Entering the lockout-shortened NHL season, it was difficult to tell whether the compressed schedule would help or hurt the Calgary Flames. Some argued that the 48-game scramble increased the team’s chances of getting in the playoffs through sheer luck.
Others argued that the Flames had failed to improve in the off-season. Halfway through a potentially watershed season for the Flames, it is apparent that the pessimists were right.
The Flames remain — as they have been for the past four years — a frustratingly mediocre team. Although this season has brought some glimmers of improvement and hope, the continuing justification of the team’s roster structure and goals becomes more unclear with every loss. The need for change has been pressing for a long time.
However, this season hasn’t been all bad. Head coach Bob Hartley’s new system at least is usually much more exciting with more aggressive offensive play than the conservative coaching strategies of Brent Sutter. Defenceman Jay Bouwmeester and forwards Alex Tanguay and Matt Stajan have experienced rejuvenation under coach Hartley. Centre Mikael Backlund — though still frustratingly injury-prone — is finally showing clear promise, while defender TJ Brodie is also showing he could be a fixture for years to come. But even in their best-played losses, the direction for the Flames remains utterly baffling. It has never been more apparent that the Flames severely lack in three key areas pertinent for success in the NHL: skill, speed and size.
Even the usually consistent goaltending looks unstable — or perhaps the defence is now too porous to compensate. Even accounting for Miikka Kiprusoff’s missed injury time, it is hard to overlook the fact that neither Kiprusoff nor Joey Macdonald have a save percentage above .900. Nowhere are their depth deficiencies more apparent than at the most important position: centre. Flashy import centre Roman Cervanka turned out not to be able to actually play centre. This leaves only the injury-prone Backlund and Matt Stajan as the Flames’s only two natural centres. As admirably as Stajan has played as their top centre, a team that has Stajan as its best centre simply can’t be a competitive team. Even if the Flames somehow sneak into the playoffs, it is impossible to see how a first-round playoff matchup against an elite Western team would mean anything other than a lower draft pick.
To remedy the centre issue, the most dramatic event involving the team so far this season occurred off the ice. Flames GM Jay Feaster’s failed attempt to sign Ryan O’Reilly showed the club’s desperate need for centre depth and skilled youth. There are two main interpretations of this incident, and they don’t necessarily conflict. In Feaster’s defence, many argued, O’Reilly really does show incredible two-way promise, enough to be worth the risk of the first-round pick they would have given up — after all, Colorado matched the offer sheet for a reason.
Others argued that risking the pick, which, even with O’Reilly, stood the chance of being in the top five, was further proof of the Flames’s delusional, reckless and eternal go-for-it strategy. What should be clear in either case is that O’Reilly represented the last chance for a short-term fix without sacrificing the Flames’s future.
However, the whole endeavour became a fiasco. It was discovered that — due to an arcane rule from the last collective bargaining agreement — O’Reilly would have been lost on waivers had Colorado not matched, and Calgary would have lost their picks for nothing. The humiliation the Flames endured for this mistake should have reminded management they are rightly regarded as a laughingstock. At this point, there is only one option left.
Management and ownership — and probably many fans as well — are still reluctant to embrace a full rebuild, which would include trading Jarome Iginla, which has already occurred, Kiprusoff, Bouwmeester and possibly others for high draft picks and top prospects. Flames brass know from watching the Oilers for the last four years and from the Flames’s own history of their last rebuild, in which they missed the playoffs for seven-straight seasons, that there is no way of knowing how long it will take to emerge from that hole once you embrace bottoming out.
Others simply believe the myth that rebuilding means tanking the season and abhor it for that reason. But the fact is teams are normally forced into rebuilding because of their own calamitous performances. This could very well happen to the Flames this season.
With Bouwmeester, Kiprusoff and Iginla all near or at the end of their contracts and the Flames’s stagnation more apparent than ever, there should be a clear sense that this era in franchise history is hitting its natural death.
Flames fans can only hope that ownership has the courage to face this. The rebuild may well be too late, but it’s better late than never. It may be a bad option, but one can no longer make the case that it is worse than chasing after overpriced and aging free agents.