Sunday, May 1, 2011

Calgary Flames looking a lot like the 2007 Maple Leafs.........In case you could not figure it out that is not a good thing.

As everyone is talking about the Playoffs lately, I wanted to ensure that Canadian fans did not think that we forgot about the rest of the league. (I mean how could we, isn't Toronto the hockey mecca?!?) Anyways, I was thinking about this article for a while, thought it was very interesting:

Since the free spending days before the lockout, the Leafs have been a total disappointment to their loyal fans in Southern Ontario. The most frustrating thing that faced Maple Leafs fans, was the frustration of knowing that their team was constrained by the cap, from actually gaining talent and growing into a Stanley Cup contender. The Leafs were shuffling in the 11th seed in the Eastern Conference: not bad enough for a great pick, but not good enough to come to the Playoffs. But the truth is, that even had they made the Playoffs, they would have gone absolutely nowhere. They had a less than stellar Toskala in net, as well as the Muskoka Five on exorbitant contracts, not allowing this team to gain any new upper end talent.

Then Brian Burke was brought in and everything changed. The most tenured player on the Leafs roster is Nikolai  Kulemin with 233 games. Whatever you may want to say about Burke, and some of the acquisitions that he has made, everyone will agree that he is not the kind of person that is looking to hedge his bet: he is in it for the big fish. That is the biggest difference between Ferguson and Burke. Burke would never sign a player like Jason Blake, he is another player that falls under my well-documented Stephen Weiss theory. Paid as a top line guy, that can only be a top-liner on a bad team. (Which explains the faults with the Anaheim team, they had too much money tied to a second line, and were left with no depth whatsoever, eventually losing to a franchise with values completely opposite. A different story for a different day). Burkie, as well as Fletcher realized that all of these players had to go, along with their insanely long no-trade clause contracts. He broke this team down to their bear bottom and decided to build up from total scratch. 

Look at the product, gone are the days when Ponikarovsky is masquerading as a legitimate second line player, and McCabe is living on his 5.75 million dollar contract because he defended with the patented can opener in 2002. The new Leafs are no longer middling thirty year olds wallowing in mediocrity, they are a young group of talented players that are growing as a team. Even though Brian Burke has never had the measured success of  JFJ in the standings, there is not a single Leafs fan that believes they were better off before. He has placed them in a situation, where they actually have 2 first round picks as well as 25 million dollars in cap space. When was the last time that happened?!!? 

Our counterparts in Calgary, are starting to look eerily similar to the dark days of mediocrity in Leafsland three seasons ago. Both teams had a legitimate star player towards the end of his career that was still performing, as well as a set of defencemen that were overpaid and tied into very long contracts. The Flames have already decided to bury Ales Kotalik and his $3 million dollar deal in the minors, in a move that was designed to free up some much needed cap space. Keep in mind that this past season the cap was 59 million and is expected to rise to 62 mil, take a look at the numbers for 2012, of the following eleven players:

Jarome Iginla: $7 million
Matt Stajan: $4.5 million
Daymond Langkow: $4.5 million
Nik Hagman: $3 million
Rene Bourque: $4 million
Olli Jokinen: $3 million
Jay Bouwmeester: $6.6 million
Mark Giordano: $4 million
Robyn Regehr: $4 million
Corey Sarich: $3.3 million
Miikka Kiprusoff: $6 million

=49.9 million dollars

While that is not their actual cap hits, some are more, and some are less, the team is paying eleven of their players, which amounts to 40% of their team, over 80% of the budget. This was the kind of general manager that Darryl Sutter became later in his career. My take on it is, that he became nervous about his job and was hoping that if they could sneak into the 8th seed he would be able to save it. That is what caused him to cripple his team with the Dion Phaneuf trade in the end of January. He did not save his team any money on the deal, as is proof of the contract that he was paying Hagman, and that he handed out to Matt Stajan. Rather he was hoping that by adding three decent players, he can balance out a team that will be a low end playoff contender. What has become obvious is that his plan failed, and horribly.

 Compounding the problem is that they need to re-sign or replace their third and fourth best goal scorers: Alex Tanguay, and the hardest working player on the team Curtis Glencross, as well as upcoming star Anton Babchuk. This is all while they are supposed to go out and sign new players so that they will actually get better. What should they do? To perhaps figure out the best plan of action for Jay Feaster to take, let's look at the top eleven players salary-wise on the Leafs 2007 roster. Keep in mind that the salary cap was $50.3 million that season.

Bryan McCabe: $7.15 million
Mats Sundin: $5.5 million
Jason Blake: $5 million
Pavel Kubina $5 million
Tomas Kaberle: $4.25 million
Darcy Tucker: $3 million
Hal Gill: $2.075 million
Mark Bell (what a bad player eh?): $2 million
Andrew Raycroft $2 million
Nik Antropov: $1.95 million
Alex Ponikarovsky: $1.575 million

