Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Resurgence of Spare Parts

This past offseason, Darryl Doom Sutter had the hockey world scratching its collective head. While understandably limited in his cap flexibility, Sutter added three forwards that had recently plummeted in value – Olli Jokinen, Alex Tanguay and Brendan Morrison. Coming off career lows, these players fit in perfectly with a group of underachieving Calgary Flames, a team that continued to get older and less productive. Coupled with the signing of two enforcers in Raitis Ivanans and Tim Jackman, the direction of this team seemed clouded as ever.

Coming off a disappointing campaign in 2009-2010, I was desperately searching optimism: At least a handful of these players would bounce back from career lows, right? From the perspective of individual productivity, this team couldn’t possibly get worse… Could it?

Wrong. For half a season, the Calgary Flames did just that. Jarome Iginla was merely invisible, Miikka Kiprusoff looked human, and the likes of Jay Bouwmeester, Robyn Regehr and Ian White were fading rapidly from relevance. The team spiralled into 14th place. To make matters worse, Darryl began to shift the deck chairs once again, swinging a deal with the Hurricanes. At first glance, the move seemed counter productive: why trade for another fourth liner, and who the heck is Anton Babchuk?

From 14th place, many of us (myself included) spent more time analyzing the team’s trade bait and draft positioning, rather than its game-to-game performance. I was especially guilty of this, as I stopped looking at five-game segments, and began blogging entirely on big-picture concepts: contracts, buyouts and trade scenarios. Frankly, there wasn’t enough to write about between intervals. You can only vent on Jokinen’s ineffectiveness and Bourque’s disinterest so long before it becomes, well, boring. Eventually, Jay Feaster would sub in for Darryl Sutter, and despite what the organization would preach about a playoff push, many of us took the shift at GM to indicate an early start to next season.

Then, something happened. None of us on the outside can say for certain, but to say that Feaster’s cheerleading was the missing ingredient is not entirely realistic. Jay did, however, take one simple approach: drain the deadweight contracts, and allow Brent Sutter and his staff to coach the team in isolation. Not exactly rocket science, but a shift in philosophy nonetheless. A dose of clarity to an organization desperate for some direction.

The Flames have gone 18-6-6 in 2011, earning 42 of a possible 60 points. They currently sit 6th in the Western Conference. Games at hand and shootout points considered, the team is by no means a lock for the post season. However, there is reason to celebrate a complete reversal from its dwindling status in 14th, and a realistic shot at a playoff spot. Special teams progress has had a significant impact on the Flames position. The team sits at 18.4% on the PP, and has climbed to an 82.6% efficiency rate on the PK. Above all, back in October, who would have expected the Flames to sit top-ten among the NHL in goals-for? After 68 games, the team sits 6th in the NHL in goal scoring - in the mix with Detroit, Chicago, Vancouver, Philadelphia and Boston. A 9-1 win over the Avalanche plays a big part in this rating, but an impressive stat nonetheless.

The team’s season-end result comes second to its impressive resurgence. I’m prepared to take a seat; I thought I was so clever in my early and steadfast deadline predictions back in January (http://wizwonders.blogspot.com/2011/01/trade-deadline-predictions-5-players-on.html) but I went 0-for-5. At the time, the team’s success seemed no more than an average team on a hot-streak. Well, safe to say 3 months of solid hockey is more than a hot-streak. This is a good team. Not an elite team, not a powerhouse contender, but a good team. So what fundamental components can we point to, in this resurgence of spare parts?


As mentioned earlier, Brent’s role with the team shifted once Feaster took the reins. BSutt has had the freedom to assemble the line-ups based entirely on performance, without any consideration for seniority or salary implications. The Jokinen-Iginla experiments came to an end, and both players have been streaking since. Stajan and Hagman’s soft play (6.5M cap hit worth) has landed them bottom-six minutes, and the likes of Glencross and Moss have been given the green light to build on their solid two-way performance. Brent has also found more suitable roles for his D pairings, allocating ice-time more conducive to individual strengths. Special consideration goes to the utilization of Anton Babchuk, who has played some protected even strength minutes, alongside significant PP exposure to use that big (!) shot of his. Credit to Kent Wilson of FlamesNation, who posted an in-depth assessment of Babchuk and Jokinen yesterday:


Brent’s savvy match-ups and pairings have allowed the team to develop some consistency, and work towards that immeasurable, intangible factor: chemistry. I’m still iffy on the term “chemistry,” but perhaps “familiarity” is a more suitable explanation. Injuries have played a role in it, but locked pairings of Iggy-Tanguay, Jokinen-Glencross, Stajan-Jackman, and Backlund-Hagman have established familiarity and developed a balanced attack throughout the line-up. Most importantly, an effective one-two punch in the top six, with Jokinen and Glencross evolving as a shutdown tandem that scores goals against top opposition. This has reduced some of the workload for the top line, and they’ve capitalized on it (Iggy: 8 pts in last 4 GP, sits 8th in league scoring). This has created a ripple effect on the rest of the line-up, as unusual candidates for bottom-six minutes (Bourque, Stajan, Hagman) are able to work through some favourable match-ups to generate opportunities. Do the Flames possess a scary no. 1 line? No. This team carries 3 lines that can contribute on the score sheet, and a 4th line that has the ability to outperform 4th line opposition. To me, continuity has allowed for a more balanced attack throughout the roster, which has been a fundamental factor in the turnaround of this team.


The departure of Ian White finally put an end to the Regehr-White pairing. An injury to Steve Staios limited Brent’s ability to couple Steady Steve with Jay Bouwmeester, for yet another attempt at an already failed experiment. For whatever reason, coupling Bouwmeester with Regehr hadn’t been tried with any regularity. Doesn’t it make sense to pair your two top-minute defensemen together, or at least try it? Well, that day finally came - and the rest is history. The shutdown pairing of Jbo and Regehr has combined to boast a +17 rating against top opposition players. Regehr’s solid game has allowed Bouwmeester to make use of his own strengths. In return, Jay’s speed and puck-moving ability have added components that compliment Robyn’s game. This tandem has been solid and consistent against the NHL’s best, and serves as a primary factor in Kiprusoff’s return to form.  


I know. I’m tired of this debate too.

For many years, Kiprusoff has carried the load: partly because he’s a world-class goaltender, and partly due to a lack of confidence in the team’s back-up. As it stands now, Kipper has started 20 games in a row. While I don’t question his conditioning or durability, I think it’s important to make use of your back-up goaltender, because that’s why the position exists. The only way to establish a reputable back-up is to allow him to play.

Karlsson has shown he can play at this level, and will need another opportunity. Not only for the sake of Kiprusoff and a potential playoff drive, but also for the long-term direction of the team. The organization has some important decisions to make this offseason (Karlsson vs. Irving), and will need a greater body of work to evaluate. Here’s hoping Karlsson plays against Phoenix in the second of back-to-back games, but I won’t hold my breath. I suppose you can save the criticism of a team that's playing 0.700 hockey.

To wrap up, the resurgence of the Calgary Flames has not only brought the team back to league-wide relevance, but generated a renewed excitement throughout the city. The team is winning games through consistent play, along with the odd lucky bounce. In other words: the Flames are finding ways to win – a characteristic of good hockey teams. Will they make the playoffs? Here’s hoping, but at least there’s some excitement game-to-game, and that’s what being a fan is all about.

Go Flames Go!

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