Friday, April 29, 2011

Sitting, Waiting, Wishing

The wild ride has ended.

While stringing together a solid stretch to end the season, the first half of 2010-2011 is what extinguished the Flames' playoff hopes. Not if Team A lost and Team B won, or if the Flames had one point here or one point there. If you put yourself in a position where you need to play above 0.700 hockey in the last 3 months of the season, you really shouldn't be in the playoff conversation. Having said that, I'd take a last-minute miss on the playoffs over a 14th or 15th place lottery season any day. The team made it exciting, and forced themselves back in that conversation, which isn't beyond recognition. Looking back at the season as a whole, there were some positives:

Jarome Iginla, 34 years of age: 43 goals. Franchise and personal records aplenty. 

Alex Tanguay: Career saving season, proving he is the best possible linemate for Iginla, on the best bargain of a contract in 2010-2011: 69 points. 

Mark Giordano: continues to impress and, despite his minus rating on the year, continues to evolve as a complete defenceman. Even at his new cap hit of 4M, he was a very important signing for this team moving forward.

Mikael Backlund: While there was nothing spectacular about Backlund's first full season in the NHL, I think we saw some steady progression and improvement from start to finish. Excited to see if he can carry that forward to next season. 

Tim Jackman: Despite his limited role, Tim was one of the most consistent players on this team. Nice to finally have that "net-front presence" on the PP as well. Safe to say, Jackman was a pleasant surprise this season. 

Of course, there were some disappointments:

Rene Bourque: Wildly inconsistent and seemingly disinterested, yet still managed to score 27 goals. Very good production, given he only showed up for half the games.

Matt Stajan: What more can you say? His soft play landed him bottom six minutes, and he didn't show any upside to be promoted to a more prominent role. Can't wait for 3 more years of the same.

Ales Kotalik: I'm not even sure this is a disappointment, it's almost exactly the season we expected from AK26.

Nik Hagman: Lots of hustle, but nothing to show for it. I can't say I'm surprised that Stajan and Kotalik have underperformed wearing the flaming C, but Hagman still baffles me. He has the skill, he has the speed... He's scored 30 goals on more than one occasion, in more than one conference. Seems to be strictly a confidence issue for Hagman. If he contributes on the scoresheet early next season, I think we'll see a completely different player from start to finish. That is, assuming he survives the offseason.

Hot streaks aside, this team is not skilled or quick enough to compete with the best in the NHL. Its stars are aging, and its future is in question - a circumstance that may be acceptable if it were a playoff contender today, but that's simply not the case. The Flames have been a bubble team for a number of years, and show few signs of improvement on that status. 

Many are calling for a "rebuild" but I think that approach only applies to a franchise with no other option (e.g Oilers, Islanders). My preference would be to trade one member of the "core" for a younger offensive piece, and replace the spots of underachieving veterans with younger players - be it NHL, Junior or College free agents.  These players don't have to be 18-20 year old stars, but should serve as an upgrade in team speed, with potential to develop over the next several seasons. So, rather than a rebuild, I would attempt to surround the core talent with younger components to build around in years to come. Perhaps more of a "refresh" than a "rebuild."

There are a number of question marks heading into the offseason. First off, who is the full-time GM? Ken King suggested that question would be answered in the next 2-3 weeks. To this point, 3 assistant/associate coaches have been released: Rob Cookson, Jamie McLennan and perhaps most surprisingly, Ryan McGill. From an outsider's perspective, the most reasonable explanation for the McGill release would be the decline of the penalty kill. According to Ken King, the position is not reserved for any one coach in particular, and Brent will begin to interview candidates in the coming weeks.

So what's next? A big trade? A surprising firing? A long term deal for Curtis Glencross or Alex Tanguay? The analysis will continue, but no question: this will be a very interesting offseason for the Calgary Flames. Stay tuned!

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