Saturday, December 18, 2010

Would A New Coach And GM Help The Calgary Flames This Season?

Back in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, a trip through Alberta for a NHL team almost certainly meant a two-game losing streak. Once Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, and the Oilers were done dazzling a team with their goal scoring abilities, it was off to Calgary to face Lanny McDonald, Al MacInnis, Theo Fleury, Doug Gilmour and the rest of the red-hot Calgary Flames. It was a part of the schedule that no team enjoyed.

Lately though, a trip through Alberta has been a little easier to handle. While the Oilers are showing signs of life with some great young talent, for some reason, the Flames have lost their sizzle and find themselves near the bottom of the Western Conference and searching for solutions.

It is often said that there are no “must win” games in October, November, and early December. Teams that get off to a slow start have plenty of time in an 82-game schedule to establish their systems and rebound from a poor beginning. Having said that, I am a firm believer that when a team does get off to a slow start, there are “have to” win games; not out of desperation, but as a means of gaining confidence and finding a winning attitude.

For the Calgary Flames, the “have to” win games are behind them, they are clearly in must win mode. The Flames started the season with a 4-0 loss to their provincial rivals, the Edmonton Oilers, and have been hit-and-miss since then. They have some convincing victories (a 6-2 win over Columbus on October 22nd and a 3-2 shootout victory in Philadelphia on November 26th for example), to go along with some embarrassing losses (a 7-2 loss to Washington on October 30th and a 7-2 loss to their division rivals from Vancouver on December 1st).

Thirty-two games into the season and they have a 14-15-3 record and 31 points, not a terrible beginning, but an inconsistent one. In the difficult Western Conference, Calgary must find their winning attitude - and quickly, or they risk falling out of contention for the final playoff position. As it stands now, they are only four points out of a playoff spot in 13th place, but more was expected of this team. If you read the news coming out of Alberta, many fans believe it is time for a change behind the bench and in the General Manager’s office.

At this point in the schedule, it is time for the Flames to put together a winning streak, if the losing continues, it could be said that the season was lost in October. Last year, the St. Louis Blues finished the season with 90 points, ninth in the Western Conference. It appears a similar point total is required to reach the playoffs this year. Several of the teams in the West appear ready to race towards the finish line - Detroit, Los Angeles, Nashville, and Vancouver have all played solidly, which leaves four playoff positions left for the remaining 11 teams. Teams like Chicago, San Jose, and Colorado will make a strong push for the playoffs in the New Year and that will put even more pressure on a team like Calgary.

The problem in Calgary is not necessarily scoring goals; they have only been shutout on two occasions this year. Overall, they are 17th in the league with 89 goals for (2.69 goals per game). The Flames are not allowing an alarming number of goals either; they rank 18th in the league in the goals against category (93 goals allowed, 2.84 goals per game). Much like the Ottawa Senators and their struggles in the nation’s capital, the inability to win back-to-back games is leaving the Flames in a chase position instead of being in control of their own destiny.

There is little doubt that Brent and Darryl Sutter are knowledgeable hockey men, but whatever systems they are trying to sell in Calgary, the players and the fans are not ready to buy into it. Unlike the Oilers, a team that admits they are in a rebuilding mode with a 5-7 year plan, the Flames are built for right now. One cannot help but wonder if the fire and brimstone of the Sutters and the era of running a team with an iron-fist have passed. Players with long-term contracts know they can outlast any coach in today’s NHL, and if the team as a whole stops listening to their head coach, it is usually only a matter of time before a change is made.

Miikka Kiprusoff is still one of the elite goaltenders in the league, Jarome Iginla (his 14 goals and 16 assists leads the team) is still the heart and soul of the franchise, but they cannot get the job done by themselves. The Alex Tanguay signing appears to be paying off (2nd on the team in scoring with 9 goals and 16 assists), as is the Brendan Morrison deal (5 goals and 14 assists).

Looking at Olli Jokinen’s second stint in Calgary though and you realize that the support a player like Iginla requires is not present. Matt Stajan’s $3.5 million cap hit hurts this team, as does the $3 million to Niklas Hagman and Ales Kotalik. When you are thinking about contending teams, having those three players near the top of your payroll does not conjure up images of Stanley Cup parades. The age of the players leading the way in Calgary illustrates the point that, unlike their Alberta rivals in Edmonton, this team was supposed to challenge for the Stanley Cup now - not in 3-5 years.

What does the future hold in Calgary? There is no easy answer to that question. Even with changes at the top or behind the bench, the poor decisions on some contracts will not go away any time soon. Matt Stajan is a Flame until the end of the 2013-2014 season; Kotalik, Hagman, and Jokinen have another year remaining on their contracts. In today’s NHL, trading away these players will be difficult - to shed a bad contract, a team will have to acquire a bad contract.

For an organization that has not seen the second round of the playoffs since before the lockout and did not qualify for the post-season last year, it is difficult to say that the future looks bright in Calgary, with or without a change in management. Heading into 2011, the Flames have officially entered “must win” territory.

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