Looking Forward: Steps to Success
April 16th, 2002
It seems like an eternity away.
The next time the Calgary Flames will play a meaningful game it will be just under six months from now. The general feeling around the city is that the team that will take the ice on that day in early October will look substantially different from the one that exited the Saddledome this past Saturday night.
Whether or not the team will be any different is still debatable at this point. The big question is will they be better? And, if so, how much better? Assuming all other teams remain static, it will take 95 points to make the playoffs next season—a 16 point improvement for the Flames. Is this too much to ask? In a word: No.
Against Columbus, Nashville, Tampa Bay, Anaheim and Atlanta last season the Flames had a dismal 3-8-1-1 record—eight out of a possible 26 points. If they can squeeze additional ten points out of these games, that would leave them only three games out of a playoff spot. So, with the right amount of consistency over a full 82-game schedule the playoffs really aren't all that far off for the Flames. There are some steps the Flames must undertake in order to be successful, however. The following is a listing of five essential steps to success for the 2002-03 season, leaving out such obvious insights as "sign Iginla."
. Craig Button and Greg Gilbert have both mentioned numerous times that they would like to a fast, smart and accountable team. They went a long way in doing this last season by acquiring Craig Conroy and Dean McAmmond. Now they need to finish the task. The team is chock full of third and fourth liners but not many of them are good. A good fourth liner could be defined as someone like Blake Sloan, who penalty kills efficiently and does all he can in the limited ice time he has. A fast, accountable team with good third and fourth liners should be in the top five in the NHL in penalty killing, not the bottom five. Chris Clark can score all the timely even strength goals he wants but if he gets scored on regularly when the team is on the penalty kill he's not doing much to help the Flames succeed. Not to single out Clark, but clearly nobody was getting the job done. The question of who's at fault could also be attributed to the defence, goaltending or coaching. It's likely a combination of the four but it starts at the quality of the forwards pressuring the outside of the opponent's powerplay. If they can't kill penalties effectively, they're not accountable and shouldn't be on the team.
Cut the anvils loose.
There were a handful of players this season who were weighing the team down and directly affecting the team's ability to compete. These players need to be dispatched from the organization pronto. The reasons for the problems were numerous, from high salaries to dressing room distractions to poor performance. This includes players such as Mike Vernon, Igor Kravchuk, Dave Lowry and Jeff Shantz, Scott Nichol would also be best suited as a role player or 13th forward despite his hard work and enthusiasm. Jamie Wright had a solid season but with so many third and fourth liners already under contract, the Flames need to think long and hard before offering him a one-way deal this summer. Rob Niedermayer does not fall under this category. In past years he has shown himself to be a more-than-capable third-line centre who can put up 30 to 40 points a season. This type of player could be valuable to the Flames, even at Niedermayer's salary. This is the type of player Conroy was and he signed a long-term deal making close to that amount this past offseason.
Savard had a terrible season this year. In a number of instances he cost the team games and their record with him in the lineup was horrendous. But trading him would be a huge mistake. Heading into training camp, the Flames have one bona fide scoring line in McAmmond-Conroy-Iginla. To have any hope of making the playoffs next season, they're going to need two and it all starts with Marc Savard. He's shown he has the talent to be a top-notch playmaker in the NHL with his 42-assist, 65-point season in 2000-01. In the long run, this season will prove to be an aberration in Savard's career. With his injury this year so early on in the season, he was set back months in conditioning when he finally did return. His value on the market is low right now and no return will be able to match what Savard could potentially do given the opportunity. Instead of dealing him, sign or trade for a winger that will complement his skills.
Make a splash on draft day.
The most publicized event of the offseason is the NHL Entry Draft. This could be Calgary's biggest opportunity to not only improve the team but also recruit a number of new season ticket holders. How can they do this? By trading their first-round selection or packaging it up in a deal to acquire the player or players mentioned in (3). If this means trading one of their coveted young defencemen then so be it. One way you make a winner is by trading from a strength to shore up a weakness. With Morris, Gauthier, Lydman, Regehr, Boughner and Buzek already on the blueline and Jordan Leopold ready to step in, the Flames have room to deal.
Sign a veteran backup goaltender.
Roman Turek can't do it all himself. Heaven knows he tried this season but fatigue undeniably played a factor in his performance. He also played hurt for long stretches as was noted by the marked improvement in his play following the Olympic break. The team would have been much better off if they'd had a backup they could count on to fill in when Turek wasn't 100% and someone who could give him extended rests at critical points in the season. Several backup goalies that are available on the open market are John Vanbiesbrouck, Tom Barrasso, Frederic Cassivi, Craig Billington, Rick Tabaracci and Bob Essensa. If they can't find what they want on the open market, it would be in the Flames' best interest to trade for a solid goaltender to ensure that they don't run into the problems that plagued them last year.