The Flames are Beating the Oilers in the Rebuild Battle

It’s a hard pill to swallow for Oilers fans, watching their bitter provincial rival lock up a playoff spot. The only good thing going for Edmonton is the possibility of winning the draft lottery. Again. The Flames made it back to the postseason for the first time since the 2008-09 season. The Oilers, on the other hand, are still searching for a playoff berth, not having seen one since the 2005-06 season. Now granted, the Flames defied the odds this season, winning in spite of constantly falling behind, and looking like the inferior team when measuring performance with fancy stats. Calgary wasn’t expected to even sniff the postseason. Did they catch lightning in a bottle? Will they be a one and done playoff team? Did they peak too soon and are headed for a crash next season? The answer could be yes to all those questions. But none of that matters now. They are in the playoffs, and the Oilers are not.

Sean Monahan and Jiri Hudler (Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)
Sean Monahan and Jiri Hudler (Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

Has Calgary Drafted Better?

Since the Flames last made the playoffs, the Edmonton Oilers have had three first overall draft picks. The highest pick Calgary got was fourth overall in 2014 when they selected Sam Bennett. The next highest pick was sixth in 2013 when they chose Sean Monahan. It’s been well documented that the Oilers have been bad at all the wrong times. They missed out on John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad and Nathan MacKinnon. Yes, they chose first overall. But none of those guys are franchise changing types. At least we don’t think they are.

Let’s take a look at the young core of the Flames. Sean Monahan had an outstanding season, scoring 31 goals and 62 points, picking up where he left off of a 22-goal rookie season. They drafted the sensational Johnny Gaudreau in the fourth round. They found Lance Bouma in the third round and T.J Brodie in the fourth round, both in 2008. They chose defenceman Brandon Hickey in the third round last year, and he’s been putting on a strong showing in the NCAA. Bennett will likely be a part of the team next season and his potential is promising as well.

Hindsight is always 20/20, and it’s really difficult to evaluate a players talent so early in their careers. But here’s an honest question for Oilers fans: would you rather have a core of Monahan, Gaudreau, Bennett and Brodie, or a core of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz?

Has Calgary Made Better Trades and Free Agent Signings?

With 31 goals and 76 points, Jiri Hudler has quietly become one of the better scorers in the NHL. He has been a huge part of the Flames success. When the Flames signed him in 2o12, no one would have predicted he’d be their leading scorer in 2015, but here we are. Obviously, the Flames fell into a lot of good luck when they brought Mark Giordano back to the team in 2008. He’s now their captain and best defenceman, something that seemed like a long shot when he went over to the KHL. And how about Kris Russell, the shot-blocking master who actually went unclaimed on waivers before the Flames traded for him in 2013. Of course we can’t forget the highly criticized signing of Dennis Wideman, who many felt was overpaid, yet he’s got 56 points on the season and eats a ton of tough minutes.

Building a hockey team is a few parts hockey knowledge and one part luck, and the Flames have had both. You take risks on players, and sometimes it works out. For the Flames, what seemed like insignificant trades and signings have turned the franchise around. Again, like I mentioned earlier, this may be the best it gets for a lot of these players, but we don’t know that. Their young core is great, regardless of how the veterans perform moving forward.

(Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports)
(Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports)

Let’s not forget the goaltending tandem of Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo. The Flames signed Hiller after he fell out of favor with the Ducks, and he’s put up 26 wins this season. Ramo meanwhile, with 15 wins on the year, was a small part of the Mike Cammaleri trade back in 2012, and he’s challenged for the starters role all season long. We won’t really get into the Oilers goaltending, as that’s been well-documented enough. (It’s terrible). Although ironically, the Oilers started a Flames draft pick in Laurent Brossoit, who performed extremely well against the Sharks. But how many times have the Oilers found their “answer in net” only to be disappointed.

Do the Flames have Better Coaching?

The Oilers have definitely performed better under Todd Nelson than they did with Dallas Eakins behind the bench, but we still don’t know if Nelson will keep the job moving forward. The Oilers have struggled to hang onto a coach, as they’ve employed six different bench bosses since the 2008-09 season. The Flames on the other hand, well they went with Stanley Cup winner Bob Hartley, and he may very well win the Jack Adams trophy this year. Hartley has found a way to get through to his team. He has them believing they can win any game, that they’re never out of it, no matter what the score is. He knows how to motivate them and use players to their strengths.

There has long been a debate as to just how important coaching is in any sport, and hockey is certainly no exception. But, whenever things go wrong with a team, the coach is often the scapegoat, so why not give them some credit when things go right? The Flames got their guy, there’s no debating that, and he looks poised to be behind that Calgary bench for a while. The Oilers have yet to find that perfect fit, though it could end up being Nelson.

At the end of the day, the biggest difference between these two teams is what the management team has done. The Oilers constantly trade away home-grown players for diminishing returns. Guys like Jeff Petry and Devan Dubnyk are deemed expendable by Edmonton, yet they are contributors elsewhere. The Oilers struggle to provide an environment where players can flourish in the right roles. The Flames on the other, have made the right choices in free agency, they pulled the trigger on the right deals and they drafted the right players. Is it all just good luck for Calgary? Well if it is, then it’s been all bad luck for the Oilers, and there’s no way we’re going to let management off the hook that easily.