Last year in this space - almost to the day - I offered an examination of a Calgary team that was off to a 2-3-2-2 start, pointing out one of the NHL's worst defensive clubs was engaged in a smoke and mirrors act bolstered by an improbable offence which likely couldn't be sustained. (10/28/02 article)
The difference between success and failure being a small one in today's NHL, Calgary was scoring well enough to at least avoid losing although it was only a matter of time before its lack of defensive awareness would eventually catch up with it.
The Flames seemed to take that advice to heart, shutting out Buffalo their next game, tying Colorado then logging impressive wins on Long Island and in New Jersey while topping out early November at 5-3-2-2, moving rapidly higher in the standings while averaging 3.16 goals scored per game - a pace of 256 for the year - in spite of being shut out twice earlier.
But there was always something rotten at the core and sure enough, the wheels fell off.
While the defensive game improved briefly, the goals simply vanished, the Flames dropping like a stone in the standings, losing seven straight and 11 of their next 12, being shutout four times in that span and scoring only 15 goals or a clip of only 1.25 per game.
It was a coach killing performance, Greg Gilbert tossed over the side of the ship and graybeard Al MacNeil manning the helm for a month before Darryl Sutter finally settled in around Christmastime.
By then it was too late to save the season.
Way too late.
So we watch with interest this season evolving in a familiar pattern, at least record-wise, where the Flames are again hovering at the .500 level and a similar placement in the standings.
But that's pretty much where the similarities end.
If you believe there are certain processes that go into winning, foundations that need to be laid, then the probability of this Flames team being able to sustain at least the current modicum of success has advanced considerably over last year.
The Flames do not appear to be the same train wreck waiting to happen.
In spite of their collapse in Dallas last night, there is a certain on-ice consistency the Flames are bringing to their game this year, particularly on the defensive side of the puck, which fans haven't seen in at least half a decade, an improvement that at least gives them a chance to win on most nights regardless of whether or not the still anemic offence shows up.
If you were wondering what Sutter's three hour talk with Roman Turek was about this summer you can almost be assured it focussed on the goaltender's frank assessment of Calgary's disorganized if not disastrous performance in its own end as much as it did on Turek's penchant for allowing too many soft one's at inopportune times.
It wouldn't take three hours for Sutter to tell Turek he needed to be better. It might take three hours, however, to discuss where the team could help him be better.
That Turek would emerge from that meeting full of confidence and set about preparing himself more fully for a season than he'd ever done before speaks to his satisfaction the Flames would indeed be doing more in their own end than offering lip service to defensive awareness.
Calgary has limited the opposition to 20 or fewer shots in eight of it's ten starts this year and is playing a consistent style of game that should give it a chance to compete for a win in most games it plays this year.
Rather than the mercurial hot and cold streaks we've seen in the past - mostly cold but some good times thrown in as well - the least we can expect this year would seem to be a rather monotonous consistency, yet an approach that promises to bring relative success to a franchise long starved of it after seven years without a post-season.
"What we have is stretches where we don't win in 12 games," analyzed Craig Conroy in training camp. "That's where we have fallen down the last two years and it has killed us. If we get rid of those we are playing .500 hockey and we are right there with everyone else. That's what has been disappointing. You look at Minnesota last year and they were able to do it. We gotta believe that we can do it."
There is still plenty that could go wrong.
It seems almost absurdly Flame-like that this once blessed but now cursed franchise should lose its starting goaltender almost at the moment it cleans up its own end, leaving the team with the challenge of a back-up who might have endured the worst pre-season for a goaltender in Flames history but who has otherwise filled in with a fairly competent performance in the early going.
Calgary's collective save percentage stands at a mediocre .883 even though backup Jamie McLennan is at .914, the same .915 that Sutter declared late last year he would need from his goaltenders in order to qualify for the playoffs.
Calgary has fallen from seventh to 16th in goaltending standings in the last two games but they would still be near the top ten placement Sutter is demanding save for a ten minute stretch against Dallas last night.
