as "Do The Flames" this is why)