The Calgary Flames and the Theory of Mediocrity

“I never think of the future—it comes soon enough.” –Albert Einstein

If he were born 80 years later, Albert Einstein would have been the perfect general manager for the Calgary Flames. After all, they have similar views on the future. It’s to the point that if the Calgary Flames didn’t share a province with the Edmonton Oilers or were located somewhere in Ohio, there would be countless jokes made at their expense.

It hasn’t always been like this. Coming out of the lockout, the Flames and their fans were relatively hopeful for the future—they had every right to be. In 2004, they took down the rival Canucks, Red Wings, and Sharks (the top three seeds in the West) for their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since they won it all in 1989. They had just proven that they could perform in the playoffs against the Western Conference’s elite, they had a goalie who was among the best in the world, and their captain had just won the Rocket Richard Trophy during the regular season. Future. Bright. Shades.

The optimism was validated for a handful of regular seasons after the lockout. They won the Northwest Division in 2005-06, only to be upset by the upstart Ducks in the first round. The Flames performed well as they earned a spot in the playoffs for each of the first four seasons after the lockout—only to lose in the first round each April.

Could the Flames add another banner to the rafters? (Photo on Wikicommons)

Unfortunately for those on the Red Mile in Calgary, those seasons were as good as it was going to get.

In recent years, the Flames have solidified their spot as one of “the best of the rest” in the Western Conference. They’ve earned at least 90 points in each of the last three seasons; yet have missed the playoffs in each of those three seasons. This season, they’re a year older and not much better while others in the West continue to improve. If we mapped out their progress on a graph, it would look like an Olympic downhill run with signs that read “watch downhill speed.”

Things aren’t headed in the right direction in Calgary and a look at their current roster and organizational depth tells us that it’s only going to get worse in the next couple of years. That is, unless you think Jiri Hudler, Roman Cervenka, and Bob Hartley can transform the team from pretender to contender.

All teams fall on hard times. That’s just the cyclical nature of professional sports. There are going to be good times and bad times—it’s the job of the general manager to extend the good times as long as possible and minimize the bad times to the bare minimum. Hell, even the Detroit Red Wings struggled before they rattled off two decades of playoff success. We try to make it sound more complicated than it really is by overanalyzing every trivial position of every single decision. When it comes down to it, that’s the entire job description: “be good as long as possible and try not to suck that often.”

So are the Flames headed for one of the valleys that franchises inevitably endure? Probably. “Inevitably” is the right word, because it was going to happen sooner or later. But Calgary’s management is doing their best to make sure this portion of the cycle is Death Valley without the hope of life for years to come. Let’s put it this way, one of GM Jay Feaster’s moves this offseason prompted this line from a St. Louis writer: “The Flames finished in terribleth place last season, so Jay Feaster is overhauling the roster by resigning all the same players.”

A huge reason the Flames can’t do anything is the inflexibility of the contracts the organization has handed out over the last few years. They currently have 11 players that have some sort of no-trade/no-movement clause in their contracts. That’s’ not a mistake. Eleven. Five of their defensemen, their franchise goaltender, and five forwards are all firmly planted in Calgary until their contracts expire or they give the green light on a trade.

It gets worse. This isn’t a temporary problem that vanishes at the end of the season. Sure, Anton Babchuk (and his inexplicable no-trade clause) comes off the books at the end of the 2012-13 season—that’ll be $2.5 million for GM Jay Feaster to play with next summer. The only way that becomes a bad situation is if the Flames decide to re-sign him and offer him another no-trade clause—because that’s just how they roll.

Jarome Iginla Flames

Should he stay or should he go? (Icon SMI)

Then there’s the sticky situation with Jarome Iginla. He’s also an unrestricted free agent after 2012-13 season and the team could use his $7 million to add pieces to the puzzle. Yet, if they let him go, they’ll lose their most consistent goal scorer, the unquestioned leader, and the unmistakable face of the franchise. Needless to say, there’s a lot more to the Iginla debate for the Flames than simply freeing up money on their salary cap and creating flexibility on their roster. Even if they made the decision to move on and trade Iginla for as much future help as possible, they’d still have to get their captain’s approval. It would unquestionably help improve their future, but that has the potential to be the worst PR nightmare in recent memory.

We’d find out if that fanbase is as strong as they claim to be.

Regrettably for the Feaster and Co., that’s all the help they’re going to get at the end of the season. Nine players with no-trade/no-movement clauses will be around for at least the next two seasons. For better or worse, they’re going to have to roll with the core that is already in place—the core that has already racked up three non-playoff seasons in a row. As far as this season goes, the Flames have EIGHT defensemen on one-way contracts. Again, not much flexibility there.

The obvious remedy to salary cap problems and roster inflexibility is help from prospects that are already in the system. “Obvious” remedy and “plausible” remedy are two completely different notions. In a perfect world, the Flames would bring up some talented prospects that are on entry level deals to help bridge the next two seasons. But looking at the prospects in their organization, it quickly becomes clear that blue-chip prospects coming to the rescue isn’t going to happen in Calgary. HockeysFuture.com ranks the Flames’ prospects 23rd in the league—and that ranking is generous. You know it’s a bad when “3rd/4th line forwards” and “Grit” are listed as a team’s prospects strengths.

