Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Belated Thoughts on the Flames and the Deadline: A Look in Retrospect

On the day after the trade deadline, Jarome Iginla scored four points and Miikka Kiprusoff made 27 saves for his second straight shutout, and the Flames vaulted into 5th place in the West. Had you told me in mid-December that this would be the result of the March 1st matchup in St. Louis, I would have told you were more full of crap than the Twitter huckster NHLSourcesSay. At that time, the pessimistic fans (although I still will defend the alternate description of “rational”) were speculating about the potential worth of Iginla, Kiprusoff, and virtually every other asset on the Flames, looking to go down the same painful rebuilding road that three out of the six Canadian teams are currently mired in. I was fully behind the idea, even though I knew that the Flames would never actually do it. (Robert Cleave pointed out early that the full-scale dynamiting of a team is never undertaken by choice, and never with a team reasonably close to the playoffs and still relatively financially healthy, as the Flames were.) The single happiest day of the season so far for me still remains December 28th, the day we were finally freed from the curmudgeonly, obsolete, condescending and evidently dour reign of Darryl Sutter. And, even with the Flames’ marvelous comeback from the dead, it still most likely will be. Although it gets harder with each win to deny the Flames’ chances of actually making the playoffs, it’s still not a radically different team from the last few first round losses. And yet I don’t have a problem with that this year. It would be easy for the most cynical (a group I place myself in still) to call this yet another mirage for the fans, and/or an unintentionally wasted opportunity for management, but after seeing the results of this year’s trade deadline, and being unable to deny myself enjoyment out of this resurgence, I can honestly say I can’t see a reason for any Flames fan to complain right now.

Three weeks ago, the primary discussion in the weekly Calgary Herald Insider chat was Curtis Glencross. Many fans, including myself, had seen the high returns on Kris Versteeg and Chris Kelly, and saw no reason the Flames couldn’t get something similar. I mostly agreed, but I did wonder how many contending teams would actually give up a 1st rounder, even if it was indisputable that Glencross was worth that in an even market. Of course, I figured the Flames would not actually trade a major roster player, because Jay Feaster, unlike his predecessor seems to speak honestly in public. After seeing the way the market unfolded the rest of the way, though, he probably made the right call in any case. The non-trade of Clarke MacArthur tells me all I need to know. Previously it had been reported by Darren Dreger that MacArthur could fetch a comparable return to Versteeg, a proposition difficult for the Leafs to turn down, even given the forward’s unexpected career season. Arguably, MacArthur was worth more than Glencross, given that he is a pending RFA as opposed to UFA, and he was putting up more points this year. The Leafs were also in a more likely selling position, despite Brian Burke’s insistence his team still has a shot at making the playoffs. And yet he stayed. It was reported by Dreger that Glencross’ contract negotiations had hit a snag – apparently he was hoping for a 4-5 year deal and thus forgot that Darryl is no longer GM. The debate over whether Glencross is actually worth committing a $3M +, multi-year cap hit can wait until the offseason, but I don’t think the Flames will regret not trading him.

Jarome Iginla was also involved in trade speculation (much of which was incorrectly reported as rumors) for much of the first half of the season. Although I have never believed the Flames would actually trade him, it’s worth revisiting here for hypothetical purposes. Again, the market seems to tell me that this deadline wouldn’t have been the time anyway. The Los Angeles Kings, who I have always felt would have been the perfect hypothetical fit, focused their attention northward instead, and settled for Dustin Penner after passing on the high price for Ales Hemsky. The Kings were not the only team interested in Hemsky, but the Oilers, a team deeper into rebuilding than even a hypothetical 2011 lottery Flames team would have been, rightfully felt under no pressure to move him, at least immediately, and thus had leverage. If the Oilers couldn’t get the right package for Hemsky, a relatively cheap player with another year left on his contract and no NTC, with several teams expressing serious interest, while rightfully demanding a high price, how could the Flames have done so for Iginla, when Iginla is $3M more expensive, has more years, and an NTC? An Iginla trade was never going to happen even if the Flames bottomed out, but it’s now interesting to note that it was probably never there to start with.