Total= 39.5 million dollars

These eleven players represented 40% of the team, and 79% of the total team salary. Jay Feaster can learn a lot from the job that Cliff Fletcher and Brian Burke did so quickly the previous three seasons. One thing that he should not do, is sign high priced free agent defencemen like Jeff Finger and Mike Komisarek, it will only hinder the rebuilding process (Sorry, I needed to make my token Komisarek line). Aside from the Mats Sundin contract, the Leafs did a remarkable job of erasing these expensive contracts. While I am in the class that believes that Mats Sundin did enough for this franchise, that we have no right to be frustrated with him when he refused to waive his no trade clause, I still believe that something more could have been done. The two worst contracts on defence were both moved the same way: get nothing in return from a team that does not mind paying a large amount for a player for a short time span. For Kubina and McCabe, the Leafs got Garnett Exelby and Mike Van Ryan in return: a player that was constantly injured, and another that was so bad, it wouldn't have matter if he was constantly injured. Brian Burke traded Tomas Kaberle after holding on to him for so long, acquiring Joe Colborne, a 1st rounder and conditional 2nd round pick, in a deal that is starting to look like highway robbery. Alex Ponikarovsky was traded for Luca Caputi, a hard working prospect that provides the type of grit, Burke looks for in all of his players. Antropov was traded for picks, and the team was forced to buy out the contracts of Raycroft and Tucker (a contract they are still paying). 

Jay Feaster is also handicapped with no trade/movement clauses on ten of his top eleven players. The only one that does not have one in his contract is Mark Giordano, aside from Iginla, the best of all contracts, and one I am sure he does not want to move. While it is important for Feaster to understand the need to rebuild, this does not mean he should trade Iginla.He proved this season that he is still amongst the best in the entire NHL. There is no reason to move him as you will not be able to replace his talent, even at the expensive price tag of 7 million. Kiprusoff, is not movable either, not because he is such an important piece (which he is) rather because there is no market for a six million dollar goalie. Rather. Feaster is going to have to request some of his players to waiver their no trade clauses, a request that I am sure some of them will be more than willing to do. Or at least I hope so for Calgary's sake.

So how to free up space?  Well he most likely will look to move Jay Bowmeester and his massive contract. The contract carries a cap hit of 6.6 million for the next three seasons. Trading him would be very similar to trading Bryan McCabe: which means get nothing in return. This would free up some long term flexibility. Another option would be to trade him for a worse player with a bad contract which is shorter term. Feaster is going to have to realize, that just like it took the Leafs three years to recover, it will be just as bad for him, if not worse. 

While I hate predicting trades and things of that nature, one specific trade keeps on coming to mind. The Columbus Blue Jackets, have the most no-name group of defenceman, with a dearth of talent. They also have a clog up front of good second line players. Re-uniting Kristian Huselius, and his 4.75 million salary for one more year with Iginla, seems like the perfect solution for both teams. Gives a solid D-man to the Blue Jackets, and the Flames will get some long term flexibility. 

The Flames in reality, can call the season a wash, and let $11 million in payroll walk at the end of the season, in Sarich, Hagman and Langkow and give them some of that flexibility that they need. However, certain decisions are pressing for this season, before those contracts come off the books. What to do with Glencross and Tanguay, and Anton Babchuk? Tanguay made 1.7 mil last season, and after clicking with Iginla, and scoring 69 points he will be in line for a significant raise. Glencross made 1.2 mil last season, and proved that he is one of the hardest working third line players in the entire league. As a UFA he will command at least 2.5 mil on the open market. Babchuk finally showed some of his potential last season, first on the team in +/- and first in goals amongst d-men with 11. He needs to be re-signed as well. 

How can Feaster do all this? Well one thing that he needs to understand is that he cannot look forward to improving the team in the free agent market this season. He needs to spend the season establishing which players will be here for the long run, and which will he let their contracts run or try trading. Internally, the first thing that needs to be done is to waive Matt Stajan. If nobody picks him up, you need to put him down in the minors with his good buddy Kotalik. His contract is too prohibitive, running all the way through 2014. With this extra money, you should be able to re-up Glencross and Babchuk.

If ownership allows him to pull a Wade Redden, and place Bouwmeester in the minors, that may solve all problems. It would free up almost 18 million dollars after the 2011-2012 season in cap space. However, I get the feeling that will not happen and a more conventional approach may need to be taken. 

With Giordano and Babchuk the top two defencemen, fan favorite Robyn Regehr may be the odd man out. He has a 4 million dollar contract that runs through the 2013 season, and at that salary should garner Kaberlesque attention. The return on Regehr would also be very similar, and could help start off the inevitable rebuilding process that the Flames need if they want to return as championship contenders. Hopefully for the sake of the fans, it will not come to them losing their longtime fan favorite. 

If all works out by the end of the 2012-13 season, Feaster can shave this off his teams salary:
Matt Stajan: $4.5 million (minors)
Daymond Langkow: $4.5 million (free agent)
Nik Hagman: $3 million (free agent)
Olli Jokinen: $3 million (free agent)
Jay Bouwmeester: $6.6 million (trade/waivers/minors/anything)
Corey Sarich: $3.3 million

Total= $24.9 million

With that kind of cap space, it sounds a lot like the Leafs of 2011, just minus the young players like........... Kieth Aulie (ooohh that burns).

As a passionate Leafs fan, my message to all Flames fans is that they should not get frustrated with the rebuilding process. Finishing in 8th in the conference should not be the end result anyways, and it takes at least half a decade to build a championship contender. The Leafs have not been more exciting to watch and follow since the lockout. The city feels that a winner is coming soon, and the excitement is back in the air. The few years of bitterness can easily be replaced with Reimeresque smiles, you just need to play your cards right.  For that I wish Feaster all the luck in the world, Calgary is counting on you. 

Hope you enjoyed! 

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