Change in philosophy season highlight for Flames
Fourth-straight failed attempt to make playoffs opened some eyes
“Don’t lose your confidence if you slip,
Be grateful for a pleasant trip,
And pick yourself up,
Dust yourself off,
Start all over again.’’
— Jerome Kern song lyric, 1936
And that they have. A season too late, minimum. But, finally.
All over again.
Jarome Iginla gone. Miikka Kiprusoff almost assuredly soon to follow.
In the raucous, Stanley Cup-mad atmosphere of The Madhouse on Madison on Chicago’s notorious south side Friday, the Calgary Flames came to the official end of another deflating season that in truth was finished long ago. And not a moment too soon.
No playoffs for a fourth year on the spin. A sub-.500 record for the first time since back in 2002-2003, the season the despotic Darryl Sutter took over as head coach from the inimitable Al MacNeil who had (briefly) taken over from the doomed Greg Gilbert.
From the outset, the lingering residue of bitterness triggered by another ugly, avarice-driven lockout, to a glacial start for the iconic Iginla, to the month-long knee-injury from which the 36-year-old Kiprusoff never seemed to bounce back through to the PR nightmare of the Ryan O’Reilly offer sheet fiasco, the season never really fired into gear.
Only the most wildly optimistic held out much hope for the Flames to crack the Top 8 in the West anyway, and the concerns of the legions of skeptics were borne out to be only too valid. Too old. Too slow. Too stale. Too set in their ways.
Put simply: They’d clung too long, too devoutly, to the status quo. At one stage of the campaign, this became the most geriatric group in the league. And looked every inch the part.
If anything good came out of the nightmare, it’s that, after putting the obvious off for so long, the change in philosophy has at last been instituted.
Highlights? Well, for starters go no further than the fast-track maturation of 22-year-old T.J. Brodie into a minutes-devouring focal point on the back end. A dab more seasoning and this guy could become the attack-minded blueline catalyst they’ve long sought — emphasis on COULD, the anointing of “franchise” players at such a tender age/small sample size always being a tricky, dangerous business.
Then make a quick U-turn to Lee Stempniak’s consummate professionalism and solid numbers (31 points, a plus-3, team-leading a team-high 110 shots on goal prior to the Chicago game). Move on to the pleasant impact made by waiver-wire reclamation project Joey MacDonald between the pipes. And, after the light bulb had finally flickered on after years of procrastination, the commitment to airlifting in from Abby and points elsewhere, intensifying the workload for the kids, the Baertchis and Horaks and Cundaris and Hanowskis and the rest, providing an invaluable introduction for some, additional top-flight experience for others.
For an organization that hasn’t exactly been long on foresight in recent times, the decision to have already begun serious work on 2013-2014 is an optimistic sign.
And, as a lovely swansong to a remarkable nine seasons here, what are expected Kiprusoff’s final two home performances, playing at the peak of his powers in fending off the Wings and Ducks, respectively.
The shortcomings? Well, well, where on earth to begin ...
The change from Brent Sutter’s deep sighs and defensive demands to Bob Hartley’s glib banter and man-the-torpedoes style didn’t translate into on-ice success they were banking on. Defensive-zone antics often bordered on Benny Hill. After bright beginnings, both widely-heralded off-season free-agent signings, Jiri Hudler, a $4 million cap hit for the next three years, and Dennis Wideman, $5.25 million for four more, tapered off. By his own high standards, captain-in-waiting Mark Giordano struggled, but a bounce-back from him campaign is the least of their concerns.
On and on, and so forth ...
As always around here, questions outweigh definitives heading into the off-season. What about GM Jay Feaster’s immediate future? Is he to be the one entrusted with the rebuild? His ghostly pallor of the dark days of the descent has given way to a sunnier disposition lately, with the massive swing in direction. Meanwhile, his commander of choice, Bob Hartley, certainly hasn’t been acting like a man in fear of his job and, quite frankly, another coaching change now would only smack of ongoing desperation.
More rumours are swirling that president Ken King might be boarding an elevator up to oversee the entirety of Flames sports holdings (Roughnecks, Hitmen, Stamps), making room for a hockey man, a la John Davidson, at the summit of the hockey hierarchy.
With $6 million owed, is Michael Cammalleri returning to see out the final year of his deal? And what about Alex Tanguay, at $3.5 million for the next three? The emphasis is on youth, yes, but budding talent alone isn’t going to cut it. Buffering the kids with proper insulation during their initiation phases is crucial in constructing a winning product, as they’re discovering to much chagrin up north a piece.
If Kiprusoff retires, as anticipated, what does the goaltending situation shake down like?
With three first-round picks and some freedom to move them around the chess table, the draft should be the most interesting in years. They’ve freed up significant cap room off-loading veteran salaries, yes. But enticing even mid-level UFAs to a losing/rebuilding program is invariably a difficult, devilish proposition and always, always, always means you’re going to overpay.
And what of Calgarians embracing a full-blown rebuild to their oil-soaked bosom? It’s one thing to vow on a stack of Gideons that you’ll remain true, something else to actually live through, and pay for, one. So check back around Christmastime for a clearer update on that particular issue.
After years of peddling famous, familiar faces and near-misses, this summer it’s a different kind of sell for the Calgary Flames.
Youth. Vigour. The fresh breeze of an open window.
A season has ended but the start-over has begun.
It’s going to take time and patience. On their part, and yours.
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