Calgarypuck.com Season Review
The Glass is 3/4 Empty
Simply put … that was awful.
The Flames basically nuked their season's playoff chances way back in November, a team just can't go through a period of 11 games with only one win and hope to keep up with the pack.
At the time I wondered if the club would forever look back to that frightful month as the down point of the season, the anchor dragging them toward another missed opportunity, with the rest of their season showing the club's true mettle.
I was wrong.
A 4-12-4-1 third quarter record – a run that includes another current run of one win in 11 games – shows that this club is bad. Very, very bad.
Their goaltending is sketchy. Their defence is young. Their scoring depth is limited. Their special teams work is abysmal.
They tear through coaches like factory workers go through work gloves.
It all adds up to another frustrating end to a season in hockey, a season playing out the string.
This time however they may have got this losing thing right, they have a shot at the first pick in this summer's draft.
3rd Quarter Rating: D
Suggesting a decline in goaltending for the Calgary Flames will in all likelihood not cause a lot of shock to readers.
Darryl Sutter has focused on it.
Craig Button has been quoted on the subject.
Roman Turek just hasn't been able to carry the mail this season.
Is it all his fault? Of course not, but when you pull in the team's second largest salary you have to be the team's second best player – night in and night out – or you open yourself to scrutiny.
With a young defence, and very little by way of "run support" Roman Turek's job is not an easy one. Miscues, bobbles and blunders in front of him create chances and chances create goals. To point the finger solely at the goaltender would be to ignore the rest of the team's shortcomings.
However, it's not enough for Turek to stop all the easy ones and some of the difficult ones. He has to win his share of games on his own; a task that he hasn't been able to pull off more than a handful of times this season.
His back up, Jamie McLennan has had an interesting season. His overall play seems much more solid than his predecessor, Mike Vernon, of last year. However, the fact remains both backups were only able to win two games apiece. Not enough to make a difference.
3rd Quarter Rating: C+
It was a trying quarter for the Flame's blueline brigade.
Extended injuries to three key regulars; Petr Buzek, Denis Gauthier and Robyn Regehr, forced the club to play almost ten games with three Saint John defencemen.
Ten different defencemen suited up in the quarter, including; Buzek, Gauthier, Regehr, Toni Lydman, Bob Boughner, Micki Dupont, Mike Mottau, Jordan Leopold, Steve Montador and Andrew Ference, a player acquired in a deal with Pittsburgh.
The most interesting defenceman story of the quarter is the play of rookie Jordan Leopold.
Leopold was banished to the farm within two weeks of Darryl Sutter taking the helm in Calgary, basically pronounced as not ready for the rigors of the National Hockey League. Injuries, and his strong play in Saint John had him back on the Calgary roster by late January, however and since that point the Golden Gopher seems to have won back his coach, logging over 20 minutes on most nights he suits up.
Leopold's play, a bounce back year for Regehr, and the astute acquisition of Ference should give some hope to Calgary fans for the not too distant future.
3rd Quarter Rating: C
The big boys have slowly come around.
The Calgary Flames sought a second scoring line this summer under the assumption that they did indeed have a first scoring line.
When the puck was dropped it was clear to all that they had neither, and this problem carried through the entire first half of the season, before finally righting itself in the third quarter.
The Flames are still losing, mind you, but at least their guns have come to life to some degree.
Jarome Iginla scored 12 goals and 36 points in the first half of the season (.778 ppg), but has another 12 goals in the third quarter alone, to go along with seven assists (.950 ppg).
Craig Conroy had 27 points in the first half of the season (.711 ppg), but has pulled in 16 in the third quarter alone (.800 ppg).
Chris Drury however, continues to puzzle, adding only 11 points in 21 third quarter games.
The forward grade takes a further hit for sketchy defensive play, and a brutal powerplay.
The fourth quarter will be an interesting one in Calgary.
At this point in past seasons the playoffs have looked very much in doubt, but not to the point where the team officials could feel comfortable calling it for what it was … "over".
This year has been different, with general manager Craig Button already calling the playoffs a foregone possibility, setting his club up to make moves for next season and the future instead of carrying on a façade that in turn hurts the clubs ability to step forward.
With the trade deadline less than three weeks away it will be interesting to see what, if any moves, Button makes. Essentially, he's in no hurry … with the season all but dust in Calgary his true deadline is September 2003, not a date in March.
But if teams come a calling in the hopes that they can mine Calgary's roster for playoff help, the Flames may be able to use the leverage of being one of the first sellers to help shape their team for next year.
At least that and a race for the #1 pick will give Flame's fans something to cheer for, even if the race is going in the wrong direction.
As the band R.E.M. has so aptly crooned "Everybody Hurts … Sometime", with Calgary fans one has to wonder when the law of averages kicks in? Watching this team pretty much hurts all the time.
A season spiraling out of control, probably the worst in team history, may carry a large prize in the NHL draft next summer but the short term pain doesn't seem to have any end with yet another dismal quarter in the books.
