The off-season, at least for the Flames, is upon us and since the dust has somewhat cleared on the happenings of the last six months, I've decided to poll two of my fellow writers on their opinions of various issues affecting the Flames this summer. I was originally going to contribute my thoughts as well, but for the sake of length and to avoid repetition, I've decided to omit them. Plus, I imagine you're all probably sick of my opinions anyway.
Last summer, many people predicted that the Flames would struggle to score goals, but few could have expected the extent to which they struggled this season, at even strength and on the powerplay, even after trades were made to bring in some scoring help. Many have also contended that more scoring might have been the difference between making the playoffs and not making the playoffs, when it can also be argued that the brilliant play of Kiprusoff simply masked some of the team's other problems. What do you think were the main reasons for the Flames' lack of offence this season and was that the only thing that prevented them from earning a playoff berth?
Robert: There isn't really one simple explanation, or root cause if you will. What happened, to my eye, was a series of events that each contributed a little something to the ineptitude we saw this year.
First, there were a couple of choices that Darryl Sutter made in terms of personnel before the start of the season occurred that acted as factors. The selection of Jokinen over Cammalleri last March certainly had a role in hurting the team. Mike Cammalleri is a good player who was a decent foil for Iginla. Perfect? No, just much better than Jokinen. Second, the Bouwmeester signing guaranteed that adding any more than bargain basement forward help (Dawes, Sjostrom) wasn't in the cards during the summer.
Off-ice in the summer, adding his brother as coach, which we'll get into in a bit, and giving him express orders to get the shots against down almost certainly helped to dictate a cautious, even passive approach on many nights. If Brent Sutter wants to claim his personnel limited his options, he'd have some sympathy from me, but not that much.
Now, we reach events during the year. Jokinen and Iginla were a poor match, and against other good players they just weren't able to cope. Butter likely took a bit too long to cotton onto this, or was unwilling to admit it, take your pick. Either way, the inability of those two to carry the load certainly suppressed the team's scoring after the initial SH% anomaly ended. I don't know exactly how much Jarome Iginla has fallen off, and I don't know how much Daymond Langkow has fallen off, but aging aside, neither has looked quite right without the other. The Phaneuf trade is still one that I can accept given the circumstances, but the opportunity to reunite Iginla and Langkow was squandered in order to prove Matt Stajan was a NHL first line center, and with that another chance to get things moving the right direction slipped away. Finally, there was a bit of poor fortune involved. Chris Higgins, Ales Kotalik, Nik Hagman and Mikael Backlund may not be elite players, but the four of them combined to shoot 5.1% during their time in Calgary, and I wouldn't bet any significant sum of my own money on those numbers being repeated. I don't think Jay Bouwmeester will shoot 2% next season, either. Like I said at the top, it really was a series of choices, occurrences and bounces that got the Flames in the state they were in.
Maimster: I think the problem with the Flames offense is lack of efficiency. I'm not quoting any number on this, but Calgary seems to work harder to get a goal than any other team. They play primarily a dump/chase and cycle game to start with, which takes a lot of effort and doesn't often translate into decent scoring chances, much less great scoring chances. They had an extraordinarily low ratio of shots on goal to shots at goal, which again means they weren't getting a lot of chances for their efforts. And when they did get a decent scoring chance, there is almost no one on this team with great finish (think Michael Cammalleri and his great one-time skill on the off wing from one knee).
Put it this way - I'd bet if you counted the ratio of Flame scoring chances, as measured by Kent all year, to their Corsi number, it would be near the league low. And yes, I think this lack of efficiency on offense is what cost them a playoff berth. They generally proved capable of keeping leads, especially in the third period, but for much of the year they didn't have many of those leads to protect.
Brent Sutter was credited with finding a balance between offence and defence during his time in New Jersey with a team that had long been criticized for its reliance on "the trap" and defence-first hockey, but hasn't been able to replicate that success as of yet during his tenure behind the Flames bench. Do you think that this is more so a result of the makeup of the team or the philosophy of himself and his coaching staff?