Jay Feaster stayed true to his word this deadline, trading no players off his roster and sacrificing no valuable assets. It’s refreshing to have a GM who we can seemingly trust based on his word, for better or worse, after eight years of condescension and secrecy from the so-called Jolly Rancher. And while there is still reason to not fully be on the “In Jay We Trust” bandwagon long term – even though it seems a certainty at this point he’ll get the Acting tag removed – it’s impossible to complain so far. It seems undeniable that the effect he has had on the mood in Calgary is no small part in their comeback. And he has said all the right things, gently repudiating the mistakes of the Sutter era while not disparaging his current roster. I think it is fair and not coldly sobering to suggest that the end result of this season is likely yet another 1st round loss (it will depend, as it always has, on the matchup). But unlike previous years, this knowledge should not merely result in frustration and hand wringing. The remaining demons of the Sutter era have still yet to be expelled, but at least the team is entertaining for the moment, and no layers of despair and bleakness have been added (this deadline day may have been the most boring in 10 years, but at least it didn’t result in me loudly cursing in public as it did last year when the Steve Staios trade broke). Most importantly, though, I really don’t see how Jay Feaster could have done anything differently. All he has to do is keep on doing whatever it is he has been doing, and Flames fans can sit back and enjoy the rest of the season.

Some other belated deadline thoughts. Everybody should have known that the day itself would be boring – the flurry of trades in the weeks prior showed that GMs could not care less about TSN’s ratings – but I was still surprised at just how quiet it was. Elliotte Friedman explained much of it: one of the main reasons was because GMs are apparently somewhat reluctant to add dodgy contracts past 2012, since the CBA expires then. Nothing was more emblematic of the comical overestimation of the day than the Marty Reasoner non-story. Suddenly hyped up as the final fourth-line piece to complete the Canucks a few days before the deadline, the rumors persisted up until the final hour, despite multiple reports that Dale Tallon would not trade him that far away, out of respect for Reasoner and his wife expecting a child soon. He ended up staying in Florida. It was shameful for the media to buy into that rumor continually, but not as bad as how people fell for the fake Nick Kypreos reporting Dustin Penner to Montreal. (I fell for this one too, but only because I kept forgetting to actually follow the real Kypreos. Although, I have to give some credit to the faker, because the trade he faked – Penner for Jarred Tinordi and a 1st – seems not far off from what a hypothetical Penner-to-Montreal trade would have been, given what LA gave up.) I didn’t understand the Niclas Bergfors trade for Atlanta, but it was a reminder of Dale Tallon’s proven specialty in blowing up sad franchises, even if Bergfors is a disappointment. Going back to the Flames, Jay Feaster admitted he was interested in Chris Higgins, but was reluctant because of Higgins’ injury. That’s a good non-move, even if it benefits the Canucks, and demonstrates a key difference between him and Darryl. I heard lots of praise for the Capitals, but I’m pretty sure I’ve heard them declared the winners of at least the past three deadlines, with no results so far. (I say good job by Lou on Arnott, getting back pretty much what he gave up in the first place in somewhat difficult circumstances). On Brad Richards, I understand the rationale behind not trading him, but I have a feeling it will prove to be the wrong move for Dallas. I say this for no other reason than I have not been at all impressed with Joe Nieuwendyk as a GM. If the Stars end up with a deep-pocketed owner and re-sign Richards, I’ll take it back. Finally, although Monday was a snoozefest by deadline day standards, this was the most exciting trade SEASON in many years. I would be surprised if the spirit didn’t continue in the offseason, because this year’s UFA class is very weak.


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Ian White Trade: Another Cynical Analysis

In the wake of a wave of unsubstantiated Jarome Iginla speculation, Darryl Sutter decided to distract Flames fans by making another trade to complain about. Ian White and his facial hair as well as Brett Sutter are gone, replaced by Anton Babchuk and Tom Kostopoulos. My immediate knee-jerk biased reaction: it looks to me like an about equal trade in value, but a trade that does not really do anything to serve the Flames’ pressing needs. There’s a cliché here I would use but won’t, since I am sure other cynical Flames fans will have a similar analysis. Most Darryl Sutter trades are horrible in their own way and this one is no exception.

Ian White was one of the Flames’ best, and only, non “core” trade chips. He certified himself as a UFA goner the second Mark Giordano signed his $20M extension, and I had long felt he would be traded at the deadline. Therefore, this trade was surprising to me first of all because of the timing. But what I definitely did not expect – even with the full knowledge that the second-worst GM in the league was still managing the Flames – was for White to be essentially replaced straight-up with a similar defenseman. My knowledge of Anton Babchuk is admittedly small, but I have not heard bad things about the guy. His best season two years ago (16 goals and 35 points in 72 games with a +13 rating) is roughly equivalent to White’s breakout year last year. His stats this year are roughly the same as White’s, with a slightly less awful +/-. So, he should prove an adequate replacement. But was simply replacing White with another defenseman the right choice? Clearly, a decent pick or two, half-decent offensive prospect, or even a top six forward would have been more useful to the Flames. White’s value may well have been exemplified by his abysmal -10 rating, but given that this is a Darryl Sutter trade, I somewhat doubt it. It has now been reported that the trade had been in the works for weeks, and that the Flames began the process of shopping White immediately after Giordano’s extension. We may never know the extent to which Darryl shopped White, but all you have to do to be sceptical on that front is to look at the trade which brought White to Calgary in the first place.

