Charlton's NHL: Long Hot Summer

Rick Charlton
March 26th, 2002

Playoff purgatory followed by a hot and dusty prairie summer await, the next six months stretching out like an endless horizon, one of many suffered these last half dozen years by Flames fans.

Whom among us wouldn't want to be wasting away a beautiful spring evening cooped up inside the Saddledome, slightly agog from a few beers, lungs worn from screaming epithets at the referee, arms dangling tiredly at our sides after engaging in fist-pumping goal celebrations.

But the Flames are toast for a sixth consecutive April. And so we close off another year with the same old line.

"There's always the Hitmen."

Topics from the depths of the desk drawer:

NONE OF THE DOOM AND GLOOM SCENARIOS FOR Jarome Iginla's pending contract negotiation seem to bother with the basic issue of supply and demand. Those numbering Iginla's days in Calgary should consider the fact the budding Flames superstar is unlikely to be at the head of the moneyed list when bidding starts on July 1. Bill Guerin, an older Iginla clone, Teemu Selanne, Tony Amonte, a slightly bent in more ways than one Theo Fleury (probably turned loose by the Rangers) and even lesser lights like Scott Young are right wingers all likely to become UFA's after July 1. Three premium guys at the top, a middle guy and a lower tier guy who will cost rival GM's nothing but money to sign. There is also the possibility that a fellow restricted free agent, Paul Kariya, could be had in a friendlier trade scenario at a lesser cost. If you assume money is like a river, without friends or emotions, flowing the easiest course, it stands to reason rival GM's will seriously consider at least four of the above six names before stepping through the hoops needed to come up with a massive front-loaded offer that would be necessary to scoop Iginla out of Calgary. An above average offer, in fact, that would have to overcome Calgary's ability to match in Canadian dollars. Guerin is essentially more attractive than Iginla if you are looking for someone similar to the Calgary winger at a significantly lower cost than the amount needed to defeat the Flames. Amonte and Selanne offer a less physical option, also at a more reasonable cost. Young is probably in the bargain bin for any team still left while Fleury . . . . . well, who knows what's going to happen to Fleury. And Kariya would be easier to obtain than Iginla as well in terms of absolute cost, either in dollars or assets. Although there is no accounting for the fruit loop element among NHL owners, the fact the UFA market at right wing is so flush this summer - with Kariya also a possibility - means supply might well outstrip demand. And that will be good news for the Flames and their embattled fans.

IN THIS MOST SCHIZOPHRENIC OF SEASONS, it should not surprise to find an examination of the Flames plus/minus stats offering conflicting signals. Plus/minus is a nebulous statistic at best but is not without meaning in extreme situations. Critics of the Flames point to the plus 29 of Iginla, as one example, while simultaneously laughing at the Flames collective minus 46 should Iginla's stats be removed. But take out the three worst offenders - Dave Lowry (minus 20), Robyn Regehr (minus 21) and Marc Savard (minus 18) - and the Flames are actually an aggregate plus 42. Minus Iginla and the three players mentioned and the rest of the roster has been a plus 13 on the year. In fact, the Flames look somewhat like two different teams at times, parts like Denis Gauther (plus 11), Igor Kravchuk (plus 8) and Bob Boughner (plus 11) so defensively responsible as to be unrecognizable when matched against other components like the struggling Regehr. Craig Button has been fond of telling people how he is building this team from the goal out, strong on defence and big and fast up centre ice. Yet Savard (minus 18) and Niedermayer (minus 12) pale in comparison to Craig Conroy (plus 27) and even Clark Wilm (minus one). The divergence is so wide, in fact, that you wonder how it is that they could all be on the same team. And maybe Coach Greg Gilbert is thinking the same thing. The comfort level in this is the fact there are key figures on this team who seem to be pulling their weight. And yet there are others who have been causing an inordinate amount of damage. Meanwhile, three players who accumulated a minus 15 between them, Jukka Hentunen, Jeff Cowan and Jamie Allison, have all been traded, two for players (Petr Buzek and Blake Sloan) who are now in the plus column. What does all this mean? The Flames will go nowhere until they clean up their own end of the ice because it's quite probable they will never become an offensive dynamo. And that means more change has to be coming this summer.

THE DEADLINE FOR FLAMES SEASON TICKET HOLDERS to secure an early bird discount on tickets for next year is April 15th, barely two weeks away. The incentive to sign now is a price increase limited to four percent instead of the more ominous 11% planned. For myself, a savings of about $450 on a bill that might have topped $7,000 for two seats. While you may disagree with the philosophy behind this tactic, it is a smart ploy that has been long, long overdue. Fans will have little time to sort through their feelings after yet another failed season, many seeing only the dollar signs they will miss out on rather than the final result they're being billed. The Flames are also doing an excellent job with the aggressive approach they've taken to hammer this message home, scheduling some 75 breakfast, luncheon and after work briefings for their season ticket list. Rather than letting people walk out of the room and think about it, the Flames are asking for the business on the spot. Another solid tactic. The finger pushing the buttons behind this campaign is very probably Jim Peplinski, his goofball joke-a-minute public persona disguising the fact he didn't get rich from hockey, but rather through the building of a multi-million dollar car leasing franchise. If the Flames survive a sixth consecutive April without playoffs, and 13 years without a playoff win at all, with much of their season ticket base still intact, then you can look back on the current campaign as the reason.

PAVEL BURE HAS FRIENDS. No surprise there, particularly when he's making $10 million a year. But he does have some friends you wouldn't expect. Gino Odjick, he of the low forehead and close-set eyes, being one. And Gino's mad at Florida netminder Trevor Kidd who waited at least 10 seconds for Bure to clear out of the Panther locker room on his way to New York before initiating a verbal assault on the Russian Rocket. Gino, Bure's former protector in Vancouver, didn't like it and is publicly plotting mischief for tonight's Montreal/Florida game. "I figure he'll wake up (this morning) at 9:30 and read the paper at 10," said Odjick yesterday, knowing his quotes would hit ink the next day. "That leaves him nine hours to learn the duck dance. I haven't played in a week and all I've been doing is shooting at watermelons - because that's the size of his head. I figure to get 10 minutes of ice. That means I should be good for three shots. And I was hitting the melon often last week. I'm an Indian, so I'm good at hunting." Can you say, "premeditation" three times in a row? Meanwhile, the Rangers have lost three of four since obtaining Bure last week, their playoff hopes fading faster than Mark Messier's hairline.

"I DON'T KNOW IF I'LL EVER FORGIVE THE FANS. I spent four years here and it's sad to leave but it's a big weight off my shoulders the way the fans turned on me. Obviously the fans never forgave me for holding out. I guess you're not supposed to do that here. The booing hurt me. The rest of the guys didn't like it either. They thought I was being treated unfairly. But I was proud of the way I handled it. I never quit or gave up." - Tom Poti on his time in Edmonton.

"MAYBE THIS WILL BE A MATURING TIME. A lot of people don't mature until they are faced with some kind of adversity. Now, their so-called buddy is not there, and they have to fend for themselves. Maybe it's time for a bit of reality. Hey, welcome to the real world." - Devils assistant coach Larry Robinson on rumours Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora were staging a mini-protest over the trading of linemate Jason Arnott when they missed action this week with the "flu."

"I DON'T THINK THE RULES HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH the speed that the game was played at (at the Olympics)," says Philadelphia and U.S.A centre Jeremy Roenick. "It was a big ice surface, and, you know, the big ice surface does not relate to a faster game on the screen. It all had to do with the players' intensity and the players' commitment to hard work. How you change that . . . There's some players that you can't . . . . you can light a fire under them, but they still won't respond."