Should the Flames follow their normal pattern of folding down the stretch, the final months of this lamentable year should continue in the same vein.
It was former Colorado coach Bob Hartley who observed in October that there are several points in the season where the competition ratchets up to a higher level, challenging some to elevate their play but leaving the old and weak along the roadside.
The Flames began stumbling in the opening days of November, early victims of Hartley's theory.
Aside from a brief flurry following the appointment of Darryl Sutter as head coach in late December, the Flames have never suggested they're anything more than we're seeing, in the bottom third of the NHL defensively, on special teams, in offence and not coincidentally, in the standings as well.
There's not even an Art Ross Trophy race to offset the pain this year.
This has been quite simply the longest grind in Flames history.
The only small mercy we've observed lately is the players have stopped their ad nauseum use of the word "unacceptable."
GOALTENDING - Grade D - The Flames were as high as 13th in goaltending only a few months ago but have since dropped to 24th, just one of many critical components breaking down in Calgary's game. Roman Turek has been alternately great and poor but never consistent which is why he was fingered by his GM Craig Button as the primary reason for Calgary's face-plant, a charge that has some merit. Goaltending is the base from which all other aspects of a hockey team can flow. With quality goaltending, other parts of the game become easier to play. Without it, nothing is easy. Turek single-handedly won several games in the quarter just concluded but also wasn't there with the big save far too often.
DEFENCE - Grade C - The recent trend of management to seek out skilled, puck-moving defencemen (Andrew Ference, the return of Jordan Leopold and briefly, Micki Dupont) signals a worry in the Flames camp that the key to the NHL's worst offence may not lie with the forwards, but with the ability to generate speed out of their own zone with a good tape-to-tape first pass. Many of the key elements in this group are in the 23 to 26 age group, now crossing the line between learning the game and having the experience to play consistently at a higher level. As such, the Flames aren't quite the disorganized mess in their own zone they were last year but they're still not hard enough on opposing forwards. Nevertheless, it would not surprise this scribe at all to see Denis Gauther, rather than the more obvious Bob Boughner, as bait at the trade deadline in exchange for yet another puck-moving defenceman.
FORWARDS - Grade F - The NHL's second worst offence can't possibly earn even a "D" grade in spite of the recent return to form of Jarome Iginla, on pace for 50+ goals since the Christmas break. People wondered all last year where the Flames would have been without Iginla, unfortunately effectively getting their wish through the first 30 games of this season as the Flames superstar was hobbled by innumerable injuries even though he managed to don his sweater every night. Iginla's name will be prominent as we approach the March trade deadline but it seems somewhat fanciful to suppose any contending team would offer up the three quality NHL'ers the Flames might be seeking prior to the playoffs. Most signs would point to a summer Iginla deal, if one happens at all. Calgary needs desperately for something to go right next season with Oleg Saprykin on the left side and Chuck Kobasew on the right, filling out a second line with some scoring depth. Does management wait and count on that happening or become aggressive in trying to fill those gaps some other way? The next meaningful game for Calgary is eight months in the future, leaving plenty of time for contemplation.
COACHING - B - Darryl Sutter started strong but most coaches do and now the Flames are settling back into their pattern of winning one, tying one and losing two. While players will change, this coach will stay. He may end up as GM in the summer as well.
MANAGEMENT - F - Craig Button's team is in 15th place, competing for first pick overall in the summer draft and there's no way to escape that reality. Was Greg Gilbert the only sacrificial lamb or will there be more? I've said this often enough - this ownership group has never hesitated when it needed a scapegoat to keep the fans happy. Doug Risebrough and Al Coates both found that out along with innumerable coaches. Then again, an older and wiser Risebrough is a favourite to win the NHL's Executive of the Year. The early betting here is that Button returns.
OWNERSHIP - B - As the league crumbles around them these guys are no longer - miraculously - the only poor sister on the block. They're about one of 20 or so struggling mightily to the 2004 finish line and, in the end, being part of the crowd will be a good thing since that kind of joint pain makes it more likely to foster the kind of agreement that will allow the Flames to exist and compete into the future. We'll give them a B just for hanging in although past meddlings in hockey management have probably earned them a rebuilding period about twice as long as normal.
FANS - Over 18,000 for a recent game against Vancouver and seven other sell outs through the year speak to a fan group that is either blind to the adversity of a last place team or is actually entertained by NHL hockey, regardless of what the home team might be up to. The real test, of course, comes when season tickets will need to be renewed. It will be interesting to see if the Flames try last year's tactic of offering a big discount to renew tickets immediately after this season concludes.
The season is all but lost, thanks largely to a November record that even the 1989-90 Quebec Nordiques wouldn't have been proud of. The biggest question facing the Flames now – should they re-tool or blow the entire thing up and start all over again?
If management – whoever they may be – opts for the latter, it will mark the third "rebuilding" phase since the team first began their seven-year stretch without the playoffs.
