The Aging of Iggy

I promised  myself (and a few others) that I wouldn’t pass judgement on the Calgary Flames until we were at least 15 games into the season. That, I figure, is a fair amount of time to figure out what cards you have been dealt in the salary-cap era, where you can count on a quarter to a third of your roster changing each year.

So, now 13 games into the season (and a 6-7 record), I’m biting my tongue and sticking to that – despite the growing chorus of “Something’s seriously wrong with the Flames” resonating not just in Calgary but throughout hockeydom. I won’t talk about the medicore play of certain forwards, about the relentlessly negative energy coming from the coach, about the grossly overpaid defensive core, about whether the backup goalie is really ready for the big league. (That’s coming, but like I said, let’s wait until we get past Game 15. Patience, kids, just a few more days…)

But I do want to address one issue that has become impossible to ignore, because it involves the team’s undisputed leader whose inability to get his job done seems to have carried over from last season.

Jarome Iginla, where are you?

Two goals in 13 games this season. One goal in the last 16 games of last season. That’s three goals in 29 games – a full-season pace of 8 goals - from a $7-million-a-year player who is only three years removed from being a 50-goal scorer, and has had 30 or more nine staight years.

Olli Jokinen had better numbers than those when he practically launched out of town on a catapult last season. We cut Iginla a lot of slack because of his years of service, his talents and leadership beyond merely scoring goals, and the fact that he’s just a hell of a nice guy, but at some point we have to ask: Has the Big Guy lost it?

Now before we panic, slow starts are hardly new for Iginla. Last year, he had four goals and 9 points in his first 12 games - then had 12 goals in his next 10 games. Only once since the lockout season has Iggy scored more than six goals in October. And even at his best, Iggy could have cold spells: In 2007-2008, the last time he scored 50, he had a stretch in January, 2008 when he scored once in 12 games.

So maybe he’s just in a cold spell. But you watch him play and you can’t help but think there’s more to it than that. For whatever reason, he doesn’t have the same battle in the corners and on the side boards, and he doesn’t head as aggressively for the front of the net.

Given the decline in his goal production over the past three seasons (from 50 to 35 to 32) and his lousy start to this year, the question has to be asked: Has Iginla lost it? Is he over the hill?

Eric Duhatschek of The Globe and Mail raised this in a recent column. He pointed out that Iginla is now 33 years old – and a lot of power forwards see their production decline steeply once they get into their 30s. In particular, he suggested Iggy may be emulating one of his boyhood heroes and a guy who had a similar power game (and leadership reputation) – Mark Messier – whose goal scoring dropped precipitously past his mid-30s. His argument is that if a power forward is going to play until he’s 40, he necessarily has to change his game – he can’t continue to take the beating to get the tough goals like he did in his 20s.

There’s little doubt that the power forward’s game, in general, isn’t one that ages well – and anyone who watched Iginla in his 20s must have realized that he couldn’t play that style of game forever. Indeed, the NHL has been littered with power forwards whose careers ended early – they simply wore out.  (Think Cam Neely, or Peter Forsberg, just to name a couple.) Other physical snipers altered their game to survive, becoming less physical and less productive (think Bobby Clarke, or Lanny McDonald, or Steve Yzerman, to name a few). Frankly, unless your name was Gordie Howe, the offensive drop-off entering your mid-30s was pretty much a given.

Indeed, Iginla’s own coach – Brent Sutter, another crash-and-slam guy who in his 20s was a 100-point man for the New York Islanders – scored a total of 22 goals in three seasons after his 33rd birthday, and was out of the league by the time he was 36. (You’d think if anyone could understand the wear and tear of an NHL career played in the trenches, and would cut a guy some slack rather than publicly criticizing him, it would be Sutter. But apparently respect and empathy aren’t among Sutter’s coaching traits.)

This post-33rd-birthday fade is not limited to power forwards and otherwise physical guys. Wayne Gretzky never scored more than 25 goals in a season after turning 33. Mario’s Lemieux never topped 35. Brett Hull’s best was 39; Guy Lafleur’s a mere 18. Mike Bossy didn’t even make it to 33; injuries forced him to retire at 30.

Is it realistic to expect Iginla to be an exception to the rules of aging, especially given the physical nature of his game? Of course not. If his career is going to continue until his late 30s (he’s said he hopes to play until he’s 40), it has to be allowed to evolve – become less physical, more cerebral. He’s not going to be parking himself in those tough spots where power forwards score their goals as often, he’s not going to be going in the corner and coming away with the puck and whipping a shot on goal as often, he’s not going to be bulling his way down the wing as often.

That doesn’t mean he won’t still be an effective offensive player. Iginla is wildly underrated as a passer – his set-up of Sidney Crosby for the Olympic gold-medal-winning goal is an obvious example, but already this year he’s made several brilliant feeds to teammates. And yes, he’s still got a deadly shot, which will find the back of the net when the opportunities arise, and his shot numbers haven’t declined significantly this season despite the low production so far.

But maybe we’re expecting a little too much of a 33-year-old power forward to continue to carry the team on his back. Maybe it’s time for the coach to let his captain’s game evolve and age gracefully – and for other players to step up.

Topics: Brent Sutter, Brett Hull, Calgary Flames, Guy Lafleur, Iginla, Jarome Iginla, Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier, Mike Bossy, Wayne Gretzky

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