Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Get Off Feaster's Keister

Last week’s announcements signalled a new direction for the Calgary Flames. Maybe not leaps and bounds off the beaten path, but a new direction nonetheless. The first of which was Jay Feaster’s subtle promotion to full-time General Manager. All of the criticism about the move has me scratching my head. It seems most were going to be unsatisfied unless the Flames hired one of Jim Nill or Ron Hextall. Let me start by saying: I’m not sure what the love affair with Hextall is, over any other former player in management. On the Nill front, it’s naive to think the Flames would have been the first to consider him for their vacant GM position. I expect he’s been contacted by a number of different teams over the years about a full-time gig as General Manager. You think he was holding out for a job in Calgary all these years? Not likely.
 This fan base wanted change for the sake of change, which is a Darryl Sutter mentality: “Sign this guy... woops we underachieved... buy him out and sign this guy” or “Jimmy Playfair is our guy, nope lost to the Wings, It’s Keenan... No I hate that guy I’ll bring in my little brother to coach the team and pick on him.” New faces and turnover isn’t always the answer. Not to mention, do we know anything about Ron Hextall as a manager? Or are we simply impressed that he was the AGM when LA drafted Braydon Schenn at 5th overall? I don’t see how we can draw conclusions on any of these GM candidates, without first-hand evaluation of the individual. I’ll take Ken King’s appraisals and expertise over my own.
The second most prominent criticism of the move seems counter-intuitive as well. Why did the Flames wait to remove the “Acting” from Jay’s title? Well gee, everyone wants due diligence and for the team to take time to make the right decision, and yet there was ongoing “just give him the position already” chatter. How can these two views co-exist? Feaster wasn’t going to be handed the full-time gig as GM, as announced back in December. Ken King and Ownership made the decision to evaluate his contributions, while reviewing 3 managerial philosophy reports submitted by Feaster. You think Ken King had a quick skim through these reports and replied “Yup that’s fine, you’re our guy. We’ll inform the media in 5 months.” I’m sure there was some two-way dialogue, ownership doesn’t base decisions on convenience: “Well, he’s here anyway, so give him the job.” There was a process that was carried out, a plan that was approved, and the decision has been made. As a fan, that’s okay by me.
Does this mean I’m thrilled with Feaster as GM of the Calgary Flames? Of course not, how could I feel strongly one way or the other? When it comes to player trades, I’m prepared to formulate opinions on player trades and free agent signings, but I can’t pretend to know anything about what goes on behind closed doors in any boardroom in the NHL, and therefore no gut feel over management before any work has been done.
I share the same concerns as anyone else about Feaster’s track record: the Lecavalier signing, Brad Richards trade, and poor drafting record. I do, however, take solace in the fact that Jay is fourthcoming about these mistakes, and is able to pinpoint what should be done moving forward. Feaster never played the game, and doesn’t pretend to... but did anyone criticize Lou Lamoriello for his lack of professional playing experience? Most of my optimism for Jay’s promotion comes from a philosophical about-face. It wasn’t that Darryl Sutter didn’t understand hockey, or had a poor read on players. The issue was a top-heavy, autonomous structure by which decisions were made. This admission has been made by Ken King since Darryl's departure. From what I can gather, Darryl was an excellent hockey mind, and a brutal manager. The biggest change with this new regime will be the fundamental management of the organization. Jay will be more of a General Manager, and less of a straight up “hockey guy.” Former players that evolve into excellent businessmen and managers are a rare breed. Frankly, I’d rather have a manager with legal and business acumen formulating contracts and managing the team, while seeking input from “hockey guys” in the AGM or scouting positions for the expertise on developing and evaluating players. The new structure of the Calgary Flames was quoted as a “participative democracy,” something that was evidently lacking with the previous regime.
Do you think the supremacy of the Detroit Red Wings is entirely a result of Ken Holland’s playing experience? The Wings beefed up their scouting department, empowered secondary management resources like Jim Nill, and developed players from within. From what I can read, Holland is a fantastic manager because he manages. He doesn’t dictate, he doesn’t make trades or draft on a whim. He empowers strong resources in a number of different areas, in order to make sound, calculated decisions. I’m not aiming to convince anyone that Jay Feaster is a Ken Holland or Lou Lamoriello. All I can determine is that powerful, consistent organizations make joint decisions based on consensus.