The fans still fill the building on a regular basis but there is no quick-fix solution in sight. This is a bad hockey team and things won't be getting better anytime soon barring any unexpected surprises such as Kobasew becoming a 20-goal scorer and Leopold becoming a top NHL powerplay quarterback. Roman Turek returning to Vezina-trophy candidate form again wouldn't hurt, either.
Goaltending – F-
Goaltending on this team is awful, plain and simple. As a goaltender your most important objective is to keep the team in games and have a good win-loss record. Neither Roman Turek nor Jamie McLennan has accomplished this. The thought on McLennan was that he would be an upgrade over Mike Vernon. Well, Vernon had two wins last season and so far McLennan has two wins (and ten losses).
Most nights Turek looks like a deer on ice and is by far the most overpaid player on the team. Occasionally he'll put together a solid outing but unfortunately the team is back on its heels so often that they still can't win when that occurs. Case in point, the team's recent 1-1 tie in Dallas.
Defence - F
A blueline decimated by injuries saw no fewer than ten different players suit up on defence over the past 20 games. Household names like Mike Mottau, Steve Montador, Micki DuPont, Andrew Ference and Jordan Leopold joined blueline regulars Gauthier, Boughner, Lydman, Buzek and Regehr.
For the most part, the young defence held up surprisingly well in the face of all that adversity but the supposed veterans struggled. Toni Lydman is simply not suited for the number one role with which he's been saddled. Some nights he's outstanding. He contributes offensively, makes big plays defensively, and logs a lot of ice time. Other nights he's dreadful. Case in point, his minus-3 performance in Nashville last night. With an inexperienced defence, the veterans need to step up even more and they have not.
Forwards - F
There have been very few bright spots for the Flames on forward this quarter. Among them were Jarome Iginla, Stephane Yelle and Craig Conroy.
The switch has suddenly come on for Iginla. He leads the league in goals this February. Conroy is having the second-best season of his career. Chris Drury has provided a disappearing act far too many times this season. Over the past 20 games he's shown signs of brilliance coupled with inconsistent play.
Yelle and Rob Niedermayer have been strong on the checking line, chipping in goals occasionally and rarely giving up one of their own.
Meanwhile, most of the other forwards have been terrible. Dave Lowry had a great start after being called up from Saint John but has fallen back on the injury-prone style of game that plagued him last season. Chris Clark had his worst quarter of the season. Gelinas has one goal since January 13,
Coaching – F
The reality of Darryl Sutter's first full quarter as the team's head coach is that it's very difficult for a coach to come in at mid-season and completely turn around a sinking ship. Of the seven teams that were out of the playoffs and fired their head coach, only one – the underachieving Colorado Avalanche – has made the move into the playoffs. The only other team to show marked improvement was the Atlanta Thrashers, who were 12 games under .500 when Curt Fraser was let go but have battled their way to a .500 record under Bob Hartley.
Sutter, meanwhile, has the Flames playing with a record of 4-13-4-1 in their last 22 games. Four wins in 22 games. While it's true that two other head coaches this season couldn't get much of a better result out of the team, he has not done well. In all fairness, his ability to get this team turned around should be re-evaluated next season after he's had a training camp with the club.
Seven years. Flames fans have been waiting – and patiently, I might add – for any sort of glimmer of hope. But where has this team gone in the past seven years? The answer is nowhere. Proponents of the current management team will point to a roster that "looks better on paper" but compared to the 1996-97 Flames, the 1998-99 team looked better on paper too. A quick glance at that roster reveals a pretty scary lineup. Names such as Rene Corbet, Jeff Shantz, Clarke Wilm, Andrei Nazarov, Steve Dubinsky, Hnat Domenichlli, Cale Hulse, Dave Roche and Bob Bassen don't light the world on fire. Two or three years down the road fans will likely look at the majority of players on this roster and think similar thoughts.
Are the building blocks there for a contending team? Probably not. Iginla is a great player to build your team around but who else is there? Chris Drury complements Iginla well but Conroy will be gone before 2004. Gelinas will likely be gone shortly after that. Kobasew, like Tkaczuk, Fata and Saprykin before him remains a question mark until he can prove himself at this level.
On defence, a blueline that's supposed to be collectively entering its prime right now just can't get the job done. The club can't simply sit back and wait until Leopold has developed to bring in someone to lead this group offensively. If the Flames don't bring in a proven powerplay quarterback this summer they're doomed to have the league's worst powerplay once again in 2003-04.
And on top of all that, goaltending is the worst problem on this team. Roman Turek was brought in to provide stability but his inconsistency is coming close to rivaling that of Grant Fuhr's in his final years. Goaltending is an interesting position. It's hard to acquire a good one and even harder to trade a bad one away. If the Flames had a key save now and then maybe everything else would fall into place. As it stands, the team is doomed to sit on the sidelines and watch as this season spirals endlessly out of control.