Just watched the Flames pull off an ugly 5-2 win over Anaheim today, making them two-for-two in games that don’t matter this season. With the win, Calgary finishes with 90 points, putting them no better than ninth, out of the playoffs by at least four points. Sure, it’s not easy to make it to the postseason in the Western Conference, where five teams finished with over 100 points this year, but the Flames have now been booking early-April tee-times three years in a row. It’s been eight years since they made that run to the Stanley Cup final, and they haven’t won a playoff series since.
While this isn’t new territory for a team that had an eight-year playoff drought from ’97 to ’04, and didn’t win a playoff series in the 15 years between its last two Stanley Cup finals appearances, it’s more than a little disappointing for a franchise whose fans were reinvigorated by that run in ’04, and have upped their expectations accordingly ever since. Although they’ve been rebuilding in Edmonton and redecorating in Toronto the past few years, Calgary has largely kept its core intact, a team whose idea of making an acquisition means bringing back someone who once wore the Flaming C (see Jokinen, Tanguay, Cammalleri et al). Mind you, this squad isn’t as old as you think: only four players on the active roster were born before 1979, with Miikka Kiprusoff being the oldest at 35, followed by Jarome Iginla, 34. If anything, the team might have waited too long to trade these two–Iggy saw his point totals drop from 86 to 67 (which still led the team) while Kipper’s 35 wins were the fewest he’s posted in his seven full seasons as a Flame–though he actually played fewer games (70) this year than he has since he was traded to Calgary halfway through the ’03′-’04 season.
While many Flames fans (myself included) would like to see those two finish out their careers in the red, black and gold, the team should probably trade them to a contender when they still have a chance. The core of this team will be pushing 30 next year–with Cammalleri, Glencross, Stajan, Stempniak, Bouwmeester, Giordano and Henrik Karlsson all turning 29 or 30 by next season’s end, to say nothing of the guys who are already there (Jackman, Jokinen, Kostopolous, Moss, Tanguay, Hannan and Sarich, plus the two aforementioned stars). The longer they hold on to their top talent, the less they’ll get in return–and if Robyn Regehr was only worth a sixth defenseman and an undersized young forward at 31, I’d hate to see what an aging Iginla would bring in return. Kipper would probably be worth a bit more, should they decide to let him go, considering that his play has hardly declined over the past few seasons. I think the Flames probably have their goalie of the future in Leland Irving, who didn’t do too badly (.912 save percentage) in seven games of NHL action this year. I don’t expect him to be the next Miikka Kiprusoff, but he ain’t the next Trevor Kidd, either.
Mind you, I do believe the Flames already have their next Iginla in Sven Baertschi, the first first-rounder worth getting excited about on this team since Dion Phaneuf. The kid scored three goals in five games as a 19-year-old, and displayed the kind of offensive ability that’s in short supply in Calgary. He was a little underrated last year on draft day, and might fly under the radar for the first couple months of next season, but I would not be surprised to see him as a Calder finalist by year’s end.
Beyond Baertschi, the team’s future doesn’t look too bright, judging by the kids they’ve got playing professionally. Akim Aliu, Lance Bouma and TJ Brodie all have solid NHL futures, but aside from Brodie, who could turn into a pretty decent offensive defenseman, these guys aren’t going to sell many tickets. Aliu is a third-line grinder, a Kostopolous/Jackman type who had the ugliest two-goal game I’ve ever seen today. And the best case for Lance Bouma would be a Curtis Glencross, though he’s yet to show that kind of goal-scoring ability (one goal, 2.9 shooting percentage in parts of two NHL seasons). That said, I fully believe Bouma will outscore Matt Fucking Stajan next year. You heard it here first.
On the other hand, I think Mikael Backlund is the latest in a long line of first-round busts for the Flames. The kid hadn’t played a game on North American ice before Calgary took him 24th overall in ’07, after which he was barely a point-per-game player when he got sent down to the WHL in ’08-’09. Backlund has not scored more than 15 goals in a season at any level (they play much shorter seasons in Sweden), and I’m not sure he can turn into the next German Titov, much less Hakan Loob–and those guys were taken in the 10th and 9th rounds, respectively. I’m also not big on Greg Nemisz, who went 25th overall to the Flames in ’08. The kid has just one point in 15 NHL games, and while he’s only 21, his 0.6 points per game in Abbotsford this year is nothing to get too excited about.
Now maybe, just maybe if Baertschi has a breakout rookie campaign, Blake Comeau rediscovers his 24-goal form of a year ago and Blair Jones adds some scoring punch while Glencross, Moss, Tanguay and Stempniak all have healthy, productive seasons and Iginla and Jokinen give it one last hurrah, this team could sneak into the playoffs next year. But even then, they’re not built to get past a tough first-round opponent. Might as well call up a contractor, cuz it’s rebuilding time in Cowtown, I’m afraid…
GOLF FLAMES GOLF!