I am almost ignoring the other part of the deal – the Brett Sutter for Tom Kostopoulos swap. I find it funny that the day after George Johnson wrote a reactionary column saying Brett “had to go” (as if removing the lowest level Sutter would fix the team’s nepotism) it actually happened. Bob McKenzie reported that Brett’s Patrick Kane impersonation in Phoenix had nothing to do with him being moved, and that Carolina had requested him prior to the arrest. Just like White-for-Babchuk, this is at best a lateral move. Like Babchuk, I have not heard scathing reviews of Kostopoulos. On the other hand, I have not seen anyone argue the Flames’ bottom six should be a priority, so it’s hard to get excited. I can only wish more Sutters leave for Carolina to join Brett and Brandon, to make an obvious joke.

With White gone, so goes the Flames’ best non-“core” trade chip. If the Flames are in the same bottom-10 state at the deadline, perhaps Alex Tanguay could be rented out (he does have an NTC on his 1-year deal though), or maybe someone will take a chance on Niklas Hagman. Or maybe Robyn Regehr will actually be dealt. Only time will tell if the Flames use these other players to fulfill their actual needs – better top-six forwards, and if not that, high picks and/or decent offensive prospects - that this trade clearly did not.


(Addendum: if anyone is wondering why it took this for me to write again, I have no excuse for my laziness. However, I was planning on addressing the Iginla speculation again, but I do wonder if this trade signifies that that speculation is a lost cause.)

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Flames Draft Report: Disappointment

With not a single pick in the top 60, expectations could not have been that high for the Flames at this year’s entry draft. The rumour mill buzzed with far-fetched rumours about players like Jordan Staal, Jason Spezza and even Ilya Kovalchuk that some desperate Flames fans (including myself) ate up. But all the Flames came away with after two days in Los Angeles was a possible solution to their backup goaltending problem, and six generally Sutter-like, unexciting prospects. (Please note, the draft is my area of least expertise when it comes to discussing hockey. Please take what I say with a grain of salt, as I am operating on second-hand information.)

The most notable name to come out of the Flames’ draft was a player they didn’t draft. You typically can’t expect great potential with a third round pick, but there Kirill Kabanov was at number 64, practically begging to be taken. And indeed a fair number of Flames fans following Day 2 of the draft probably were begging Darryl Sutter to take the gamble. I knew going into the draft that there was no chance Darryl would take the enigmatic Russian, even if he was available, but I am still a bit angry. If there ever was a time for the Flames to take a gamble on a guy like Kabanov, it would have been this draft. With no top-60 pick, and the primary organizational need being top-end offensive prospects, nobody would have blamed Darryl for momentarily overcoming his Russian prejudice and swinging for the fences. Instead, they picked an ex-Flames’ son, Maxwell Reinhart, about 10 spots off the board, who I have not yet heard has top-six potential. Kabanov went to the Islanders the very next pick, who are certainly another team that can’t be blamed for it.

The best prospect the Flames came away with on paper appears to be Bill Arnold, taken at #108 in the fourth round. It could be a steal, as Arnold was ranked 36th among North American skaters. Kent Wilson of HockeysFuture and says that Arnold’s comparable is Dave Bolland. Certainly, if he reaches that potential, the Dustin Boyd trade will not look bad anymore (Arnold was picked with the 4th rounder Nashville gave the Flames for Boyd). Joey Leach, taken 73rd overall (about 40 spots ahead of rank) looks like an enigmatic defenseman; his most attractive quality is his +33 rating. Probably a worthy gamble, but I just question the need for more defensemen in the system with Matt Pelech, TJ Brodie, John Negrin, and others showing promise, and with the cupboards comparatively bare up front. John Ramage is the other defenseman taken, at #103, and shows less promise on paper than Leach. (On the other hand, Andy Strickland reported that the Blues would have taken him with the next pick. St Louis has been one of the better drafting teams, so perhaps he will turn out alright. Again, though, I must question the need for more defenseman). John Ferland, taken in the fifth round, projects as mostly a fighter. Not much can really be added. Their seventh-round pick, Patrick Holland, is a raw forward taken around his ranking.