Sven Baertschi has the makings of being a strong NHL player as soon as next season, but their depth drops off of a cliff after the talented Swiss prospect. Leland Irving is a respected goaltending prospect, but Miikka Kiprusoff isn’t going anywhere for the next two seasons. Forwards Max Reinhart and Ryan Howse may make the NHL one day and TJ Brodie could make the NHL as a defenseman, but none of those prospects are going to strike fear into their opponents. 2012 first rounder Mark Jankowski is a project and is years away (assuming his reaches his potential). Aside from the players mentioned, the Flames don’t have much left in the cabinet.

Where’s Tim Erixon when you need him?

This quote from FlamesNation.com sums it all up very nicely:

“Feaster is, I’ve been told, building this team for two or three years down the line, or at least so that its potential core players — in order of increasingly speculative: Sven Baertschi, Mikael Backlund?, Chris Butler??, TJ Brodie???, Max Reinhart???? — are coming into their primes.

But that does little to explain why Feaster is giving out long-term contracts to guys who seem fit to make minimal impacts for maximum payouts.”

To recap: the Flames are a non-playoff team, they spend a lot of money, they have little roster flexibility, and they don’t have much help coming from the minors. Get ready to start using those Oilers jokes for the other team in Alberta.

Their future is as bright as a closet full of black suits in a pitch-black bedroom. It’s one thing to struggle in the standings, miss the playoffs, and watch a team slip further and further behind the pack. But for the Flames, they’re sliding and haven’t even begun to think about laying the foundation for the future. That’s a major problem.

The current road map towards success would call for Calgary to blow-up the team, trade every valuable piece for high draft picks and promising prospects, sacrifice a few seasons with “bridge” players, then hit the ground running with a new incarnation of the Flames in a few years. In a copycat league, that’s the script the Kings wrote over the last few seasons.

Then again, they could go the Pittsburgh route, pick in the top 2 for four straight years (while winning a lottery to draft the best player in the league). Good luck with that one. Who do they think they are? The Oilers?

That’s not going to happen though; at least not yet. After the Flames signed Dennis Wideman to that ridiculous 5-year, $26.25 million contract (with a no-trade clause), Feaster continued the insanity by saying: “We’re not tearing it down.” It must be even more infuriating for Flames fans to hear Feaster acknowledge that it was an option; then categorically discard the option as he consummated the worst free agent signing of the summer.

No matter what route they choose, they need to pick a direction for the future. Pick a plan, any plan—just start implementing it immediately. As it stands, the Flames are a non-playoff team that isn’t even planning for the future. There’s no reality where that works.

Not even a reality with Albert Einstein calling the shots.

6 Comments

  1. Found this quote from Feaster last year interesting: “The biggest difference is that Calgary is a veteran team. There are a different set of expectations on a team like that. We’ve spent to the cap in Calgary, and that makes expectations different. In Tampa we had a lot of guys from a lot of different teams, castoffs, and it was a matter of everyone growing together while here it’s an older group. Now, we’re trying to work some of our younger players into the lineup.”

  2. Nor_Cal_Flames_Fan says:

    I had high hopes for Feaster, but his signings are really puzzling. Bringing back Stempniak and Comeau? WHY? I’d be good with the Wideman signing if it was for maybe 3 years at $4 million per, max. He needs to trade Bouwmeester, and hopefully buy out Stajan. JBow just hasn’t worked out in Calgary, and Stajan was a horrible contract by D. Sutter. I think you can rebuild successfully while keeping some veterans, just look at Ottawa. Keep Iginla, but they should have traded Kipper (maybe they still can, I don’t know) and signed a veteran like Vokoun for a year or two, to see if Irving was able to be number 1. He played well last season, except for that game in Boston, and he needs to get at least 25-30 games this coming season, to see if he’s capable and ready. They also needed to dump Babchuk and Karlsson, but they didn’t. I’m fine with trying out Cervenka, and I think the Hudler contract is a decent one, but other than that, Feaster’s moves have been terrible. I bet he could’ve gotten a first round pick for Kipper, and even if you get low round picks for Babchuk and Karlsson, you’re still collecting draft picks, which is what this team needs!

  3. Jordy
    August 4, 2012 – 6:22 pm
    Everyones so quick to criticize the clams fOr not rebuilding but half these people have no idea how to manage a team. They’re getting younger through the draft while still remaining competitive. You can’t just blow up a team in a Canadian market. Look how the oilers are doing. Sure they’ll be good soon. Maybe. Wait till they can’t afford those contracts. Did you see Philly blow it up to get all that young talent? Any fan with a hockey sense in Calgary loves frasers work and knows he’s doing the right thing. People don’t understand the mess sutter left. Ps people criticizing the widemen signing… No free agent comes cheap.

    Re

    • Flames not clams and Feaster not Fraser. Sorry tried copying my comment from another forum

    • What are you, Feaster’s wife? If his plan were working, the Flames wouldn’t be a punchline. You miss the playoffs three straight years, you have a ton of underperforming and unmovable veterans on expensive contracts, and you have no talented prospects: That makes you a bad general manager who is not going to build a winner. Maybe Calgary will sneak into a 7th or 8th seed if they get really super lucky. But they can’t hang with the actual competently-managed teams in the West.

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