R: A little from column A, a little from column B, to be honest. I think that the Flames over-reacted to what happened last year in terms of shots against. That played a part in chasing Bouwmeester, and it certainly appeared at times to affect the style of play. As well, there are seemingly small moves that a coach can make to get some offence going, and using your skill players against bottom-sixers after an icing call is one of them. Brent Sutter eschewed that move more often than not, and I can only point to the fact that Sidney Crosby lead the league in taking O-zone face-offs after the opposition iced the puck and ask, "what does Dan Bylsma know that Brent Sutter doesn't?" As well, I really wonder what the point of playing Staios and Regehr as second PP regulars was when you had either Jokinen or Kotalik starving for a spot where they could get some easier opportunities. That sort of stuff seems easy enough to do, and yet it was an oddity when we saw it.
That all noted, when your best players aren't able to carry the load PvP, it does make a coach's job more difficult. I don't think Darryl gave his brother the best hand, and I don't think Brent made the most of what he had. That's not meant to be wishy-washy as much as trying to account for all of the pieces of the puzzle.
M: They made a conscious effort to reduce shots against, but the 0.9 SA/G improvement came with a large price - a 3.5 SF/G decline. I'm not sure I'd put this drop in shots for on Brent Sutter's doorstep - again, I think this has a lot to do with an inefficient offense and players who couldn't convert zone time to shots. However, we all saw 'the shell' more than we'd like, and passive (safe) zone breakouts, and a powerplay that focused on dump-ins and board play rather than quick puck movement. I have to think that a good chunk of that falls on the coaching staff, and that all contributed to the poor offensive numbers.
Overall, the things he can control like matching of lines, deployment after icings, line combinations - I don't think he handled any of these well, and so my overall grade for Butter this year is pretty poor.
Much has been said about Darryl Sutter's abilities as a GM during the latter portion of this season and especially in the days since its conclusion. As it appears after Monday’s press conference that he'll be sticking around for a while, what do you think his biggest weakness as a GM is? His biggest strength? What are his biggest obstacles to improving this team going forward?
R: I've used this word before, but everything I see and hear from Darryl Sutter screams, "hubris". Look, confidence is a worthwhile trait to have in any job, and Darryl Sutter hasn't been without his successes in Calgary. He does seem to be pretty full of himself for a guy who's teams have been middling for the last few years, though, and the recent unfriendliness from the media may well stem from the way he's treated them in the past. Just because a few members of the fourth estate come across as dimwits doesn't mean that publicly treating them (and by proxy, us) in that manner is wise. I keep going back to last year at the deadline when he advised the assembled masses that the Flames were fine in terms of the cap, would be good for the rest of the season, and proclaimed anyone thinking otherwise didn't know what they were talking about. He was in full smoke-blowing mode, and for anyone that might try to minimize the effects of what the Flames went through the last month of the 08/09 season, I can only note that he certainly didn't leave things that tight this spring.
His interactions with the press and the general fan base are mostly cheap theater, though, and the core of my dissatisfaction is with the asset management/roster composition over the last few years. The bias towards "toughness" has been a complete waste of time, the desire to add old guys as security blankets (Hi, Steady Steve!) is out-dated, and not understanding what actual NHL players are worth (Stralman, Boyd) compared to middling draft picks has left a team that is fairly cap-stressed without many useful salary-controlled players. Toronto gave him a gift this summer when they off-loaded Stralman, and that gift was almost immediately squandered in order to protect Staffan Kronwall, of all players, from waivers. Does anyone think that Columbus would reverse that trade, or that Nashville would swap Boyd for a 4th rounder? Throw in the acquisition of the Staios and Kotalik millstone deals, and you have a year where Darryl Sutter has provided an object lesson in how not to do business.
