Charlton's NHL: I'm Confident It's Confidence

Rick Charlton

January 31st, 2002

We can only imagine a conversation Calgary GM Craig Button might have had with his team psychologist as his Flames spent the last 10 weeks spiraling into the dirt.

"Doc, I think my team might have an inferiority complex," says Button. "What causes that?"

"Inferiority," comes the depressing one word reply.

Well . . . . . that's certainly one way to look at the Flames recent swoon, a perilous dive that saw Calgary posting numbers that made them the worst team in the NHL over the previous 32 games.

Lower than a snake belly in a wagon rut.

No team with fewer wins or points.

Literally, with no place to hide, the worst team in the NHL.

Can't score. Can't keep the puck out of the net. Calgary's speed game, so prominent in those magical first six weeks, now a favoured but distant memory. Only seven wins over a stretch of 32 games, an annualized pace of 18 on the year. Outshot, Outhit, Outchanced. Outworked.

And out of the playoffs.

If the Flames have no talent, as some critics suggest, then it's hard to tag them as underachievers. Even more difficult to pull out the "choke" tag. No talent literally means no chance. They're merely reverting to the level that was pre-ordained before the season even began.

St. Louis coach Joel Quennville, after watching the Blues indifferent start to the season, was more philosophical.

"There's nothing like a bad spell to give you an inferiority complex," said an untroubled Quennville. He was right. The Blues found their game somewhere in the closet and racked up ten straight wins.

No one is suggesting the Flames are in the same talent ballpark as the high value Blues, but Calgary, with a solid starter in Roman Turek, better defensive depth than most teams and two forwards among the league leaders in points, have a little more going for them than the average bottom-feeder.

The fact they couldn't maintain their early torrid start surprises no one. A falling back to earth is hardly a revelation. The hotter they got the more the opposition began to wake up and take them seriously. Considered an easy game for many years, the Flames suddenly commanded respect.

Overconfidence bred through overwhelming success turned to confusion then to an expectation, bred through years of losing, that the worst was to come.

If you believe the worst, the worst will invariably happen.

And it did.

The Flames should be labeled underachievers these last 10 weeks. They've deserved the "choke" label. Because they're not the absolute worst 23-man lineup that can be put on the ice in this league. Yet they've played like it.

There comes a point in any rebuilding process where inexperience, a legitimate reason for chronic failure, begins to become a crutch if not an excuse, covering a lack of will, disguising the holes in the character of a team.

Atlanta has the inexperience reason to fall back on. So does Minnesota. Even Nashville to a certain extent.

For Calgary, those days are gone. Many of their youngsters are now in the fourth through eighth years of their professional lives. We've admitted in the pre-season and throughout this campaign that the Flames have serious deficiencies among their forward ranks. They should be expected to struggle but they should also be expected to periodically succeed, the latter being the critical missing element of late.

Is it all in their heads or are they really the worst team in the NHL? No, they're not that bad. Their forward lines need a serious shot in the arm via development or trades, but even for that they're still not the worst lineup in the NHL.

Which means its time to suck it up. There are 29 games left. The wins against Minnesota and Detroit were a start. Some life. The situation may already be too far-gone to reveal a playoff spot at the end of the day but this team has shown some recent signs that pride is beginning to return to their game.

The results from this stretch run will be revealed in due time but we shouldn't expect the Flames to continue as the pacesetters as the ultimate losers the NHL can produce.

But perception and reality can be two different things. Maybe it's all in the head. Maybe not.

If Calgary continues to play like they're the absolute worst team in the league, however, the "choke" tag will have to be hauled out and tied to the Flames big toe once again, just as the lifeless body is once more rolled into the morgue for a sixth consecutive early April.