The Flames’ lone trade came when they dealt their sixth round pick to the Sharks for goaltender Henrik Karlsson. He has decent enough numbers in the Swedish Elite League, and a sixth round pick is little to give up. Darryl Sutter seems to believe he’s found a solution to the backup goaltender position. This year’s flooded goalie market means that many veterans could have been had at cheap prices, but good on Darryl if he indeed has solved this persistent problem. (I should note, Karlsson has already signed in the KHL, hopefully that won’t be a headache). However, it is only one problem, and of considerable less urgency than the immediate issue of the Flames’ salary cap situation and need for more scoring.

By far the most troubling thing to come out of the draft for Calgary, at least in the immediate sense, was Darryl Sutter’s inability (or unwillingness) to move any big contracts. Cory Sarich, Steve Staios and others remain on the cap. This means that the Flames, unless something drastic happens in the next three days, will go into July 1 with no money to spend. Ian White and his arbitration eligibility, as it stands, eat up most of the Flames’ cap. With this year’s extremely weak UFA class, it’s possible some players may have more value in trades once the first wave of free agents are signed, but until then Flames fans are looking at a team virtually the same as last year’s.

Still, I have to maintain some optimism, so I’ll hold off on officially writing off the 2011 Flames for now. Salary dumps may or may not happen, but I’ll return with an offseason wish list blog soon.


(Addendum: I advise all Flames fans who haven’t already to read Kent Wilson’s review of the Flames 2010 draft for more information on their picks this year. I took some information from there for this blog, and didn’t get into too much depth so as not to shamelessly copy…with Steve Yzerman’s risky, off-the-board first top pick, one has to momentarily reconsider whether he would have been a great GM here…what should be entertaining on July 1 is seeing how much Matthew Lombardi will get overpaid…with Jason Spezza apparently staying in Ottawa, the only top-line center available appears to be Mike Ribeiro. Can’t say I’d mind him at all, but I do wonder about the asking price.)

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Iginla Question

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.)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Early (?) Flames Postmortem

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 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 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.)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Flames Post-Deadline Report: WTF?

The Flames couldn’t have been expected to make blockbusters necessarily, having already made the two biggest trades of the year a month earlier. However, it was fair to at least expect some additional tinkering by Darryl Sutter. He had a large surplus of forwards (albeit, mostly mediocre ones). The team itself was facing a very tight playoff race, with a sense of urgency still remaining not only to make the playoffs but make a significant run. What Darryl did, however, was simply three incomprehensible moves that appear to me to be, at best, lateral moves that won’t really improve the team. At worst, they could actually damage them, both in the short and long term.

The first trade, Curtis McElhinney for Vesa Toskala, I see as a pure lateral move which, worst case scenario, could cause the Flames to miss the playoffs. I will admit that, of the three trades, this trade is the only one which really makes any kind of twisted “sense”. Miikka Kiprusoff’s chronic burnout due to the lack of a good backup goalie has been an issue for the last three years, and remains the single most likely thing to kill the Flames’ season. And McElhinney clearly was not a viable backup goaltender. They traded McElhinney, with a year remaining on his contract, for Toskala, a $4M pending UFA who has been maybe the worst goaltender of the last two years who started a significant number of games. I have never been a Toskala fan. Darryl Sutter, in his post-deadline press conference, said that Toskala was “a player [he] was familiar with.” But clearly, the Toskala Darryl had in San Jose is nowhere close to the player he just acquired.