The Glencross signing provided some reason for optimism. I wasn’t originally in favour of a Glencross return at all, based on his inflated market value that could have resulted in a 5 year deal worth 3+ million per. However, at 2.55 over 4 years, the cap hit is very manageable for a versatile player. Even if he pulls a Nik Hagman, or starts to regress as Rene Bourque has, 2.55 is not a toxic number for a 2nd or 3rd line contributor... and to think he will be earning less than the likes of Sarich, Stajan, Hagman and Kotalik next season puts the deal in perspective. Something tells me if this were Darryl’s deal, he would have hooked Glencross up with a Bourque-like deal: 5-6 years at 3.5 per with a no trade clause. Already, we’re seeing some steps in the right direction.
Obviously, the NMC for Glenny is a concern moving forward. Darryl set up this routine, making it difficult for Feaster to negotiate when over half the team has a no-move clause of some kind.  I expect Tanguay’s demands will be similar: lesser dough, at a greater term and a NMC. It will be a tough pill to swallow, but I’d rather see Tanguay here and deal with the no-move consequences. When guys like Ales Kotalik, Olli Jokinen and Matt Stajan have some sort of no-move arrangement, it’s impossible to expect your first line winger to settle for any less security.
Jay’s stated philosophy, based on input and collaborative evaluation, brings the Flames much closer to that process. If you’re a believer in the phrase “two heads are better than one,” then there’s reason for optimism moving forward. As pinpointed by Rob Kerr of the Fan960, the Flames have quietly added 7 resources to their management and scouting ranks within the last year. Jay’s experience alongside Craig Conroy, Michel Goulet (Hall of Famer), Mike Holditch and an additional AGM -to-be-determined will bring a number of perspectives to the table, governed by Ken King and Flames’ ownership. So, while the announcements last week were not thrilling headline-stealers, I’m prepared to suggest the organization is in a better position than it was 6 months ago. Can’t wait for June and early July. 

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Friday, May 6, 2011

My 2011-2012 Calgary Flames Roster

Everybody can enjoy pipe-dreams, but I’ve spent some time to pencil in what I consider to be a realistic line-up for the coming season. The team can sign a number of NCAA hopefuls out of college, and draft better than any team at the draft in Minnesota, but the immediate and material impact of these young players on the current roster would be limited - at best - for next season . Anyone who envisions otherwise isn’t being entirely realistic. From my standpoint, this team should look to upgrade in speed, while trying to get a tad younger on the back end. I will break down the transactions necessary, and the resulting roster – position by position.
Re-sign Alex Tanguay - Somewhere in the neighbourhood of 3 million per year, or just over. Basically, he makes Jarome tick, so do what you can to keep him. He’s 30 years old, so he has at least a few years of solid hockey left. In other words, you can afford to keep him at a reasonable salary, but at multiple (2 or more) years. You might ask: how can you make cap space for his raise? Here are two ways.
This one is obvious and popular: Find somewhere for Ales Kotalik to play. The AHL, or a team in Russia. He has threatened to bolt to Europe already, so I don’t imagine that will take much convincing. Do what you can to get that 3M cap hit off your roster. Obviously, the organization still has to pay him that dough, but do what you can to get it off your cap. Other cap-relief options on forward, such as Matt Stajan or Nik Hagman, would likely require buy-outs. A Stajan buy-out would be a very expensive venture, given the dollars and term remaining on his deal.  While he had a poor year, I don’t think Hagman should be the candidate either. He only has one year left on his deal, and to me isn’t in a catastrophic scenario where a buyout would be worth the dollars spent. He can still provide depth minutes, and has the ability to chip in offensively. Buy-outs should be considered a last resort, especially when Kotalik could be headed to Europe, and 2.7 million worth of Steve Staios will be freed up. Assuming multiple buy-outs are unrealistic, I’ll save my buy-out for later, when I break down the D core.
Here’s a second, less popular move: Allow Curtis Glencross to walk on July 1. In 3 seasons with the team, Glencross put up one very impressive 30-game stretch (in a contract year) and the rest has been bound with inconsistency and undisciplined play. He’s a very solid penalty killer and can score in bunches, but let’s leave it at that. Sorry folks, but the last thing this team needs is another underachieving 3+million dollar player. Cough (Rene Bourque, Nik Hagman, Matt Stajan) cough!
How do you replace the grit and speed of Glencross? By signing Scottie Upshall, assuming he's still available come July 1. Upshall is a gritty, pain-in-the-rear to play against, and he’s younger than Glencross. Let’s not forget: he scored an average of 20 goals per season playing for the Phoenix Coyotes. He’s done so primarily in a 3rd line role, to boot. As Glencross was this season, I think Upshall is due a promotion to top-six minutes. For my money, he’s a comparable player to Glencross with greater upside. Shoot for somewhere between 2-2.5 million for Upshall.