My suspicion, based on not very much but observation, is that players and agents consider him a fair dealer, which isn't a completely bad thing to be known as in an era of liberalized free agency. Since the Gio screw-up in '07, we haven't seen much in the way of open acrimony during contract negotiations. There's also a sense that he sent Boyd away in part to give him a chance to get an honest chance at a top-nine job, which is an admirable sentiment in its own way, irrespective of the quality of the trade from a Flames' P.O.V.
I'll admit that if Darryl Sutter had not made the Jokinen to NY deal and the Staios deal, I'd likely have considered him to have had an acceptable year. Letting Joker's deal die on its own and not adding two bad contracts for next year and beyond might well have tempered my displeasure with the Stralman and Boyd moves. Up to and including the Phaneuf deal, he'd marshaled the team's cap space well enough that the Flames could have added a major salary from a UFA-to-be at the deadline and been in not terrible shape for the coming season, even with the Bourque and Stajan contract extensions. Shame that flexibility was tossed away. I'm inclined to quote Roger Millions when I think about what could have been, but we normally save that sort of verbiage in these parts for game threads ;-)
The Staios and Kotalik contracts, along with Cory Sarich's deal, are major overpays for players of their abilities. They have 9.3 million cap dollars tied up for this year, and realistically are worth maybe half that amount as a collective. I don't really see a market for any of them at the moment, but at least two of those deals need to go, even if it means sending Staios to Abbotsford for the last year of his contract. There may well be bigger moves in the hopper, but those seem like the minimum moves required just to stay more or less afloat.
I suppose at some point the Flames might have to consider what to do with guys like Regehr and Langkow as well. They are still effective, but the word was out league-wide that Reggie was having trouble turning and Langkow's no kid, so expecting them to even maintain their current level for many more years might be a bit of a gamble. I'm still inclined to keep them both unless the Flames go into full tear-down mode, but I wouldn't be adverse to at least seeing what they might garner in a deal.
M: Biggest weakness for Darryl Sutter? We could read one of the plethora of articles written in the last week and find twenty of them. However, I think it is lack of focus on any kind of plan. For a few years, I thought he had a plan that worked both short term and long term - have a core group of players and fill in with interchangeable parts at reasonable salary. Even after the Jokinen trade last year, I thought the plan was generally intact because Jokinen didn't have a long term contract. But this year he blew up all semblance of flexibility with the Kotalik/Staios trades and the Stajan signing. Was this short term thinking or long term thinking? Probably neither. And with a locked in roster that just missed the playoffs, one decent prospect available right now (Backlund), maybe two or three prospects available in the next couple of years, and a lack of draft picks…well, this is a plan that I'm having trouble getting behind.
Biggest strength? He has done a pretty good job finding 2nd and 3rd line forwards for reasonable prices. Actually, many of his trades have been decent - Cammalleri was another one. But he offsets this strength with some stubbornly bad moves. Which brings us back to his biggest weakness.
In that vein, if you could make three moves to make the Flames a better team this summer, keeping in mind salary constraints and the like, what would they be?
R: 1 – Do whatever I had to in order to free up some cap space, and that likely means warehousing Staios in the minors and trading Sarich and/or Kotalik for nothing.
2- Try to resign Chris Higgins, and hope his lousy boxcars keep the interest down. I'd be willing to gamble on him not shooting less than 5 % for a full season again.
3- Pray Kipper has another great year. That's all I have. The core guys have NMC/NTCs and I still don't see the appetite as of yet amongst the fans or the ownership for a total blow-up, so the Flames can only make incremental moves and hope a few guys shoot a higher percentage next year.
M: Hmm, I'm not much of an armchair GM, but I'll bite. Note, this will be painful because I'm proposing moving two of my favorite Flames. And I'm not sure how much the Flames will be able to do with their locked-in roster.
1) Trade Kipper - I think his value is at his highest (especially if he gets nominated for a Vezina) and there are other goalies like him floating around (guys who haven't had a chance to prove themselves), like Craig Anderson last year. If Washington or Chicago doesn't win the Cup this year, they're a prime trading partner and they have skilled forwards to burn. Perhaps Kotalik can be dumped in with Kipper (I can dream!).
