Season Wrap Up: Charlton
As might be expected of a team finishing around the .500 level, the Flames of 2001-02 represent a classic half empty/half full situation.
Flames fans have been left wondering which of their schizophrenic teams is real - the one which rocketed out of the gate with only two regulation time losses in its first 21 games or the one which was the worst in the NHL through the middle chunk of the season.
Or maybe it was the one that was simply .500 down the stretch.
If anything, the same problems afflicting Calgary last year – poor defensive zone coverage, unbalanced scoring, a terrible penalty kill – was also its undoing this season.
A lack of a playoff spot for a sixth consecutive April, however, shouldn't cloud the fact this was probably Calgary's best overall season since their last post-season appearance when they also registered 79 points in 1995-96.
And who among you in October would have said the Flames would have qualified for even eighth in the Western Conference knowing 95 points would have been needed? The bar was raised yet again and even the Oilers, at 10 games over .500, are on the outside looking in.
GM Craig Button turned over 50% of his roster in the last 13 months and four of Calgary's five top contributors this year were newcomers. The list includes Craig Conroy (a steal of a deal and a perfect foil for Iginla), Dean McAmmond (a career year on the top line), Roman Turek (only the third netminder in Flames history to win 30+ games) and Bob Boughner (a maligned signing in the summer which proved to be worth every penny).
After tossing Val Bure and Cory Stillman onto the trash heap, prognosticators predicted doom for Calgary's offence, but the Flames actually rang up more goals than the year before, although having the league scoring champion in Jarome Iginla was also a major factor.
Digging deeper into the numbers it was apparent as early last summer that the Flames needed more skill to develop a decent second scoring line but that help never arrived. Button after a summer of frenetic activity, was unable or unwilling to pull the trigger on a deal to shake his team up as the Flames sank out of sight in January. In short, he went from Hot Button to Pause Button in the blink of an eye, which may have been a major contributor to a spiral, which lasted one month longer than it should have.
Keeping recalcitrant Marc Savard around after the former had asked for a trade left a dressing room disturbance on hand for the second season in a row. There was also the Mike Vernon waiver wire controversy although this correspondent chooses to believe the conspiracy theory, which would lay the blame for that at the feet of meddling upper management.
Rob Niedermayer was an expensive bust this year and Vernon justifiably lost the confidence of his coach early with a series of poor starts. Vernon's lack of concentration was amply qualified by serious illnesses to his mother and son but the NHL can be a cruel, bottom line business.
In truth, however, there are few NHL teams which don't end a year carrying a few "mistakes" or expensive contracts they can't dump. In small markets, the mistakes simply stick out more readily.
Coach Greg Gilbert, in his first full season in the NHL, made a decisive move of his own at the two-thirds mark, stripping the barely functioning Dave Lowry of his captaincy. That left many key Flames visibly angry - and apparently genuinely so - but give Gilbert credit for refusing to accept the status quo, for making a move that was also the right one, however controversial it might have been. In the absence of trades, it was a shakeup in leadership the team badly needed.
Through all the drama listed above as well as Iginla's pursuit of the NHL scoring championship we can derive some obvious truths.
The Flames were again among the bottom tier of teams in the NHL defensively, this in a year when goal-scoring league wide fell to its lowest level in decades.
As the Flames faded out of sight from the 20 game mark onwards, they consistently surrendered three goals or more a game (15 times in their last 21 as an example). And it was always that one extra goal at the wrong time, which killed them. Worse, that one extra goal usually came off the NHL's 27th ranked penalty kill, now atrocious for the third straight year under three different coaches.
Calgary ranked 21st overall in the NHL defensively, actually an improvement over prior years but not near the top seven ranking desired by Gilbert. Three other teams with similar offensive statistics to the Flames, Edmonton, Montreal and New Jersey, were also among the league leaders defensively, which meant they had a far better chance to win on any given night.
Secondly, Calgary's inability to feast off the bottom-feeders in the NHL literally killed them this year. The Flames had a fine record against the league's better teams but floundered when confronted with the easiest of pluckings, a trend which has to stop if this team is going anywhere in the future.
Lastly, if there is something the Flames learned to their peril this year - and the Oilers probably learned as well - it's that a hot start can easily be duplicated by other teams like the Canucks and Kings at some other point during the season.
In other words, no team can rest on its laurels.
The beautiful thing about a grinding 82 game schedule is that eventually everything comes out in the wash and teams typically end up exactly where they should regardless of the occasional rush of good fortune.
The Flames were 11th this year and deserved to be there, particularly in the tough Western Conference.