I really think he only trades for a rental goalie that expensive if he intends to play him significantly down the stretch to attempt to take pressure off Kiprusoff. Kipper is on pace for 73 starts, which is about 10 too many. But as I noted in my pre-deadline preview blog, even if the Flames acquired a decent backup (which Toskala is highly questionable as, even) how many times could you realistically play him in March and April, while taking significant enough pressure off Kiprusoff? Looking at the schedule, the Flames only have one back-to-back left: March 14th and 15th at Vancouver and at home against Detroit. They also only play two teams – two – currently more than four points out of a playoff spot (Minnesota three times – including tonight’s home game, and a road game against the Islanders). With 20 games remaining, Kiprusoff essentially has to split starts with Toskala in order to reach a more reasonable workload for the season (Kipper has played in 55 games so far and starts tonight against the Wild). But looking at the schedule, I only see these games as potential Toskala starts: the final game of the season at Vancouver (but only if the Flames have already clinched a playoff spot), March 25th against the Islanders, March 21st against the Wild, MAYBE March 14th against the Canucks (only because it is the first half of a back-to-back, with the second game against Detroit, sure to be a four-point game for the Flames.) That’s only four games, max, less than half of what it would take to give Kiprusoff a reasonable workload. In my opinion, putting Toskala in any other games could prove fatal to the Flames’ playoff chances, and it’s dangerous enough starting him in most of the games I listed. Maybe I’d be more optimistic about this trade if the Flames had done it earlier in the year, when there were more opportunities to actually play a backup goalie, but that doesn’t appear to be the case now.

The second deal, Dustin Boyd to Nashville for a 4th rounder, is one I can’t say makes any sense. The Flames did have an excess of forwards, but they were under no obligation to move bodies, because after the trade deadline teams are allowed to exceed the 23-man roster limit as long as they’re under the cap. Boyd may not have met the Flames’ expectations so far, but he was a pending RFA who the Flames could have dealt later if they really felt like it. Right now, though, I don’t think should have been the time to give up on him, especially for a piddling 4th rounder.

By far the trade I was most outraged at, however, was Sutter’s final deal, acquiring Steve freaking Staios from the Oilers for Aaron Johnson and a 3rd round pick. Even if the Flames weren’t fulfilling an apocalyptic scenario by trading with the Oilers, this would be an absolutely terrible and nonsensical deal. The acquisition of Staios continues Sutter’s long tradition of trading 3rd round picks for terrible depth defenseman (David Hale in 2007 followed by Jim Vandermeer in 2008). By trading the 3rd (the Flames’ choice of 2010 or 2011, I’m guessing it will be 2011) the Flames now only have three top-90 picks the next two years. This year, they do not have a pick until the third round, and in 2011 they do not have a 2nd or 3rd round pick. In addition, I don’t know how Staios is preferable to Johnson. By far the most troubling aspect of adding Staios, though, is the fact that the Flames are now adding his $2.7M cap hit to next year’s payroll. It’s essentially the equivalent of re-adding Jim Vandermeer’s old nightmarish $2.3M hit, only even more expensive. And I doubt Sutter can pull off a miraculous salary dump of Staios like he did with Vandermeer.

Ever since Darryl Sutter bulked up on defense last summer at the clear expense of his offense, I have wondered what exactly his long term plan is. With the Dion Phaneuf and Olli Jokinen deals, it appeared he was trying to shake things up while still somewhat trying to win now, but the team as it looks on paper was still highly questionable going into the deadline. Now, it really does not look much different. It almost sometimes seems as if Sutter does not actually have a plan, instead he just aims to make the playoffs and see what happens, regardless of how good the team actually looks. The trade for Vesa Toskala looks like at best a lateral move, and at worst something that could cost them a playoff spot. The Boyd and Staios trades, however, just look like something that could actually be more harmful than anything.


(More trade deadline thoughts: I loved all of the Capitals’ moves. It seems to me like maybe the only thing that could stop them is if their goaltending falters, just like the Blackhawks….Oilers fans should be quite happy with the return for Staios, but I did not like their Vishnovsky-for-Whitney trade. Lateral move at best, big downgrade at worst…can someone explain the Wolski trade from the Avs’ perspective? That one kind of came out of nowhere and I don’t get that one for them…quite bizarre to see the Coyotes being so aggressive. I’m sure Gary Bettman was smiling and nodding as they made their moves…the Ducks trading for Joey Macdonald could be seen as a mark of how little faith they have in Curtis McElhinney. Poor Curtis, the Flames never should have put him in a backup position…finally, I did not even know Andy Delmore was still a professional hockey player, but the Flames capped off the day by trading Riley Armstrong for him.)

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Olympic Thoughts | The Flames at the Deadline

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I originally planned to post a general post-gold-medal game, pre-deadline blog this afternoon. However, though I expected an epic game, I had no idea just how epic. I genuinely was not expecting Sidney Crosby and Jarome Iginla to give Canada a truly generational hockey moment.

