Two years ago, in an otherwise completely meaningless Game 82, the playoff-bound Flames met the Canucks at GM Place. Since the Canucks had just been eliminated from playoff contention two nights before, the only thing on the line was Jarome Iginla finishing off his second career 50-goal campaign. The Flames eventually got the captain his 50th in what amounted to a pond hockey 7-1 rout. Now, in an otherwise completely meaningless Game 82, the Flames meet the playoff-bound Canucks at GM Place. For the Flames, having been eliminated from the playoffs two games ago, the only thing on the line is somewhat dignifying Iginla’s highly subpar season with 70 points. (As for the Canucks, Henrik Sedin should run even more wild on the Flames as normal, as the Art Ross Trophy may be on the line.) Is it a natural progression, then, that Calgary media and fans have now begun a heated debate over whether the captain should be traded for the franchise to start over? I am as reluctant as anyone towards the idea of Iginla in any other jersey but the Flaming C, but have to also admit the idea has its merits for both the player and the team. However, the deal would have to inarguably fast-track a rebuild, not be a debatable depth and salary move like the Dion Phaneuf trade.
Most of the momentum this idea has gained has come from the Calgary media. George Johnson wrote a controversial front-page column for the Herald
immediately after the Flames’ elimination which advocated the idea. Over the years, Johnson has been my favourite sportswriter on the Calgary Herald by far. I have found myself shocked at how much I have agreed with his cynical and bitter musings the last month or so; it gets to the point sometimes where I cancel blogs because I would merely be re-stating ideas Johnson put forth in much more eloquent terms. But here, I must also refer to the pre-eminent king of Calgary hockey writers, Eric Duhatschek. Duhatschek thinks that trading Iginla would only be worth it for the Flames if they could get a top-three draft pick back (mainly alluding to the Leafs’ first round pick owned by the Bruins this year). I agree to certain extents with both writers.
Most of the objection to the idea stems from the assumption that those who want to trade Iginla are blaming him for the club’s utter high-priced mediocrity. While there are some who hold this view, I am not one of them. On the contrary, I agree that Iginla has been the only consistent thing for the Flames’ offense for years. I also agree that the Flames’ fatal flaw has not been Iginla but the team’s own inability to surround him with the right talent. Clearly, trading the only forward on the roster right now who could be reasonably relied on for 70 points would only deepen their offensive issues. But that’s the point: if the Flames decided to cut ties, it would be a complete admission they were embarking on a rebuilding phase. They would be completely starting from scratch on a new era centered on younger players. They would be asking their fans to be extremely patient, just like any rebuild. They would have to be for the trade to be worthwhile.
From a pure hockey perspective, the arguments for trading Iginla are these: the Flames appear to be very shallow in organizational depth at forward, and they may have run out of chances to surround him with the top-end talent they need to make themselves into a true contender. (I do not think his big contract and the Flames tight cap situation have as much to do with it, but then again that’s because I do not blame the captain for anything). I am admittedly not an active follower of junior hockey so I cannot comment on the first argument extensively. That one I can only base on the general consensus among media reports. The second argument, however, is easier to make. By far the most common criticism of the Dion Phaneuf trade remains that Darryl Sutter did not get either a bona fide top line player or a good draft pick for his best trade chip. With the Flames being tied up in over $15M in bad contracts for 2011, and some beyond that, getting this established top line talent for Iggy will be extremely difficult to do immediately. Though he does not favour trading Iggy, Duhatschek is also completely correct when he states that fixing the Flames’ problems will require a long and ugly process. However the Flames decide to approach their future, the question is, how integral a role can he play when the multi-year process is over?
Expanding on this point (hope you’re still reading), here’s a brief examination of some precedents that can serve as both devil’s advocates and support the extremist cause. The first ones often brought up are Joe Nieuwendyk for Iginla himself, and then Theo Fleury for Robyn Regehr. Both trades benefitted their clubs immensely long term. However, in both cases, the trades were made because the stars were due to bolt – Nieuwendyk had requested a trade, and Fleury was a pending unrestricted free agent. The opposition points to the devastating Ryan Smyth trade, which neither the Oilers nor their fanbase has recovered from. (I’d like to offer two counterpoints to the Smyth comparison: personally, I think Chris Pronger requesting out after a year was more devastating than people credit. Also, would the Oilers really be that much better right now with Smyth?) Iginla is a special case, however. Since he is still relatively productive (if a little bit past his prime in that he can no longer carry a team’s offense singlehandedly) and with three years left on his contract, he MAY even be worth more than these examples. But the process is ultimately all up to him, as it should be, which brings me to my next point. Any potential trade, if Iggy does not request a trade outright (which I doubt he will), would have to be totally mutually beneficial to both him and the team long term.
