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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How the Flames Resemble the Post-Lockout Maple Leafs

burke flames leafs trade stupid
The Calgary Flames went through the pre-season without losing a game and convinced everyone in Calgary that their team would rebound from a disappointing 2009-2010 to contend in a tough Western Conference. Well, that certainly hasn’t happened. The Flames are currently second last in the Western Conference – only two points above the last placed Oilers.

In actuality, the Flames have been a major disappointment every year since they made a surprising run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2004. They got lucky in 2004. Kiprusoff played out of his mind, Iginla was good enough to carry the team, and the rest of the players were hard-working and chipped in big goals at opportune moments. Everything came together for the Flames that season. It was magical, and expecting the Flames to duplicate that run was insane.

They followed up that season by winning the Northwest Division in 2005-2006, but were upset by the Ducks in the first round. They failed to make it past the first round in each of the next three seasons and missed the playoffs entirely last year.

It isn’t surprising that the Flames have performed at this mediocre level. They’ve always been good enough to contend for a playoff spot, but never strong enough to actually make any substantial run at the Stanley Cup. They’ve essentially had a team good enough to stay afloat, but not good enough to actually excel.

This reminds me of a team I know well. This team I know had major problems like the Flames, but continued to bandage their cracks instead of fixing their Grand Canyon sized holes. This eventually led them to become one of the worst teams in the league.

In honour of Dion Phaneuf’s return to Calgary tomorrow night here are all the reasons why the Flames reflect the hapless Maple Leafs of the post-lockout. That sentence alone should convince the Flames that they desperately need to re-build.

Overpaid Blueline

After the lockout the Leafs heavily invested in their backend, re-signing both Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle, while signing Pavel Kubina and Hal Gill to lucrative deals. Those four defencemen cost the Leafs close to $20 million, yet continually led the Leafs to the bottom of the league in goals against (yes, Raycroft and Toskala share the blame here, too). The Leafs are still following this build from the blue-line out philosophy, but at least are receiving a little more production for their money.

The Flames face a similar situation. This year their top-6 defencemen make close to $20 million per season, but once Mark Giordano’s extension kicks in next season they will spend this amount on only four defencemen. The Flames have the luxury of a world-class goalie in net, but are still 21st in goals against.

Giving Jay Bouwmeester close to $7 million a season is turning into a worse contract than the one the Leafs gave Bryan McCabe. At least the Flames are getting someone somewhat capable of playing defence, but the Leafs received someone capable of actually scoring points.

Depleted Farm System

The Leafs spent the better part of the 2000s trading away first round picks and prospects for rental players at the trade deadline in hopes of winning a Stanley Cup. We all know how that worked out. Eventually, continually draining their assets meant that they boasted one of the worst groups of prospects in the league (and the ones that were good they would eventually trade anyways – see Rask, Tuukka).

The first year after the lockout the Leafs hoped the next great wave of young superstars arriving in the form of Kyle Wellwood, Carlo Colaiacovo, Alex Steen, and Ian White would help replace the departed Alex Mogilny, Joe Nieuwendyk, Bryan Leetch, and Gary Roberts. It wasn’t exactly a blue-chip group and they didn't make anyone forget about the departed.

Hockey’s Future currently ranks the Calgary Flames dead last in the entire league in terms of prospects. The Flames’ best chance at a top-line talent is Mikael Backlund who is currently playing with the big club and has 7 points in 30 games.

Cap Trouble

The Leafs put themselves right up against the cap after the lockout, yet produced a roster that was only good enough to make a run at the final playoff spot over the last month of the season. They never spent their money wisely and routinely gave out contract that only Glen Sather thought were bargains.

The Flames have settled right under the cap as well and have absolutely $0 in space. The only reason they’re able to ice a team is because they have close to $4 million on long-term injury reserve.

The Flames’ situation forced them to trade Dion Phaneuf to the Leafs last year for depth players, which failed to catapult them into the playoffs. Everyone knows that trading a 24-year-old former Norris candidate when he’s at his lowest possible value is a great move.

