Thursday, September 22, 2011

Calgary Flames: Feaster trying a massive re-tooling job, instead of a total rebuild.

The Calgary Flames have been on a downward trajectory ever since they reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 2004. The only real constant for the Flames has been the play of Jarome Iginla. After a down season by his standards in 2010, Iggy re-asserted himself as one of the best forwards in the NHL last season. As I wrote in another article a few months ago, the Flames have been stuck in mediocrity and remained up against the salary cap for the past few seasons. GM Jay Feaster did a fantastic job of lowering the cap number, while not letting go of any of his young, talented players.

What Happened Last Season: The Calgary Flames finished about where everyone expected them to- a couple of points out of the playoffs, or as some might say, decent but not quite good enough. The most interesting aspect of the Flames season was how they got there. For the first half of the season the Flames joined fellow Canadian teams like the Oilers, Senators, and Leafs at the bottom of the league standings. At about the halfway point in the season, the Flames turned around and played hockey as if they were a perennial Stanley Cup contender. While the Flames ultimately did not make the Playoffs, there were some good things that came out of last season. Firstly, and most important as well, Iginla showed that he is still one of the best players in the league. He finished third in the NHL in goals, while playing with vastly inferior talent to all the other players in the top ten scorer. Also, the continued growth and emergence of Anton Babchuk and Mark Giordano provided assurance and the depth for the Flames on the back-end, which gave them the confidence to trade Robyn Regehr, and provide themselves with some serious salary cap relief.

Cap Space and Off-Season Needs: The Calgary Flames biggest off-season need was simply to create cap room. My stance on success, is that if your team is currently built in a way that it cannot win the Stanley Cup then you should never be satisfied with mediocrity (which is what I predict will happen in Buffalo) and Feaster took the first necessary step to facilitate the revamping process. In order to re-sign both Curtis Glencross and Anton Babchuk, while still creating some cap room for the future, the plan was to get rid of some unnecessary contracts. The Flames at the end of the season had too many forwards that were making too much money. Nik Hagman, Matt Stajan, Ales Kotalik and Daymond Langkow were all making over three million dollars last season to essentially contribute nothing. Feaster was able to clear about ten million dollars in cap space for the upcoming season, and about $4 million for the following year. The first move that Feaster made was an old-fashioned win-win for both organizations. The Flames dealt from a position of strength by moving Robyn Regehr, one of their high profile physical defencemen, to the Buffalo Sabres on condition that Buffalo would take on Ales Kotalik's salary as well. The Sabres, behind new owner Terry Pegula, have plenty of extra cash and acquiring such a talent like Regehr fit nicely into their new expenditures strategy. Feaster temporarily replaced Regehr with Scott Hannan, and at a 1yr/$1 million deal, it looks like a bargain. While the addition of Hannan will most definitely not make the Flames a contender, it is not like they were going to contend with Regehr in the lineup, and he is a viable enough replacement that it was worth it for the cap flexibility.

A couple of weeks ago Feaster traded the oft-injured Lankgow to the Phoenix Coyotes for the streaky Lee Stempniak. From the Flames perspective this trade has no downside. When healthy Langkow is only marginally more effective than Stempniak, yet makes more than double the amount of money in salary. Both Stempniak and Lankgow have their contracts come off the books at the end of the season, but this will give Feaster some more flexibility to make a move during the season if he wants to add a player via trade. Again love the trade, as Feaster knows this years results are essentially moot and irrelevant.

What the Future Holds: I am going to suppose a theory here, and would love to hear your comments and opinions in the comments section below. Jay Feaster is completely aware that his team is in no position to win the Stanley Cup this season. They do not have the talent to compete with the superpowers in the league, and need a couple of other big name players if they want to really compete. Yet Feaster has chosen to revamp and retool his team instead of rebuilding it. In most cases I would disagree with him, but after seeing the cap clearing moves he did this off-season, the potential is back in Calgary for some success in the near future. At the end of this season the Flames will have 12 players under contract for a total of $41 million dollars. Assuming the cap ends up staying in the range it is at now, the Flames will approximately have $25 million to round out their roster. Although that number does not sound optimistic, I am sure Feaster has taken a look at the players that he does have under contract, and is satisfied and confident that he can significantly improve his roster next off-season. Among the ten most talented players that the Flames have on their roster, only Olli Jokinen is not under contract for next season. So while they need to fill out their roster, they have the money to spend it on some big names, because they will not be losing anyone significant off their roster. Kiprusoff, Iginla, Bowmeester, Giordano, Tanguay, Glencross, Bourque and Babchuk are all still under contract and form a solid foundation for the future. Also, let it not be forgotten that the Flames were only three points out of the Playoffs despite being one of the worst teams in the league for over half a season. Aside from Regehr that core group all still remains intact, and could be looking at a solid influx in talent next summer.

This in many ways explains why Tanguay received a five year contract. Feaster decided to lock him up at a relatively inexpensive $3.5 million per season with the notion in mind that there is a real possibility this team can be a serious contender in 2012-2013. To put in perspective the steal that Feaster got with Tanguay, Ville Leino received a 6 yr/$27 million deal, and only yesterday R.J. Umberger signed for 5 yr/$23 million. At 5 yr/$17.5 million there is no reason not to sign him if you plan on competing in the near future, as his stats and experience both are extremely favorable to those two players that got much bigger deals.

In many ways this plan of action goes against conventional thinking, but I think he has the right idea. Jarome Iginla and Miika Kiprusoff are not going to get any younger, and the time to win when these are your stars is now. He has adapted his strategy to his player base, and if played out correctly, Feaster may end up looking like a genius.

My Prediction: The Flames have not done much to improve for this season and will once again finish outside of the Playoffs and eleventh in the Western Conference. Despite this fall in the standings, I do not think that the future has looked better in Calgary from a salary cap perspective since the cap was instituted after the lockout.

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