With the rumour mill lobbying hard that Turek's knee injury is far more serious than the Flames have let on - perhaps finishing him for the year - it would be hard to believe Sutter the GM hasn't stepped up his efforts to acquire some competent help to alleviate the pressure on McLennan as well as the rest of the team.
In addition, Calgary's lack of offence from its blueliners has to be an ongoing concern. Sutter has been bringing in puck moving defencemen since the day he arrived, Mike Mottau, Andrew Ference, the flirtation with Micki Dupont, etc. He's been preaching a constant mantra of having his defencemen rush into the play. Yet four of Calgary's top six defencemen scored a collective two goals between them last year and the big name brought in during the off-season, Rhett Warrener, has four seasons in eight where's he's failed to score at all.
Obviously, this team could use a genuine offensive defenceman instead of one who's a maybe (Lydman) and one who's a probability (Leopold) but not there yet.
In addition, the Flames continued inability to kill penalties - ranked 29th in a 30 team league at this moment - is the primary reason the team hasn't built an even more successful record to date.
If there is one similarity - aside from the win/loss record - with last year it might be Calgary's suspiciously successful powerplay, ranked seventh overall right now after finishing 29th last year. Nice to have the success but is it for real?
Yet coach Sutter will probably continue to give GM Sutter time, given the robot-like style of play the Flames are bringing to the table, to bring together some alternatives options to both the goaltending issue and the problems with offence from the defence corps.
Sutter doesn't seem the sort to earn his predecessor's "Pause Button" tag.
"Now that he is the GM, if he feels it is not working I don't think we are going to go a month without winning a game," added Conroy. "That's unacceptable. I think Darryl would say two or three games in a row before something starts happening with the team."
I've said in this space consistently the last three years that Calgary will go no where until it cleans up its own end of the ice.
They seem to have finally solved that issue by and large but will that improvement be undercut by Turek's injury and a continued anemic attack?
At least their problems are finally being solved in the right order.
"ALL THEIR GOALIES PLAY THE SAME WAY. They had the theory that, while they knew their goalies would give up goals, they felt you'd have the best chance of stopping the puck if you brought your body into position and made yourself as big as possible. That doesn't seem so novel now, but it was at the time. Technique replaced instinct as the key to being a good goalie. Before that we were taught to catch pucks, kick pucks. Reflexes were very important to a goaltender. They came up with the idea that you should not be moving when you make the save. You should be standing still, waiting for the puck. A lot of young kids are doing that now. It's proven to probably be the most effective way to play.'' - Chicago's Jocelyn Thibault analyzing the impact of the Allaire brothers, Francois and Benoit, on the goaltending profession. The Flames, of course, have brought on board goaltending coach David Marcoux, a disciple of the Allaires, and hope his impact will be just as profound.
"THE GOALIES ARE NO LONGER SHORT AND OUT OF SHAPE AND PLAYING IN NET. I don't think [the league] really changed anything. Goalies today are big and fast and cover more net. They are bigger guys, and they need bigger pads. That's the bottom line." - Dallas Stars winger Claude Lemieux, a veteran of the high-scoring 80's, on the potential impact of a reduction in the size of goalie pads, saying goalies are simply better athletes than they've ever been. Frankly, I find it appalling goaltending equipment didn't come under more scrutiny this past summer given it remains one of the few traditional variables that can be easily legislated to help with scoring totals which remain stuck at the low end of the five to six goal a game range we should historically expect. As one example, I would point to the size of the average catching mitt which is at least double what it was 20 years ago and which wouldn't lead to a significant safety issue if reduced by about one-third. It seems amazing that through the summer, for all the talk of tackling ballooning equipment, even with the best of them all, Martin Brodeur, on side, the league didn't address more than goalie pads.
