Standing at the Crossroads – The Flames Fell to Their Knees

Borrowing some symbolism from the great Robert Johnson, the Flames have finally arrived at the crossroads.

With their starting goaltender sidelined with a long term injury, their star forward only scoring twice in his last twenty six games, along with their number two defenseman making more mental mistakes than most rookies, and the rest of the team being wildly inconsistent, it is not difficult to imagine why the Flames are having some serious difficulties. Only twice this season the Flames have been able to hold the opposition to two goals or less. In those games, the opposition has started their backup goalies more so than not and yet they have still only managed five wins. Four of those came against teams that are not currently in a playoff spot, and the other win was against the team currently in eighth. It would be more reassuring if we were heading into an easy stretch of games, but of the next 18 games only 6 games are against teams that they have either defeated this year or have had an easier time with in the past (Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, and Colorado).

That’s not to say it’s all doom and gloom. We have seen some decent stats put up by several of our players. Alex Tanguay has 12 points in 15 games, Mike Cammalleri has 11 in 12. Even Jarome, who has started off slowly, has 10 in 15 games, which has been matched exactly by Lee Stempniak. The much maligned Jay Boumeester is surprisingly on pace for 15 goals in a normal season, after seeing his offense vanish under Brent Sutter. Therein lies the rub. We do have solid players, attractive players. If I were a contending team, I would be looking at the Flames because there are several players that you could conceivably fold into your own team and see them contributing towards the goal of winning the cup.

Herein lies the crossroads.

The question on the placard for management to ponder is, do you pull the pin? The answer to that question determines the Flames future, both immediately and moving forward.

The notable thing with each of the players listed above, is that each of them is over the age of 30 except Bouwmeester, who will be by the start of next year. The problem with players that are over 30 is that their skills slowly begin to diminish. We are starting to see this happen with Jarome, who hasn’t yet scored a goal off a slap shot, which is his bread and butter. Understandably, management is worried about trading their top gun. The last time the Flames traded the fan favourite, Theo Fleury, the fans stopped attending games and tuning in to watch the games on television, which caused the owners to sustain a huge loss in revenue and nearly forced them to relocate. That would cause even the most resilient owner some pause.

Back then, after Fleury’s departure, the Flames prospect pool and the organization as a whole was mostly bereft of talent. The Canadian-US conversion was over $1.50, which limited the Flames ability to afford players and there was a general frustration over the course of the 90’s as one top player departed after another, usually with little to no return. Going from a contending team to a franchise that was on life support.

However, this time is different. Flames fans are frustrated because every year since the last lockout, the team has vastly underperformed due to inconsistencies that ultimately have held them back. In the last three years, things have gradually come to a head as the Flames have missed the playoffs altogether despite having playoff calibre teams. Every single fan that I have spoken with is genuinely frustrated with how we keep retrying the same formula each year, expecting different results.

If you look at the acquistions that General Manager Jay Feaster has made this past off season, it shows a management group that has a good eye for talent evaluation. Jiri Hudler, Dennis Wideman, and Roman Cervenka have exceeded expectations, and on many nights they have been our best players. The management group only has to look at prior trades involving similar players to gauge the expected returns that players like Iginla, Bouwmeester, and Kiprusoff should garner.

Based on historical equivalents Jarome Iginla should fetch at least a mid-late 1st round pick, a solid prospect or young NHLer (something between what Max Reinhart and Mark Jankowski are in terms of potential) and a 2nd round pick at minimum. The current Jay Bouwmeester is a hot hot commodity as good offensive two way D-men are insanely difficult to acquire, so basically every playoff team is going to be interested, especially those with depth and offense issues. He should be able to get a 1st + solid D prospect or young NHLer D and maybe more depending how desperate the other team is. Guys like Tanguay and Cammalleri could easily fetch a 1st +, and Stempniak might even draw a 2nd if you’re lucky. Kipper is a wildcard. The team that makes sense with him is Minnesota. They could use an upgrade in net, especially with Backstrom being UFA and Harding’s MS. If you could pry Matt Hackett from them, that would be a success, and they might just bite as they have Jonas Gustafsson in the SEL who is destroying that league currently.

With the Flames heading towards having a top 10 pick or even higher this year, and a thin prospect pool, this is the time where management and the ownership group need to think about what happens today and going forward. If you are managing assets in a strictly impartial manner, the instantaneous and unmistakable move is to trade off the over 30 players, and get as many prospects and picks that you can get your hands on and try to add as many talented players as you can. The thing that will annoy, frustrate and turn off fans the most is if the Flames choose to maintain the status quo.  The next move to most outside observers is that the Flames should begin a rebuild as soon as possible. I personally hate the idea of going through a rebuild/retool, but I can support the idea because it is the move that makes the most sense in our current situation. Fans would be amiable to the decision to rebuild because it would help put us on the path to becoming a contender once again. The Oilers didn’t see a drop off in attendance even though are still struggling with their ongoing rebuilding situation. Although that might have something to do with Old Dutch potato chips. In the event of the Flames moving out the veteran core, I won’t be cancelling my season tickets (As long as we get Lays chips instead) and every fan I’ve talked to near my seats have stated a similar opinion (We want Lays). We want to win, but we all realize that the time has passed for this group of players on this team. We’ll still be Iginla fans and will cheer him where ever he might end up (unless it’s Vancouver), but we will still be Flames fans and we’ll look at the new group of players, the Baertschi’s, Brodie’s, Gaudreau’s, and Jankowski’s with hopes that they will become future contenders.

Looking at the Flames current contract situation, Kiprusoff, Bouwmeester, Tanguay, Iginla, Cammalleri, and Stempniak earn a combined 31.501 million dollars. That does not count the 3.75 million that departs from next year’s payroll courtesy of Blake Comeau and Anton Babchuk, and the possible amnesty buyout of Matt Stajan with his 3.5 million that he’s due next year. With over 60 percent of the entire team’s cap tied up in only 9 players, all of whom are either under performing or are facing declining returns due to age, it becomes apparent why the Flames are currently 14th in the West. Now, if you look around the league in the past, the Florida Panthers had a huge hill to climb prior to last year to reach the cap floor. What they did was offer everyone that was on their list slightly above market and signed those players. They magically went from being a lottery pick team to a playoff team. While they are struggling now, that’s mostly due to their roster changes in the offseason.

Looking at next year’s free agents, you have a quality group of forwards including our current captain. The two names that jump out at me the most are Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. With Getzlaf having Calgary connections, playing for the Hitmen, and cap space to burn and a lack of a #1 center since Nieuwendyk, we’ll have just as good of a shot at signing him or any of the decent names that are unrestricted. There are about 10 free agent forwards that are in the same realm of talent as Alex Tanguay, Mike Cammalleri, Jarome Iginla. If we do move a significant portion of salary with full intentions of still being a cap team, it would be certain that we would be able to acquire one or two of them at the very least and possibly might be able to snag a slightly under heralded guy like Valtteri Filppula as well, quickly rebuilding our top 6, but this time with guys on the right side of 30.

The two paths before the management group is possibly making the playoffs sometime within the next 3 years with different players taking leadership roles or being overly reticent, delaying the likelihood of becoming a playoff hockey team.

 

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