Heading into the 4th post-lockout season, I want to take a look at the Calgary Flames from top to bottom. Where do they stand in the NHL? What does the future hold for our team? And, what can we expect from this season?
Back in 2001 the Calgary Flames were mired in a slump that saw the team miss seven consecutive post-seasons. It was horrible. Although there's been thousands of new Flames fans since the amazing run in 03/04, there were only a handful of die-hards in the city. I remember getting ridiculed while walking around campus at the University of Calgary for wearing my Flames touque while walking to class.
It was during that year that the Flames made a move that, although very significant, seemed to be lost to the city of Calgary.
Plain and simply, it was the hiring of Ken King as CEO and President of the team. Little did we know, but he was about to put his mark on the franchise and start us in the direction we've longed for since the 80s.
Ken King is the kind of guy every franchise needs, and he's putting the kind of people in place below him to have a foundation that can lead to success for long periods of time. King came to the Flames after a successful career in the newspaper business that included him running Calgary's two top papers, in the Herald and the Sun. I've had the opportunity to meet Mr. King on a number of occasions because he's always walking around the 'dome talking to fans and suits alike.
Success didn't follow immediately as it took one-plus seasons before he put his mark on the franchise.
Greg Gilbert was the coach of the Flames at this time and it's since been clear that he was several years away from being a good NHL coach. And the fact he hasn't re-surfaced in the league yet should speak to that notion. However, Gilbert was fired. Marking one of the happiest days of my life. Al McNeil was named interim coach until Christmas of that season, when it was announced that Daryl Sutter would be taking over the team as Head Coach.
With a lineup of young and unproven players surrounding a budding superstar in Jarome Iginla, Sutter began to start building his team ON the ice.
At the end of the year, GM Craig Button was relieved of his duties... another glorious day in Flames fandom. At one point in time a friend of mine emailed Craig Button after he brought back Mike Vernon to play goal for the Flames and asked him why? He simply said he felt Vernon was still one of the best goaltenders in the league and perfectly capable of being a number 1 goalie... okay. Gilbert and Button had been succesfully running the franchise into the dirt before this. Then came the announcement that Daryl Sutter would be adding the role of GM to his duties as well.
Since then, we have witnessed an amazing run to the finals, a division title and several very competitive squads.
Sutter did everything he could to bring in the experience to win the Cup. But it never materialized. Many thought at the expense of our farm system. To which Sutter always said to give time.
In the media here in Calgary, Sutter has been bombarded yearly about our minor-league system and the prospects in it. When are they going to be ready? Why don't you call them up? People in the media here in cowtown wanted to see something from the youth.
Sutter's answer to this has always been that it takes 3-4 years before 95% of prospects are ready to compete at the NHL level, so give me 3-4 years to develop these prospects.
With the 2008 training camp just about over, the Calgary Flames are feeling good about going into this season. This was probably the most productive camp that they've had in a LONG time. When Sutter made his cuts prior to the final 3 games he stated that any players currently remaining on the roster were NHL ready. That included 19 forwards, 10 defense and 3 goalies. A far cry from the previous years in camp when it was quite obvious who was going to make the team and who wasn't.
Looking down the list of prospects sent down to the AHL and you'll see high-quality prospects in that list as well, including Kris Chucko, David van der Gulik, Ryan Wilson and Leland Irving.
Now, with the city being excited about the youth pushing the old vets for spots on the team, the media is finally willing to give Sutter some credit for the farm system.
And although he hasn't said this publicly, I can just see Daryl Sutter saying "I told you so!" Because, let's face it. He did.
Which brings me to my next point, and that is our current team.
Although yet to be totally decided. There are some things that are set in stone... at least through 2013-14. They are, Jarome Iginla, Dion Phaneuf, Robyn Regehr, Miikka Kiprusoff and Daymond Langkow.
Putting it simply;
1. Cornerstone first line including one of the best players in the world
2. Franchise Defenseman and runner-up for the Norris
3. Possibly the best defensive D-man in the league, and...
4. Franchise goalie
Add to that;
5. Stocked farm system
6. A proven, top GM to continue to "stock" the Farm and manage the team
7. A successful CEO and President with a proven track record
Top it off with;
8. A ravenous hockey-starved city full of passionate fans
Do not consider this my prediction for the upcoming season. That's not what it's intended for. Rather, consider this my 10-year projection for the Flames...
This is my State of the Franchise.
I challenge fans of any other team in the NHL to look at their team and check. Can your team say that they meet these 8 categories? Off the top of my head I can think of some teams that would come close in Detroit, Montreal and Anaheim. Although I don't think they can say yes to all of those categories. Which brings me to the one glaring weakness that I've left off that list and should be effectively considered #9.
9. Top-flight NHL coach.
Clearly the Flames lack in this category as Mike Keenan did not show he was any better than Jim Playfair before him.
Finally, I have to say, I haven't been this excited about our team since the 05-06 season. We've got the right mix of players on this team to make for a strong season. I think the Flames make the playoffs and I think they battle for the division title. There are a couple of things I need to see before I can fully endorse this year's squad though. Anders Eriksson and Rhett Warrener need to be dealt/waived/demoted or whatever to get them off our books. Adam Pardy has proved he is an NHL defenseman and should not only be number 7 on the depth chart but should be looked at as even replacing the minutes of Adrian Aucoin.
I couldn't be happier for Flames management right now, and especially Daryl Sutter. After years of the media and hockey fans telling him he couldn't sign Iginla, couldn't sign Regehr, couldn't sign Langkow, couldn't sign Kipper.
Well... he did.
And he'll continue to do.
And if he could just add the one missing piece... a franchise coach... I think the Finals may not be as far away for the Flames as some think. (Brent Sutter, do you hear me?)
Yes, I feel strongly about the Calgary Flames as an organization as they establish themselves not just amongst the elite, but AS the elite. The only thing we wait for is the on-ice results to support it.
One thing that can't be taken lightly and affects, not just the Flames, but all of Canada, is the volatility of the Canadian dollar. This, among all of the other things, could have the largest impact on what happens in all Canadian markets across the league.