You’re in trouble when you’re spending everything you can and you still aren’t nearly good enough to make the playoffs. At that point you need to start looking at your roster and determine who is realistically a part of your long-term plans.

The Aging Superstar

The Flames still have a legitimate superstar in Jarome Iginla, but there isn’t much around him. He’s accompanied by a series of washed up has-beens and ex-Maple Leafs – a bad combination. Mats Sundin played with washed up has-beens and actual Maple Leafs during the post-lockout years in Toronto.

Jarome Iginla, at his current age, isn’t the type of player that is capable of doing everything himself. Ultimately, neither was Mats Sundin (although he did come close to doing so in 1999). The Flames can no longer rely on trotting out a line-up of nobodies and Iginla and expect to win. Iginla is 33-years-old and isn’t capable of being the go-to-guy on a contending team anymore. It’s sad but true.

Another parallel is that both men enjoy(ed) the comforts of a NTC. If the Flames decide to re-build, Iginla is their best chip to trade. If he rebukes the Flames just like Sundin did then it could be a much longer re-build in Calgary.

Reliance on Reclamation Projects

After the lockout the Leafs hoped that Jason Allison, Eric Lindros, and Jeff O’Neill would be enough support for Mats Sundin to drag the Leafs back into the playoffs. They weren’t because they were playing in 2005-2006 and not the 2000-2001.

This year the Flames befuddled everyone by signing both Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay after both severely disappointed during their first stints in Calgary. Alex Tanguay actually is second on the team in points with 24 this season, but Jason Allison scored 60 points for the Leafs in 66 games and it didn’t really help them make the playoffs. Olli Jokinen has rediscovered the play that made him so ineffective during his original Calgary stay and has scored only 4 goals all season. Woof!

NTCs

The Flames have an astounding 11 players with no-trade clauses. Eleven! That boggles my mind. You would think that every general manager would look at the mess JFJ made of the Leafs and realize what a horrible idea giving out NTCs are.

The Flames’ players with NTCs are: Jarome Iginla, Daymond Langkow, Matt Stajan (seriously!), Rene Bourque (they thought it was Ray), Ales Kotalik (shaking my head), Olli Jokinen (a no movement clause because Jokes was in such high demand), Alex Tanguay (another NMC), Jay Bouwmeester, Robyn Regehr, Corey Sarich, and Miikka Kiprusoff.

Some of these players must employ a mutant Scott Boras negotiating their contracts because there is no way that anyone here other than Iginla and Kiprusoff should have this clause.

The Leafs only had five players with trade restrictions, yet this caused them major long-term problems. In 2008, with JFJ disposed, Cliff Fletched attempted to make sweeping changes to the Leafs by dealing Mats Sundin, Darcy Tucker, Bryan McCabe, Tomas Kaberle, and Pavel Kubina, but their NTCs prevented such action. The Leafs are still dealing with the fall-out of JFJ’s foolish decision to hand these clauses out considering Tomas Kaberle will never be traded and will leave as a UFA on July 1st.

If the Flames are serious about re-building (which they really should) then having a roster filled with unmoveable players will make it especially difficult to do so.

Terrible Management

Calgary fans once had a motto: “In Sutter we trust”. Hopefully, no one actually says that anymore because everything I’ve written seems to suggest that Darryl Sutter is completely untrustworthy.

JFJ was totally unprepared and unqualified for the Leafs’ job, but Sutter comes from one of the most storied hockey families and has years of experience in the league. There is no excuse for his absolute incompetence. It’s time for the Flames to fire both Sutter brothers, promote Jay Feaster to GM and start a proper re-build.

The Flames as they are currently constructed are at the very best a bubble team. Realistically, they aren’t even that good. They don't have any prospects to rely on making the team better in the future and can only count on their veterans regressing as they age.

This isn’t 2004. The Flames can’t hope that Miikka Kiprusoff stands on his head and Jarome Iginla carries the team on his back. The planets may have aligned allowing that strategy to lead the Flames to the cup final then, but now, over five years later, that’s only part of the Flames’ problem.

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