MARC SAVARD MAY FINALLY BE GETTING THE MESSAGE the Flames are a defence first team. Following the Detroit game, in which Savard put up four points, including a hat trick, Savard sounded more relieved that he had finally finished on the right side of the plus/minus column. "Finally, a plus player," he told the Calgary SUN. "That felt great more than anything." Savard is still a minus 20 on the year, on an annualized pace of minus 44 if stretched over 82 games. Plus/Minus can be an overrated and misleading stat although on some occasions it can also point a finger of blame at the right party with unnerving accuracy. Through a whirl of changing line-mates and varied levels of ice time the one constant has been Savard's steadily declining defensive stats. There are others, of course, who wish they could also hide from the same microscope - captain Dave Lowry can't deny he's having a tough year nor can Robyn Regehr. But neither have been even remotely displaying the same consistent problems as Savard. The offensively challenged Flames need Savard to be an asset, not a liability. And he was all of that against Detroit. But these last few games do not a season make. The great centres in the game invariably take pride in their play at both ends of the rink. Has Savard, in the midst of this most difficult season, finally crossed that barrier of understanding? I said in my January 1 column, in the absence of the injured Derek Morris, that Savard would ultimately be judged on his five on five play, not his power play work. Nothing that has happened to date has changed that assessment.

CANUCKS GM BRIAN BURKE WAS AT IT AGAIN yesterday, this time dismantling Steve Simmons of the Toronto SUN on the TEAM 960. Simmons made the mistake of surfacing the wringing of colleague Al Strachan's neck by Burke a week and a half earlier on HNIC. The topic, of course, being the alleged manufacturing of trade gossip by primarily SUN newspaper columnists like Strachan and, yes, by inference Simmons as well. Burke could only offer two explanations for the rumours emanating out of the SUN newsroom - hallucinatory drugs or vivid imaginations. He went on to discount Simmons retort that anonymous GM's are flapping their gums on inside information to anyone who happens to call. It was about seven or eight years ago that the venerable Globe & Mail did a rumour count and found published trade speculation, citing anonymous sources, at the SUN outpaced that of the Star and the G&M by a ratio of about 60 to one. The gap has closed of late - primarily through standards laxing at the latter two papers - but it still remains interesting that more insiders yak their personnel business to SUN columnists than any other newspaper group. Just hard work I guess.

SPEAKING OF SPECULATIVE WHISPERS, the signing of Gary Bettman to a new deal as NHL President has been accompanied by unconfirmed reports that any new Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2004 has a Bettman veto if the majority approving has a margin of 12 votes or less OR disapprovals are eight or more. We'll give this one a lot of credence since it is popping up in a number of credible places around the league. If true, it ensures that Bettman will have a tremendous amount of say on the shape of the deal, which could have a profound impact on the future of the NHL. It's no secret the next CBA will likely decide the fate of most smaller market teams in Canada and probably a few in the U.S. as well. Bettman has always had a tougher job than his competitor, Bob Goodenow, because Bettman actually represents three ownership groups, large, medium and small markets, and not a single entity as one might suppose. Goodenow's job, working on behalf of his constituents, is to find the seam bonding the small and medium markets together and attempt to push the moderates over towards the larger markets. It is the perilous financial health of smaller markets, which will limit salary growth, and any agenda favouring them can't be any good for the NHLPA. The best interpretation of the Bettman request for veto power is that he wants to ensure that any eventual agreement has the long-term interests of the league as a whole at heart. And yes, that would include the Calgary's of the world.

"WE'VE WATCHED HIM PLAY AMAZING AND HE'S NOT AMAZING RIGHT NOW. He's still good but he's not amazing." - Pat Quinn on Toronto netminder Curtis Joseph, likely the starting netminder for Canada at the Salt Lake Winter Olympics in a few weeks. Will Canada be able to get by with good, but not great, goaltending?

"WE WERE STAND-AROUND PLAYERS IN THE SEVENTIES AND SIXTIES. Skating has picked up. The kids are lot better skaters (today) because they have to move. They spend more time learning that craft. The game is moving faster now. There are more good skaters than there were 25 years ago. The general skill level in skating has really improved in Canada." - Pat Quinn, a lumbering defenceman in his day.

"IF WE DROP OUT OF THE PACK WILL I MAKE A TRADE? Depends how we're playing. If we're showing signs that we want to be gritty again and take the puck to the net, I'd say no.'' - Oiler GM Kevin Lowe when asked if he would make some deals to shake his team up.

"YOU NEVER REALIZE WHAT ONE PLAYER CAN DO FOR A HOCKEY CLUB. Look what (Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux) has done for that power play. They were last in the league, and now it's probably the most dangerous power play in the game" - Tampa Bay Lightning coach John Tortorella.

"THE SAME THING KEEPS HAPPENING. For a while we play all right and then playing all right catches up with us. To win in this league you can't just play all right -- you have to bring the intensity to another level." - Dallas Stars defenceman Darian Hatcher.





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