It's official: the Calgary Flames are swinging for the fences.
For the first year and a half of Jay Feaster's tenure, there was a lot of treading water. To be expected I suppose, based on the contracts the organization was saddled with. Feaster kept the coaching staff in place (outside of the Hartsburg hiring), made low risk "insurance" signings (Morrison, Glencross, Hannan, etc) while placing full trust in the scouting staff's draft selections and challenging roster players to "fool him twice." Basically, Feaster played into the role of "I'm new around here."
Come January, the Flames saw themselves hopelessly chasing a playoff spot once again. A lack of leadership and 22 underachievers pushed Feaster to change his tune. Seemingly, his tune is all that would change.
Alongside his new partner in crime "Weis Weis baby," Feaster used the media to perpetuate a sense of urgency and pressure on his veteran line-up. When the team failed to live up to all the hype he had created, he swore things would change. While there haven't been any meaningful shifts in the core or blockbuster trades to this point, it appears he's changed his approach behind the wheel.
As of Winter 2012, Feaster is no longer choosing the safe, popular decisions for the sake of job security. The man finally has some conviction and swagger in the chair, something that could burn him in the not-so-distant future. Regardless of whether you agree with the decisions being made or not (I'm 50/50), you've gotta respect Jayfe's willingness to take risks. Here are some examples:
The Bob Hartley hiring could be “safe” in that it’s a familiar face for JayFe. However, it’s not necessarily a new direction. You’re bringing in a hard-ass veteran coach to oversee complacent veterans. Where have we tried this before? Jarome and friends struggle with tough love (hard to argue otherwise by now). So, rather than seeking a young up-and-comer and being universally applauded, Feaster hires one of the most stubborn veteran coaches available. For a team that struggled offensively AND defensively last season (relying too heavily on their goaltender & aging offense), going all out and opting for a “puck pursuit, high tempo” team seems like setting these players up for failure, no? This team struggled with speed in the last regime, so how are they going to out-skate the opposition in a high tempo structure? If you answered Dennis Wideman, kindly get lost. I don’t dislike the Hartley hiring. The man could be classified as a winner, and I enjoy the style of play he’s preaching. Feaster said it best, though: “If the day comes where I have to fire Bob Hartley, we can help each other pack.” Yeah, maybe don’t dig your own hole just yet.
The Roman Cervenka signing was a breath of fresh air for many of us. Turning to the KHL to add skill and patch holes in the roster? My Flames don’t do that! What a nice change. Signing Cervenka was a perfectly safe, one year trial. The risk came in letting Jokinen walk, while assuming a pivot that’s never played an NHL game can take his spot. I was in support of letting the Joker go, but the fact that Feaster had enough confidence in his overseas signing to opt out on a proven number two center, without any insurance policy? That’s bold, especially for a team starved up the middle. The organization is frustrated with Backlund and Stajan in their current roles. What happens if Cervenka doesn’t fit the mold? Does Blair Jones end up playing the role of second line center? Exaggerative of course, but I think you get where I’m headed with that. This would be classified as putting all of your eggs in one basket, something Pierre Gauthier, Brian Lawton and Doug MacLean did. So, um… good luck Jay.
The Mark Jankowski selection isn’t something I wish to criticize. I have no idea what any of these players bring to the table, as I do not scout at any level. I do know, however, that there were safer selections to make (in terms of scrutiny and shorter term rewards). Feaster took a major risk in this selection. Not only by saying “no thanks” to Teuvo Tervainen, considered a slam dunk at 14 overall, but also in trading down. The Flames ran the risk of missing out on Tervainen AND Jankowski by dropping 7 spots. Furthermore, Feaster and Weisbrod take another step towards the cliff by suggesting Jankowski is the next Joe Nieuwendyk and will be the “best player from the draft ten years from now.” The pick has grown on me… but if I want to keep my job, I don’t do these things. Going off the board is one thing, making unruly predictions to the media is another. Had the Flames taken Tervainen, they would have been universally applauded. The Hockey News and TSN would say “great job at the draft, Flames” and all would be right in the world. Had Tervainen not panned out for the organization, everyone would say “tough luck Jay, my BS draft rankings had him there, too.” Whether the Flames like it or not, the casual fan (80% of them) looks to the media to tell them what to think of their favorite team. Now that Feaster has stepped out of the box three or four steps? For his sake, Jankowski better be the next Joe Nieuwendyk.
The Flames could have done worse than signing Jiri Hudler, and could have shelled out more dollars to do it. 4M x 4 is the going rate for any top-6 forward on July 1, so the Flames pulling out that much money for a skilled player shouldn’t phase anyone. It is, however, a substantial commitment to a guy that hasn’t proven he can take that next step, even alongside Zetterberg. To say you can expect 50 points from Jiri Hudler isn’t ridiculous, but it’s sure not a safe bet.
The Wideman deal is a head scratcher, no question. The fact that Feaster was willing to trade an asset (albeit insignificant) prior to July 1, and lock up a D man for huge dollars over 5 years? It gets you thinking “this player must be a significant piece of the core moving forward.” Yet, if you listen to the organization’s breakdown, he was the best right-handed powerplay quarterback in a weak class of free agents. Sounds like a glorified Anton Babchuk to me, on top of being a $27M investment in the power play. ON most accounts, you’d find that Wideman’s defensive contributions are shoddy. I’ll admit, I’m of the Brent Sutter mindset that solid defensive play puts you in favourable offensive situations. So, I shake my head at committing huge sums of money and term on a D man in order to improve your offense. Signing Carlo Colaiacovo for two years would have been quietly applauded, yet entirely safe. So is this stupid? We’ll see. Is it risky? Absolutely.
I’m not one to advocate for a rebuild, but consider this: any GM that declares a rebuild instantly gets three more years of job security. “We’re going in a new direction. We are going younger.” Translation: this will suck, bare with me. Yet somehow it works. The Edmonton Oilers have been everyone’s favourite Canadian team since they decided to suck several years back. Why? It’s a pretty low pressure position. “They took the best player in the draft? This team rocks!” Every poor decision Tambo and crew make is met with a compliment sandwich:
1 - This is a young, exciting team to watch.
2 - Oh my god they just signed Cam Barker, traded Tom Gilbert and finished 14th.
3 - Yeah but Eberle, RNH and Hall are pretty fast hey?
Feaster has chosen the more difficult path. Sure, rebuilding can be tough on the fanbase, but for a GM? Solid career move. Feaster has, instead, advocated that he will continue to try things that haven’t worked, and completely skip a rebuild. If it fails, this team will be horrid for 10 straight years. If it succeeds, the team will achieve mediocre success for a couple years and Feaster will be gone before the winning actually starts. Whether you support it or not, he’s not taking the easy way out.
Tambellini even cracked a smile claiming they “didn’t want to draft first overall every year.” Shut up, you love it.
I maintain that I’m 50/50 on the decisions made this summer, but the level of “hope” and risk involved has caught my eye. It’s not necessarily a criticism – credit to Jay for sleeping on all of the “maybes” and “hopefullys.” The Flames hit the batting cage this summer, but the GM hasn’t opted for the bunt strategy. Feaster and friends continue to swing frantically. Will they hit a couple? Sure. But if batting average matters at all to the fellas signing the cheques, Feaster won’t be here long.
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