2) Trade Reggie - I guarantee he still has value around the league, and the Flames still have depth on D. They're stuck with Staios and Sarich, I think, but if they're going to put some youth in this lineup, it's going to happen on the back end.
3) Sign White and Higgins - I think White is the real deal, and Higgins should be signable for less than he's worth (and he showed he's worth a lot while he was healthy, lack of goals be damned). Note, I don't think signing Nystrom should be a priority - I like him, but he is a replacement level player and probably won't be worth what he'll be asking (and which the Islanders will pay him!).
Players like Jarome Iginla, Daymond Langkow, and Jay Bouwmeester experienced fairly steep declines in terms of point production this season. What do you think the reasons for this were and how, if at all, can they be rectified?
R: I don't know about Iggy and Langkow, to be honest. They're at the point where major recovery from a poor year seems less likely due to their age. I'd guess if they were put back together, there could be a chance of a renaissance, and I'm mindful that I thought Teemu Selanne was completely done before the lock-out. Dude's scored 154 goals in 307 games since then, or almost exactly a 40 goal/season pace, so there is hope for a guy like Jarome, although it might take a move to let him face lesser EV comp, just as it did for Selanne. I'd be inclined to run the two of them with Bourque for more than a shift or two and see what happens.
Bouwmeester's an interesting case. He really should be part of a team's shut-down pair, and with Giordano and possibly White providing offence from the back-end next year, getting big scoring numbers from him isn't that important to me. If White is back and the Flames continue to pair him with Regehr, then the Flames might well keep JB in the "clean-up" spot we saw him play this year. If he's in that role, he needs to be encouraged to jump into the play, since he isn't facing the other team's best on every shift. As I mentioned earlier, I don't see him shooting 2 percent next year, so just by the percentages bouncing back, he's likely to produce more points.
M: Iggy is slowing down and his game needs to change if he's to remain effective in the years to come. He's still great at finding open ice, has a great shot, and also good vision. But he's not as strong on the boards and can't be the primary puck handler coming up ice - too many plays die on his stick. The power play is a good example - he should be a trigger man, but he handles the puck way too much. It's an adjustment in mindset he has to make.
I honestly don't know why Langkow's points were down so much, but I think he's still their best center and if he got some of that power play time back his points would go back up.
Jay Bouwmeester learned that the West is tougher than the East, but I also think his mindset was much more defensive this year than we'd have expected given his point and goal totals last year, and I think that was influenced by the coaching staff. I believe that all the talk about how he is passive, and soft, and doesn't have a winning mindset (can't remember where I read that nugget) is silly, though. I think he'll have a solid year in 2010-11, both offensively and defensively.
Do you see any way that this team can improve next season and make the post season with the current roster?
R: Sure. They can sneak into the bottom half of the playoffs next year, because Colorado spent a season doing it with mirrors and Phoenix won a pile in the shoot-out. Things can change. The Coyotes have to resign Michalek, and I can't see him re-upping for a million and change like he's currently getting, so they might have to make a hard decision or two about their roster.
As for internal matters, if Kipper has another good year and the gang that couldn't shoot straight in the middle of the line-up just have decent percentage years, they'll likely score a few more goals, and that might be enough to get in the post-season. Is just sneaking in good enough? It wouldn't be if I were running things, but from what I heard at the post-season presser from Darryl Sutter, he's of the mindset that if you make it in the playoffs, you have as good a chance as anyone else.
M: By current roster, does that assume none of the Flames restricted FA's are signed and they fill holes with cheap players? Then no, I don't see that happening. I do think that there are a lot of guys likely to have as good or better years next year - JayBo, Gio, Bourque, Backlund, Moss, Stajan, Hagman (as a Flame). But the Kotalik/Staios/Sarich boat anchors will weigh this team down unless one or more of them is moved.