The goal will be discussed for years; it instantly joined the pantheon of legendary moments in Canadian hockey (arguably, Canadian history in general). I don’t know if I can put an original spin on this moment. It will be discussed and reminisced upon for years to come. I don’t have a great “where-were-you” story; I watched the entire game in my living room. But it was the most I’ve ever celebrated at a sporting event, and though this may be seen as corny or generic, I soon realized just how special a moment it was. To my generation (I was born in 1990), Crosby’s goal is our Henderson moment. I can’t fathom another international hockey moment in my lifetime being bigger than it. As Bob McKenzie noted, the 2002 Salt Lake City win was also a huge moment, but it wasn’t nearly as dramatic.

The ending of the game reminded me a lot of the ending of the Calgary-Vancouver Game 7 from 2004. A last minute tying goal which seemingly sucked the entire life out of the winning team’s fanbase (of course, the key difference is that the Game 7 was played in Vancouver, so the tying goal had the opposite effect it had on the mostly Canadian fans in the seats this time. My point is, I felt exactly the same as a Canadian fan when Parise scored as I did as a Flames fan when Matt Cooke scored with 5 seconds left in 2004.) On both occasions, when the tying goal went in, I thought the game was lost (especially in Canada’s case since they had basically been trying not to lose rather than going for the kill for the entire third period). But anything can happen in overtime, and Team Canada pulled out the win just as the Flames did. And just as Jarome Iginla played a pivotal role in that Game 7, he did in this game, setting up Crosby for the goal (sadly, Iginla’s role may be overlooked by some). And now Iginla has to go back to Calgary and downgrade from playing with Sidney back to playing with Matt Stajan. And that’s a great segue for me to shift into the Flames part of my blog.

The Olympics were preceded by eight years of hype that sometimes felt like twenty. And now they’re over after two weeks that felt like half that. The NHL’s absence has felt like an offseason, however. As usual, my outlook on the Flames is not great heading into the stretch run. That can make up its own separate blog, but now is a time to focus on the trade deadline and what it means for the Flames.

Simple logic dictates that the Flames have to move a few bodies soon. They have 24 roster players, all on one way deals, and this doesn’t include Mikael Backlund, who was sent down for the Olympic break but who I have heard will be recalled. Hence, at least one player must be removed, with Rene Bourque and Craig Conroy due to return from injured reserve. Darryl Sutter has said that he is happy with the look of his forwards and probably done dealing, but how seriously can his comments be taken after his angry denials that Dion Phaneuf was on the block?

Of these 25 players, 15 are forwards, and 11 are wingers – 3 excess wingers. I think something is in the works a bit more complicated than, say, Brian McGrattan being waived and one other player being traded for a pick. David Moss, in the midst of a quite disappointing season and with two more years on his deal, could be dealt. The inconsistent Nigel Dawes seems a good candidate as well. Another idea is Dustin Boyd, though he’s not a winger. The Flames agreed to give him a one way deal in exchange for a one year contract, which meant they were essentially challenging him to prove himself. He is a pending UFA now, but is still young and could be a decent piece. A more radical idea is still re-flipping Ales Kotalik, but it seems unlikely to me. Ever since the baffling trade of Olli Jokinen’s expiring contract and Brandon Prust for Kotalik and Chris Higgins (and Kotalik’s contract), Flames fans have proposed the idea that Kotalik may be flipped in another deal. Part of this has revolved around the fact that the Flames were supposedly on Kotalik’s three-team limited no-trade clause. (I’d like to note two counterpoints to this, however. First, Darren Dreger said that the trade was delayed not because of Kotalik’s NTC but apparently something from Calgary’s end. Second, if there really was another team Darryl Sutter promised Kotalik he would be traded to, wouldn’t they have been involved immediately? Unless, of course, they couldn’t absorb Kotalik’s salary until the trade deadline, but this sort of delayed 3-team trade is unprecedented.) I wouldn’t be that surprised either way, whether or not Kotalik is still a Flame come March 4th. However, from day one I have been mystified as to how he fits into the system here, especially given his contract. (I will say this in his defense – he has added a new dimension to the powerplay, which hasn’t looked quite so abysmal since his arrival.) Regardless of what happens with Kotalik, though, it’s apparent to me that Darryl is not done dealing.

I’ll be back after the trade deadline analyzing whatever moves, if any, the Flames made and determining their outlook heading into the stretch run. In the meantime, here’s to a truly unforgettable Olympics and hopefully another exciting trade deadline.


(Addendum: I also wouldn’t be very surprised if Darryl indeed simply did something like waiving McGrattan and demoting Backlund, or trading another player for a non-roster player. I consider this a mark of my generally low faith in the man, which has been at an all-time low since the Kotalik trade.)