Sign Chris Higgins: an affordable, dependable option for depth. Higgins has decent speed, good defensive awareness and wins the one-on-one battles with regularity. He has the ability to provide some much needed secondary scoring, but is still a valuable player when he isn’t providing offence. He couldn’t catch many breaks around the net in his short stint as a Flame, but impressed many with his work ethic and all-around game. Feaster has preached the intent to bring in players that fit “Brent Sutter Hockey,” and I think Higgins is a good example of that. With his seemingly reasonable salary demands, it seems like a low-risk, potentially high-reward signing for the team. Cap hit should fall within the low-2 million range. Neither Upshall nor Higgins would be a fan-favourite on July 1, but I think both would fit in really well on this team, especially with its cap limitations.
As we know, the Flames’ forward ranks aren’t filled with much star talent or game-changing ability. So, work to your strengths, and utilize the depth by stringing together 4 balanced lines that provide at least some threat to score. The Nashville Predators, Phoenix Coyotes and New York Rangers have shown it is possible to win with 4 lines of balance and depth alone. Here’s how I would break down the forward ranks:
Line 1: Tanguay, Backlund, Iginla
Tanguay and Iginla speaks for itself. Why Backlund you say? Jokinen is clearly not a fit, and Langkow is a more suitable shutdown option. While a small stretch of games may not be a strong indication, Backlund provided some speed to that top line in the final stretch of the season. I’m not saying he’s is a proven #1 centre, but I think he’s a good fit with these two. Iggy and Tangs can pass it back and fourth all day, but it becomes predictable and easy to defend against when the the foot-speed isn't there. I don’t expect Backlund to be a top scorer, but his speed and creativity would make the trio more difficult to defend against. The elevated ice-time and increased two-way responsibility would help his development as well. It may be a big step for Backlund, but I think his presence on the top line would make Iginla and Tanguay better, and of course - vice versa.
Line 2: Upshall, Jokinen, Bourque
Jokinen was utilized as a shutdown option for the latter half of the season, but I don’t think he’s an ideal candidate for that role. While no longer an 80-point man, Jokinen is a big body, with decent speed and a good shot. His offensive capabilities, to me, still exceed his two-way game. Upshall can bring the speed and has a nose for the net, which can allow Bourque to be... what Bourque is. While his play is inconsistent, his skill-set and offensive proficiency is more suited to a top-six role. Upshall’s gritty play and Jokinen’s speed would create space for Bourque to chip in on the offense, and build on his 27 goals from last season – hopefully with more consistency.  
Line 3: Higgins, Langkow, Moss
This would serve as the shutdown line, playing against the opposition’s best. All three of these players have demonstrated a solid, two-way game. While defensive accountability would be the key factor for this trio, I expect its best attribute would be the ability to cycle the puck in the offensive zone and force top lines on the opposition to play defence. This responsibility would allow Backlund and Jokinen’s line to play against more favourable match-ups, and create a balanced attack throughout the line-up.
Line 4: Hagman, Stajan, Jackman
Yes, this would in fact be the highest paid 4th line in hockey, but you can’t do anything about contracts that have already been signed. Matching line combinations based on salary would be foolish, especially with this roster. Stajan and Hagman would hopefully dominate these matchups, while Jackman’s solid play would help stablilize the game for the other two. The goons of the NHL have become somewhat obsolete. Today, it’s about having 4 lines that can provide some jump for you. I think this trio could do just that, while chipping in on offense with more regularity with its favourable matchups. This role, while not ideal for Stajan, would allow him to use his efficiency in the dot to take key faceoffs and provide some skill on the lower end of the depth chart. As a Flame, Hagman has been all-hustle and no finish, so he’ll fit right in on the 4th line.
Extra forwards: Bouma, Kostopoulos
Both options could come in and play a bottom-six role in an injury situation, while players like Moss, Higgins or Hagman could be shifted up the depth chart if need be.
From what I can see, the league is moving towards more mobile, puck-moving defensemen. I think the Flames could be more proactive with that transition this offseason, by replacing older D men with youth and more quickness.  Even from a divisional standpoint: the Flames will play the Oilers, Canucks and Avalanche somewhere in the neighborhood of 18 times. These organizations are at various stages, but all 3 teams boast a very quick team in the forward ranks. In order to keep up with these teams, mobility on the back end is more important than veteran experience. For example, while both are experienced and intelligent D men, Staios and Sarich simply cannot keep up with these high-octane, speedy teams. I remember back to a couple of ugly contests in Vancouver, where this was painfully evident. There’s a limit in flexibility for the forward ranks, but a youth movement on the back end in Calgary is actually viable. Here’s how I would go about doing that:
Allow Steve Staios and Anton Babchuk to walk on July 1. I won’t bother getting into the Staios explanation, but Babchuk is an intriguing case. I was very impressed with what we saw out of Babz last season. However, as a bottom-pairing D man, you can’t afford to pay him more than his current 1.4 million dollar paycheque. He’s an effective option on the PP, but I think you need to allow Brodie to evolve into that role. There are only so many dollars to go around to your 5-7 defensemen, so I think Babchuk’s spot should be freed up for Brodie.
