Even the most delusional of Flames fans have to have given up by now. Even if the Flames managed to win all six of their remaining games, which the Flames have given no reason to believe they would be able to, they would still only have a 70% chance of making the playoffs (unlike Eklund, I will cite SportsClubStats.com for these numbers). The only thing Flames fans can look forward to is an offseason which will hopefully involve drastic change.
It is becoming harder and harder for me to find people willing to defend Darryl Sutter any more. His decision to sacrifice chances of re-signing Mike Cammalleri in order to get Olli Jokinen is looking like perhaps his biggest mistake, his later trade of Jokinen for the even-more-useless Ales Kotalik is looking just as bad as everyone anticipated it would, he has over $15M in cap space for next season – and some past that - tied up in bad contracts (Daymond Langkow, Kotalik, David Moss, Cory Sarich, and Steve Staios), he does not pick until the 3rd round of the draft this year, has few draft prospects coming down the pipe (nor does he have a 2nd or 3rd round pick in 2011; also don’t overlook that he traded Keith Aulie, said to be the Flames’ best defensive prospect), and last, but certainly not least, there is the ever-hanging question of whether he got enough for Dion Phaneuf. Personally, though I have been questioning Darryl for at least two years, I always kept a small amount of faith for the moves he did occasionally get right – but now I cannot defend the man any longer. The future looks bleak in every way for the Flames after five years of high-payroll mediocrity. The only question is, what to do now?
Rumours seem to be heating up – albeit, Allan Maki of the Globe and Mail is the only reporter I have seen report it – that Ken King and Darryl Sutter will be replaced by Bob Nicholson and Steve Yzerman, respectively. Has Stevie Y learned enough from Ken Holland and co. about the intricacies of managing a team in the salary cap era? Nobody knows; hiring a rookie GM like that is a risky business – just ask the Dallas Stars (Joe Nieuwendyk’s first move of firing Dave Tippett in favour of Marc Crawford has proven to be one of the worst moves of the past year.) I am not going to discuss the merits of Yzerman or any other GM. Predicting who a team will hire as their new GM is much more difficult than predicting new coaches – I remember nobody putting forward Mike Gillis’ name to replace Dave Nonis in Vancouver, and Gillis has done a terrific job. Focusing on what the team’s long term strategy should be is more important than speculating about who will be hired.
The essential dilemma that the Flames face with regards to their long term plan is: do we give building around the core one last kick at the can, or is it time to initiate a full rebuild for the third time in team history? The answer depends on how exactly you see the current team, how realistic it is to expect immediate and significant improvement, and how much of this disaster of a season was due to simply top players not producing.
I see the current team as decent at best, not great by any stretch; not good enough to be a serious threat to Vancouver (or hell, if they keep up their nice rebuilding pace, maybe even Colorado) for the division title any time in the foreseeable future. At very best they can sneak into the playoffs as a low seed and face a heavily-favoured opponent a few times. Sounds familiar? The team’s biggest flaw continues to be a lack of genuine offensive depth. Jarome Iginla remains the only player who would be a top line player on an elite team. Though there are some good second line pieces in Rene Bourque and Niklas Hagman, that’s just it – the Flames are expecting too much out of them. I think Matt Stajan also fits in this category: I just don’t see him as a true top line center. It would be excellent for the Flames if they could get rid of Daymond Langkow and put Stajan in his spot, but that would require the Flames to get an upgraded center as well. On the third and fourth lines, there are also some good pieces in Chris Higgins, Eric Nystrom, and Curtis Glencross but these obviously can’t compensate for the fact that Iginla is the only player on the top six who might be reasonably expected to put up 70 points. Scoring-by-committee has been tried and failed.
So what is the solution? Top line players don’t grow on trees, and arguably, Darryl Sutter missed his best opportunity to get one when he didn’t get one for Phaneuf. The two best pending unrestricted free agent forwards, aside from Ilya Kovalchuk (who will get at least $8M a season and have half the league bidding for him) are Patrick Marleau and Tomas Plekanec – assuming of course that they make it to July 1; neither appears at this point a lock to test free agency. However, Sutter would likely have to find a way to dump Sarich and Langkow before adding either player. After Sutter dumped Jim Vandermeer’s $2.3M at last year’s draft, and the Rangers dumped off Scott Gomez a few days later, I’ve come to believe any salary dump is possible; but for the success of your offseason to depend on two salary dumps is a highly risky strategy. Besides, how well could these players be relied on to finally fix the team? I speak mainly of Marleau here, as I have seen the “dump Sarich and Langkow and sign Marleau” plan proposed by many optimistic Flames fans. Marleau is a goal-scoring center rather than the playmaker the team has seemed to need more; this incompatibility is one of the reasons Olli Jokinen failed in Calgary. Not to say Marleau is Jokinen, he is much, much better. However, Marleau also has the following things against him: he has put up a career year playing with Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley in a contract year; he is heading into his 30s; and perhaps most importantly, up until this year he was the captain of the chronically choking Sharks. If the Sharks fall apart again this year, and Marleau can be definitively blamed, perhaps teams should be a bit less aggressive in targeting him July 1. This goes especially for the Flames, considering one of the main problems in Calgary seems to be a casual culture where not enough players are committed to winning. And that brings me to my next point.
