Calgary Flames: Youth Movement Hurting The Team’s Future?

For the last few seasons Calgary Flames fans have been clamouring for a youth movement. The team was one of the oldest in the league, averaging 30.2 years, and big-name players like Jarome Iginla, Miikka Kiprusoff and Jay Bouwmeester were tying up cap space, preventing the team from acquiring fresh and talented players at a good price.

At the end of March, the fans got their wish, although initial reactions ranged all across the board. There were bittersweet moments, no doubt, beginning with Jarome Iginla’s trade to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The man who had become the heart and soul of the franchise agreed to wave his no-trade clause and left the Flames after 18 rollercoaster seasons to join a team that had already secured a playoff berth.

It was hard for anyone to blame Iggy for his choice. At 35, the clock was ticking for a chance to win a Stanley Cup, and lord knows there was no one more deserving in the league to win one than Jarome Iginla. His decision to join the ranks of 2 of the best players in the league in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (not to mention several other players who were lighting up the lamp for the Penguins of late) was not the cause for concern. It was the relatively unknown prospects the Flames had picked up in return that had some people wondering what exactly Jay Feaster was thinking.

Kenny Agostino and Ben Hanowski were college players who spent the last few seasons playing for Yale University and St. Cloud State University, respectively. Luckily for them, both were heading closer and closer to the NCAA finals at the time, giving Flames fans an indication that they were worth the trade. Hanowski and the St. Cloud State Huskies never

Ben Hanowski {Brace Hemmelgarn - Flickr}
Ben Hanowski {Brace Hemmelgarn – Flickr}

made it to the finals, but Agostino and the Yale Bulldogs took it all the way to the top, nabbing the NCAA championship.

One trade down, now on to the next one. Jay Bouwmeester, who had been receiving a lot of heat for his lacklustre play in the previous 3 years, was actually playing up to his potential in the 2012-2013 season. But when he was shipped off to the St. Louis Blues just days after Iginla’s departure, it became clear that the Calgary Flames were finally making some big changes. In exchange for the Iron Man, the Flames received a conditional first-round pick and minor-league defenseman Mark Cundari. With the Peoria Rivermen, Cundari’s stats weren’t terrible, but they were also nothing to write home about.

Nevertheless, the trade was made and a rebuild was in full effect. To seal the deal on any good rebuild, all the Flames needed now was a top 3 draft pick from the upcoming 2013 NHL Entry Draft. And in order to do that, all the Flames needed to do was lose games, something the team did not seem to have trouble doing throughout the shortened NHL season. In the last 10 games played before the Iginla trade, the Flames only managed to win 4, and were above only the Colorado Avalanche and the Florida Panthers for last in the league.

After the Iginla trade, however, things began to look dismal. Ironically, dismal took on a whole new meaning. The Flames recalled some of their youngsters from the minors to test them out on the ice as the season closed out. All of the sudden the team’s average age dropped to 27.3 years. Injected with the energy of the youth on the roster, the Flames started playing well. In the 10 games played after Iginla went to Pittsburgh, the Flames won 6. The older members of the team stepped up and took on leadership roles, and the youngsters were off like rockets, enjoying their time in the big show.

The reasoning behind management’s decision to bring out all of the Flames young prospects was fair enough: it would help them hone their skills, get comfortable playing in the glaring spotlight and develop chemistry with their older linemates. Unfortunately, the chemistry and comfort came a little too quickly, and just when the Flames needed to keep losing, they started winning.

The month of April has seen a drastic turnaround in the team’s game-to-game performance.

Sven Baertschi Flames
Sven Baertschi impressed with his five-game stint with the Calgary Flames last spring. (Brace Hemmelgarn-US PRESSWIRE)

Sven Baertschi, who played in 11 of the games played this month thus far, has gone on a tear.  The 20-year old has notched 3 goals and picked up 6 assists, and is currently riding a 7-game point streak.

Mikael Backlund is finally playing to his potential after several frustrating seasons plagued with injuries, and now has 3 goals and 3 assists in the last 14 games.

On April 15th against the Minnesota Wild, Ben Hanowski made his NHL debut with the Flames. He just so happened to have scored his first NHL goal that day as well.

And then there is the unassuming Mark Cundari, who has only played 3 games with the Flames since his acquisition. Already, Cundari has 1 goal and 2 assists under his belt, and his performance on the ice has been the talk of the town of late.

The vigour and liveliness of the youngsters is great and all, but all of a sudden the team’s chances of getting that top 3 pick that could possibly become the new face and saviour of the franchise are getting lower and lower. With this recent turn of events, it is now starting to look like the Edmonton Oilers (who are no longer sitting above the Flames in the standings) will get to draft higher than the Flames…again.

The point of a rebuild is to ensure long-term success in the future, but somehow the Flames have managed to reap short-term success at the end of a season that is all but lost. And while it is exciting to get a taste of what’s to come with the youth on the roster, the fact of the matter is that they may be hurting their team’s chances for a better future as the regular season comes to an end.