Friday, June 1, 2012

Going For It: The Calgary Flames Story

bob hartley flames
According to Albert Einstein, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If one of history's greatest scientists was alive today he might look at the Calgary Flames and see insanity personified.

The Calgary Flames have missed the playoffs for the past three seasons and haven't passed the first round since making the Stanley Cup Final in 2004. The roster is aging and the prospect pool is thin, which seem like good reasons to start a rebuild, but Calgary has other ideas. The Flames are blind to the apparent, and yesterday's hiring of Bob Hartley confirms that, although not on the surface.

Hartley is an accomplished NHL coach; he led the Colorado Avalanche to a Stanley Cup in 2001, during a stretch of four straight seasons of making it to the Western Conference Final, and he was the only coach to ever lead the Atlanta Thrashers to a playoff berth. He is a well-respected NHL coach, one that the Calgary Flames should be praised for signing. However, the Flames haven't hired Hartley to lead a rebuild in Calgary; they have hired Hartley to 'go for it'.

Darren Dreger of TSN asked Calgary GM Jay Feaster whether the hiring of Hartley has any impact on potential off-season trades. Feaster's response was that you don't hire a coach like Hartley if you're going to trade away your veteran players like Jarome Iginla.

If Feaster is telling the truth it confirms that the Calgary Flames are going for it. One year older, slower, and more expensive, but they're going for it.

The team has been on the cusp of the playoffs for the last three years, missing by only a handful of points each season. Being so close justifies adding to the team in an attempt to try to break the bubble and crash the playoffs. If you just make it in, anything can happen, right?

"One of the teams in the Stanley Cup finals, the L.A. Kings, just finished five points ahead of the Calgary Flames," Hartley said during his introductory press conference. "It's just to show you the difference between being a Stanley Cup winner and a non-playoff team is very, very slim."

This logic ignores the fact that the Kings were a young team picked by many at the start of the season to be among the elite in the NHL, only to struggle mightily until late February. The Kings may have snuck in as the eighth seed in the Western Conference, but they were not your typical eighth seed. They went 13-5-3 after acquiring Jeff Carter in February and had young, skilled players loaded throughout the line-up, including up the middle (Mike Richards, Anze Kopitar), on defence (Drew Doughty), and in goal (Jonathan Quick).

In comparison, the Calgary Flames are led by Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff, two players on the wrong side of 30. Iginla finished the season with over 30 goals for the 11th straight season, but only managed 67 points, his lowest total since 2005-06. He will be 35 by the start of next season and has shown he can no longer carry the Flames on a nightly basis. Even last season when he scored over 40 goals and 80 points, the Flames still missed the playoffs.

Kiprusoff had a strong 2011-12 season, posting a .921 save percentage, his highest mark since 2005-06. Unfortunately, he will be 36 before the end of October, and has shown over the last six seasons that he is just as likely to post a save percentage under .910 as he is to post a save percentage over .910. Accordingly, there is no reason to believe that Kiprusoff can consistently play at an elite level the closer he gets to 40.

Both Iginla and Kiprusoff are good players, but the two pillars of the Flames are aging, along with the rest of their roster, and management steadfastly refuses to acknowledge this. Feaster and company are holding out hope that the team will miraculously catch fire and make the playoffs, rewarding their decision not to rebuild, which they should have started by now.

Instead, next year's Flames squad will try to rekindle some of the magic between Mike Cammalleri, brought in from Montreal mid-season, and Iginla—magic that produced 171 points between the two linemates in 2008-09. However, that so-called magic also got the Flames as far as every other playoff-bound Flames squad of the post-lockout, a first-round playoff exit.

Four years later the Flames have an older, more expensive, less productive Mike Cammalleri, and placed him on an inferior roster to one that already wasn't good enough to make it out of the first round. Flames fans are supposed to expect what, exactly? An older, inferior team finds a magic potion and somehow becomes better, leading to an improbable Stanley Cup?

The Flames are delaying the inevitable. They are a team in decline. That type of team doesn't make a substantial leap in the standings from one year to the next, certainly not after treading water year after year. If there is any dramatic shift, it will be down, not up. Yet management seem oblivious.

There isn't any help on the horizon either. Their prospect pool is running dry, apart from Sven Baertschi, who just had a monster season in junior and didn't look out-of-place during an emergency call-up that lasted five games. However, despite Baertschi, Hockey's Future recently ranked the Flames system 26th in the league and Puck Prospectus had Calgary at 27 last year. That doesn't provide a lot of hope.

The only real chance the Flames have of dramatically altering their roster is through free agency. They have 6 UFAs and 4 RFAs, so based on a potential $70 million cap ceiling, they will have about $20 million in cap space to spend. A substantial amount of that money will need to go to Olli Jokinen, who is coming off a 60-point season, and will be the only quality centre in a barren marketplace. That sound you hear is a cash register being emptied into a burlap sack with a dollar sign on it.

In addition to re-upping Jokinen, the Flames can re-tool on the fly and attempt to sign either Alex Semin, unless he's KHL bound, or Zach Parise, but those are the only potential difference-makers on the open market? Parise is great, but is he good enough to mask the mounting deficiencies that father time is quickly exposing in Calgary?

Even with Parise or Semin, the lineup will consist of Iginla, Cammalleri, Alex Tanguay, Matt Stajan, and free agent X on forward. On defence, it will be Jay Bouwmeester, who is no longer anything more than a minute-muncher, and Mark Giordano. Is that a group that is suddenly an elite force in the Western Conference? No. That is an eighth place team if everything breaks right. More likely, if your season rests on the bones of players in their mid-30s it will be bodies breaking.

The future in Calgary is a bleak dystopia, one where poor Jarome Iginla is too proud to leave a franchise that is collecting his centremen from the garbage heap. One where Miikka Kiprusoff plays 75 games as Calgary chases that elusive eighth spot, one that seems further away than it did a year ago. One that already played out in Toronto and resulted in never-ending disaster.

It doesn't have to be that way. The Flames sit on two major pieces that could fetch a handful of strong prospects and picks that could help kick-start a bright future in Calgary. But all indications point to Iginla and Kiprusoff spending another middling year in Alberta, just playing well enough to get to the door to playoffs, but not well enough to step inside.

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