If Iginla stays in Calgary for the rest of his career, there appears to be a high probability right now that his career will be just another absolutely terrific one wasted and perhaps unfairly tainted by the lack of a championship. He would hardly be the first, nor would he be the last, great star to have this unfortunate career path. The Flames do not look any closer to being a contender than they were in 2004. This is where the potential benefit for the player comes in. The problem is, though, that the true contenders which he could hypothetically be dealt to that would benefit both him and the Flames are limited. Boston has been the most commonly mentioned team, and indeed they may be the only actual team that could bring both a championship to Iginla and a more viable future for the Flames. What is most important in this discussion, however, is that Iggy rightfully controls his own destiny. I believe Craig Conroy when he says that Iggy does not want to finish his career with anybody but the Flames. And Flames fans should not want him to go either. However, it would be entirely understandable if he decided he has had enough of losing in Calgary. What I would do would be to not necessarily openly shop him, but quietly put his name forward for discussion. I would sit him down and say to him “If you want to finish your career as a Flame, that’s fine, we want you to as well. However, if we get a trade offer from a contending team that can help both of us, we’ll tell you about it, then you can make the decision.” Having Iggy leave Calgary would be extraordinarily, generationally painful for most of the Flames fanbase, and I am sure Iggy would say the same thing. However, being in a static state of perpetual team mediocrity for the rest of his career would also be fairly painful, and I am sure Iggy is not enjoying the current state of the team from that perspective, irrespective of the current trade speculation.
Six years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Flames’ heartbreaking Stanley Cup loss, I predicted that the Flames, under the direction of Darryl Sutter as GM and Iginla as captain, would win the Cup within five seasons. Now, the majority of Flames fans including myself are calling for Sutter’s immediate dismissal in favour of an outsider who will provide a new, more viable direction for the team. Simultaneously, some of those same voices are suggesting that Iggy be traded to coincide with a complete rebuild. I am not necessarily willing to commit to trade him or not to trade him – it depends on what is available, both for the team and for Iginla. But the important, and depressing thing is that the idea is worth consideration. That was thought impossible as few as two seasons ago. But then again, as few as two seasons ago, the Flames were thought at least close to contention by many.
(Addendum: I originally had a blog that was a total post-mortem of the Flames. However, as I finished it off, I didn’t feel any of it was particularly fresh; most of it was just re-stating what was mostly consensus opinion. I will write an immediate offseason preview in a few months or so. When (hopefully not if) the Flames fire Darryl Sutter I’ll write a response to that as well. But with the sudden explosion of speculation regarding Iginla I decided to write a whole blog on him…while Johnson and Duhatschek have been very rational and understandable, regardless of your opinions of their opinions, by far the worst Flames analysis was by Ken Campbell of the Hockey News. According to him, the Flames will be unable to trade Iginla and get fair value due to his big contract. He also confused Jay Bouwmeester with Wade Redden, saying the Flames will have to dump his contract in the minors. Things look really bad in Calgary, Ken, I’d be the first to tell you that; they’re just not THAT bad…other comparables to the current Iggy situation I did not mention: Ray Bourque (the best current comparison) and Kevin Garnett in the NBA (I do not follow the NBA, but my impression was that the trade was made because the T-Wolves could never build a team around Garnett.) Of course, while both of these deals brought the star a championship, neither of them actually benefitted their old teams: none of the players Boston got for Bourque ended up very useful, and the T-Wolves, it was thought at the time, got ripped off; they are currently 2nd last in the NBA. To a certain extent, the Eagles’ recent trade of Donovan McNabb also applies, as they traded him after simply being unable to win a Super Bowl with him, and having a young QB they felt could step in. Of course that trade is highly controversial among Eagles fans from what I can tell, and time will only tell if they made the right choice…I’d like to conclude by reiterating that Iggy remains one of my favourite Flames and NHL players ever. I have absolutely nothing against him. I merely think that it is worth exploring the options, since at this point there are serious doubts they will ever be able to build a contending team around him. Also, obviously if the Flames went down this route, I would not want Darryl Sutter to do the trade. But I'm assuming everyone feels the same way.)