"I DON'T KNOW WHY YOU TALK ABOUT IT NOW. It was pretty apparent in the playoffs there were major problems. He has a plate in his shoulder. He has a bulging disc. He has a hip flexor that's a direct result of the back injury, and this guy is a 40-game guy with an 80-game salary." - Ex-Leaf Assistant GM Bill Watters, telling it like it is on the relative merits of Toronto power forward Owen Nolan.
"IT'S BELIEVED THAT UNDER THIS THOUGHT THERE WILL BE COST CERTAINTY and those of us who have contracts going past this year will have to honor those contracts, and it will cost you. If you have, theoretically, a $35 million payroll cap and you're at $65 million or $70 million, which a lot of us are now, you will be forced to pay that off and will go against your cap or whatever it is, and you will suffer from a talent standpoint." - Bruins Owner Jeremy Jacobs providing yet another clue that owners have been told NOT to expect a phasing in of the next CBA if it includes a hard salary cap. In other words, clubs with current high payrolls and contracts that extend beyond 2004 will have to do some serious buying out or face significant penalties, hence the near panic to rid themselves of certain contracts in spite of the non-market for big names like Jaromir Jagr. While this could be all rhetoric from a noted hard-liner it's nevertheless instructive to see what other owners around the league have been doing and by and large most have been placing their confirmed contracts and salary durations well under $35 million beyond 2004. That's simply a physical fact. It's also expected that upwards of 75% of the player pool, both restricted and unrestricted, will be without contracts heading into the 2004-2005 season. More than anything else, rhetoric included, the physical actions of the majority - even the actions of players in negotiations - serve as a clear indication of what their true feelings are. And most owners seem to be building their businesses around the expectation of a hard salary cap in the $35 million area. Is that going to be the reality? "I just know we won't have a panic situation regardless of what the new horizon looks like," concluded a neutral Florida GM Rick Dudley.
THE RECENT TODD BERTUZZI CONTRACT WITH THE VANCOUVER CANUCKS IS ANOTHER PHYSICAL ACT - this one from the side of the NHLPA - which indicates agents and players expect a different relationship with owners in the coming years. At just under $7 million per season for 2004-2005 and 2005-2006, the Bertuzzi deal was a nice piece of placement by agent Pat Morris, finding the high water mark in a universe that suggests a $35 million hard salary cap, the most often repeated number we've seen in the last year and a half. Owners said in the summer that players receive 76% of current revenues while the current salary pool suggests an average payroll of about $41 million. Reduce both numbers by about 15% and you end up with players getting two-thirds of revenues and a hard salary cap of $35 million - probably not coincidental. You know the NHLPA is accepting a rollback in salaries is inevitable when its opening proposal to owners - according to recent news reports - included a 5% reduction in total player compensation. Owners, as I noted above, seem to be angling more towards 15% although their opening position of a $31 million hard cap actually works out closer to a 25% drop. For those watching this mind-numbing glacier advancing at a snails pace, be aware the actual numbers are starting to seem less important than what accompanies it in terms of a system of business. Owners want a reduction in salaries. Players seem to be accepting a reduction is inevitable. But players want a system that allows salary inflation - a free market - to continue, allowing the NHLPA to recoup whatever they surrender. Owners want to fix their costs and eliminate the possibility of salary inflation outpacing inflation in revenues. Those are the real issues, more so than the numbers involved.
"I THINK THE CLUBS MADE A GOOD CASE FOR THE PLAYER'S SIDE THIS SUMMER that all they have to do is say no. The collective-bargaining agreement isn't the problem as much as it is that (teams) have made decisions that came back to haunt them." - Player agent Steve Bartlett. The NHL's average salary stayed steady at $1.8 million this summer, the first time in the current CBA that players have not enjoyed some sort of increase in average compensation. Bartlett's assertion has some merit in that owners have always had the power to say no but just as obviously have never been able to. However, the threat of a hard salary cap of a modest size, with no grandfathering and significant penalties from day one, is the only factor at play in the current leveling of salaries, not any grandiose notion that owners have suddenly gotten religion.