Of course, if the Flames cannot improve the team in the immediate future, there are only two options: continue to try and make the playoffs with the current weak on paper (and practice) roster, or embark on a full rebuild. I cannot help but see the second as the more viable long term option. I have used the word “rebuild” liberally in my previous post-mortem blogs; I am embarrassed by my misuse of the term in those overzealous blogs. But this time I swear I mean it: blowing up the team may really be the only option. I will maintain my position I have had whenever considering the possibility: if the Flames really do decide to start from scratch (I am not saying that it is actually going to happen; I don’t expect it to, for reasons I’ll elaborate on later), the rebuild either starts or ends with Jarome Iginla; he will either be the first or last to go.
The idea of trading Iggy has gained steam among the Overtime callers on the Fan 960 and on hockey forums as the Flames have melted down over the months. The most vehement opposition comes from people who have a deep loyalty to Iginla, the face of the Flames franchise both on and off the ice; a national hero for both of Team Canada’s Olympic gold-winning teams this decade; the Flames’ all-time points and goals leader. But I want to maintain when I advocate this position: it is absolutely NOTHING personal against Iginla. It is a business decision that has the potential for immense mutual benefits for both Iginla and the Flames. The way I see it, Iginla’s opportunity to win a Cup with the Flames has come and passed. Ideally I would want him to stay a Flame for life, but if he is, he will probably just be one of the many great players whose legacies were tainted, perhaps unfairly, by the stigma of never winning a championship. Iginla would hardly be the first, nor would he be the last superstar whose career with his signature team ended out of both desire to give him a chance at a championship and a need for that team to start over. Rather than being a Ryan Smyth trade, this would be a Ray Bourque trade. Of course, neither of those trades actually worked out for Boston or Edmonton. But on the other hand, remember Nieuwendyk for Iginla? Fleury for Regehr? Those two trades were done due to pending fleeing via free agency, but the idea is the same. Don’t get me wrong, though. If the Flames traded Iginla, it would be the single most painful experience as a Flames fan I have experienced. Yet if they did it to fast track a rebuild, it would be completely understandable; the trade would be a scarring experience, but one which, if done properly, would result in considerably more hope than just revolving the team again and again around Iginla as he ages even more each passing year. Of course, if Iginla went, few players would be safe. It’s just something that needs to be at least considered.
Admittedly this is all purely hypothetical at this point. The only first step I am certain must be taken is the firing of Darryl Sutter, but I am anything but certain it will actually happen. I fear that the Flames owners, mindful of the difference in profits even two playoff games a year brings, and remembering the near-death experience that was the Flames’ last rebuild in 1996-2003, will not have the stones to finally place accountability on the franchise. Aside from the enormous drop in revenue that rebuilding brings, the Flames are also aiming to have a new arena built this decade, and the already-arduous process of getting taxpayer money to help pay for it would be much more difficult with a losing team.
In the past year, the Flames have traded away much of their draft picks at a generally unprecedented rate and spent as much money as any team wishing to contend. And yet, Darryl Sutter’s risky strategies have actually made the team worse. After four years of first round losses that can only be described as high-priced mediocrity, the Flames are being forced to confront their own static state now that they have finally run out of luck. The time seems to have come for drastic change in some way, whether it is merely getting the right front office in place, or that combined with a rebuild.
(Addendum: I wrote the bulk of this blog yesterday, after the Flames’ miserable, heartless 5-0 shutout at the hands of the Bruins – which came after I had written them off after their collapse against the Islanders. In my eyes, today’s win over the Capitals is merely a form of torture – the team teasing the fans one last time before a final, irrefutable death. I also question taking it as an impressive win, considering that the game meant little to the Capitals, who seem to be saving energy for the playoffs – they need just one win to clinch the Eastern Conference anyway, if it means anything to them, and New Jersey isn’t a serious threat to that pennant. As well, Jose Theodore sure helped the Flames win. In any case, the Flames next four games are against the Coyotes, Blackhawks, Sharks, and Avalanche, and if they somehow won all of those games, and the remaining two as well, to say nothing of the Avalanche and their schedule, it would be possibly one of the most improbable achievements in pro sports this year.)