Trade or buy-out Cory Sarich: Generally speaking, I think Sarich is a solid D man. He’s physical, and he keeps his game relatively simple. However, time and time again last season we saw Sarich lose a foot-race, or get beaten wide by an oncoming winger. I don’t think he’s suited to his current top-4 role, when there are quicker and more affordable options. Having said that, I certainly wouldn’t want his 3.6 million dollars being utilized in a bottom-two role, so I think it’s time to find a new home for Sarich. I imagine he would still have some trade value, as a serviceable shut-down type, so a swap of bad contracts may be in order. Should that fail, I think Sarich is the best option for a buy-out. Unlike on forward, young players are pushing on defence, and his contributions are replaceable.
Re-sign Brett Carson and Adam Pardy. Pardy has run into some injury issues in recent years, but he’s a solid option to have as an extra D man. He’s familiar with the system and would be able to fill in seamlessly in an injury situation – at near league minimum in dollars. As for Carson, I was very impressed with what we saw from him in the latter stages of the season. He played alongside Giordano for a number of games, and didn’t look out of place in the least. To my surprise, Carolina was very disappointed to lose Carson via waivers at the deadline. He has a big frame, but is very mobile and an effective puck-mover. He’s still a young D man, at 25 years of age, but he has some NHL experience under his belt. While he would be prone to the odd mistake, like all young D men, utilizing Carson alongside Giordano would provide a more mobile option in the top-4, while making considerably less dough than Sarich and his 3.6 million. For me, it’s an upgrade on all fronts.
Bring Tim Erixon and T.J. Brodie into the mix this season. Erixon has proven he can play big minutes against men in Sweden, so I would imagine the transition to be more seamless than most young defensemen. While sheltering his even strength minutes, allow Brodie to evolve as a second unit PP specialist of sorts. I expect Brodie’s development to mirror that of Giordano – start out as a sheltered D man, used only in certain situations, and slowly develop him into a well-rounded top-4 option (gradually, of course).
Here’s a breakdown of the defensive pairings, as I would position them:
Regehr – Bouwmeester:
Quite simply: a very solid shutdown option. Bouwmeester’s offensive totals haven’t met expectations, but this pairing provides elements of toughness and shutdown ability, along with quickness and intelligence. This tandem was utilized consistently from mid-season on, and I think it’s no coincidence that the team drastically improved from that point onwards. Pairing these two together from the outset would go a long way in getting back to the top of the league in goals against. These two big-minute D men not only provide some reliability against top opposition, but also allow Giordano to excel in his role against lesser competition.
Giordano – Carson:
Giordano is one of the best second-pairing D men in the league, and his game continues to evolve as an all-around defenseman. As such, I think you can afford to pair him with a younger D man like Carson, without giving up too much in terms of reliability in your top-4. Given the younger D core, the second pairing would be expected to play a more prominent role than in seasons past.
Erixon – Brodie:
These are both players that deserve to be on the big club next year. Having said that, I wouldn’t be confident placing either option in the top-4. Based on his pro experience in Sweden, Erixon may be a fit alongside Giordano at some point next season. At the outset, however, I would be more confident placing Carson in that role, with his NHL experience and development to this point. This bottom pairing would likely need to be sheltered against top-competition in most cases, but this placement would allow both players to get their feet wet at the NHL level, and provide some much needed mobility and puck skills on the back end.
Extra D man: Pardy
From a goaltending standpoint, Kiprusoff can still carry the majority of the load (hopefully only 60 games), while re-signing Karlsson would provide some stability at the back-up position. Not only is Karlsson an effective back-up, but at 26 years old, he further solidifies the goaltending future of the organization. While Irving carries the load in the AHL, and youngster Ortio gets some games in at the pro level, Karlsson provides yet another option a couple of years from now. A 2 year, two-way contract would be ideal, as it would allow the organization to bring up Irving (or even Ortio) for short stints, should the opportunity present itself. It would be more beneficial down the road to have Irving excel at the AHL level, rather than have him sit on the bench and get shelled 10 games a year (CuMac).
What changes would you make in the offseason, and what would that look like come September?
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