Have the Flames Really Changed?


It’s now been almost a year since I started writing for the Flame for Thought blog, and this, regrettably, will be my final entry. Seems an appropriate time to discuss how little has changed with the Flames the past 12 months.

Oh, sure, the GM was (mercifully) gassed, some new names have moved to town and some old ones have moved on. And, sure, the team is on a nice roll, turning a miserable season into an exciting playoff race. But really, are they any better than they were this time last year?

When I, along with a few friends, took over this blog last March, Calgary was struggling to cling to a playoff spot. They’d win a few and get our hopes up, lose a few and feed our desperation, and managed to go on a little streak that pulled them back into a race that seemed over – only to fall achingly short.

This year’s team may well succeed where last year’s failed, by eking into the playoffs. But except for a couple more wins over an 82-game schedule, can it really say it has progressed much, if at all?

The uneventful passing of the trade deadline a few days ago underlined how Calgary now is little different than it was then, or, indeed, for years. It’s essentially a couple of players (Jarome Iginla, Miikka Kiprusoff) and a supporting cast. Sometimes, the supporters help; sometimes, they hurt. But ultimately, they succeed on the backs of Iggy and Kipper – and acting GM Jay Feaster did absolutely nothing to remedy that at deadline time, either for the short term or the longer term. It’s a team reliant on two guys who are nearing their mid-30s and, arguably, have already played their best hockey.

Consider, in particular, Iginla’s role in the team’s recent turnaround.

Since, arguably, the Flames’ lowest emotional point of the season – a 6-0 embarrassment at home to the Minnesota Wild on Jan. 19 – Calgary has reeled off a 14-3-3 record. The line on Iginla in that time? 11 goals, 11 assists, 22 points, plus-10.

Over the same period, Kipper has 13 wins, a 2.05 goals-against average and three shutouts.

It’s been clear for years that the Flames had a couple of superstars and not much more – and that seemed OK for a long time, especially as those guys were coming into their own. Fans just sort of assumed the team would build around them, that the supporting cast would be made stronger, that eventually a championship-calibre team would be assembled.

But it never happened. Instead of getting better, the Flames have spun their wheels for seven years, getting older and more expensive but no better. They are a team with few prospects, few draft picks and little salary-cap space available to add talent through free agency.

Yet with that staring him in the face, Jay Feaster chose to stand pat on trade-deadline day – picking up a couple of spare parts but trading away nothing and getting nothing of consequence. This despite having the oldest roster and one of the most expensive rosters in the NHL, on what is still, essentially, a middle-of-the-pack team that has nothing in the talent pipeline that would suggest it’s going to get any better than it is right now.

The Flames have seven guys on the current roster who are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents next season – including a few (think Alex Tanguay, Curtis Glencross, Anton Babchuk) who might prove difficult and expensive to re-sign. It has a glut of defencemen at the NHL level, with several more in its development system who are ready to make the jump to the big team as early as next fall. It would have made sense to move some bodies in exchange for draft picks and prospects that could have been used to re-stock the team for the future, rather than cling to the current aging group for one desperate run at qualifying for the playoffs – which, let’s face it, is about as far as this team will realistically go. As much as I love the Flames, it would take a miracle from the hockey gods for them to have any real shot at the Stanley Cup this year.

As a fan in the midst of a playoff race, I can appreciate the decision to stick with a team that is on a role, see how far it can go. But as a long-term supporter, I have to ask, what then? After this spring, where’s the team going? And with its stars aging and the management still unwilling to bite the bullet they need to bite to upgrade for the long haul, it’s hard to see the direction being anything but down.

However, I guess we can take solace in one ironic twist surrounding the do-nothing approach to the trade deadline. A trade-deadline mistake of the past – the one that assumed that Olli Jokinen was the centre Jarome Iginla needed – has finally started to work out over that same stretch, though not at all how anyone had anticipated.

Jokinen, centering Calgary’s second line (usually with Curtis Glencross and David Moss as his wingers), has scored 20 points (6 goals, 14 assists) since the Jan. 19 drubbing. Though he’s not directly feeding Iginla’s success (they’re only together occasionally on the power play, and Iggy has a grand total of ONE power play goal in the past 39 games), the emergence of the Flames’ second line, led by Jokinen, has meant opponents haven’t been able to match up solely against the top unit of Iginla, Tanguay and Morrison – and that has allowed the top unit more room to move and create goals. Finally, I have a reason to not hate Olli, and to again grudgingly tip my hat to departed GM Darryl Sutter – maybe you weren’t the NHL’s biggest sucker after all.

With that, readers, I sign off. It’s been fun contributing to Flame for Thought, but I pass the baton to a couple of new contributors who will keep the blog going as I move on to other things. Look for me occasionally on another site – http://www.flamingcircleofjerks.com – where I plan to weigh in on the Boys in Red when they spark my passion – which, good or bad, they have a knack for doing around this time of year.