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Counting Question Marks - Flames top concerns heading into next season

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It's been a fairly good off-season, without question. That said, no club is perfect and that goes for the 09/10 iteration of the Calgary Flames. Resources and rosters are limited with the natural trade-off being the need to make bets on certain players - be it in the form of a new contract or re-signing, a trade or simply keeping them around. And this year is no exception. As such, here are the Flames biggest issues as things stand currently:

1.) Miikka Kiprusoff

Regular readers of mine will find this item unsurprising. Unfortunately, there's no getting around the fact that Kipper has been mediocre for awhile. The combination of his age and his contract (both cap hit and NTC) make his steady decline an on-going concern for the organization: not only is he a 33 year-old 'tender with the 32nd best SV% in the league, but his contract extends till the end of time and he can veto any potential trade that comes down the pipe should a delusional GM decide a move would re-invigorate the former Vezina winner. Those factors may not make him completely immovable - but close enough.

In his recent audit of puckstoppers since the lock-out Jonathan Willis had this to say about Kipper:

Miikka Kiprusoff wasn't an arbitrary choice for the cut-off point. His post-lockout seasons were tremendous; he was one of if not the best goaltender in the league between 2005-07 before taking a bit of a step back in 2007-08. This past year, he collapsed and Mike Keenan (among others) paid the price for it. I understand that Darryl Sutter isn't likely to call out his long-term investment publicly, but there's no doubt where the trouble was in Calgary last season, and I have to think he knows it. The question is whether Kiprusoff can bounce back; I wonder if a competent backup and some healthy competition might help.

We don't know if Kipper has a competent back-up; with just a handful of NHL games under his belt (thanks in no small part to the incompetence of Mike Keenan) Curtis McElhinney is a complete mystery. That said, with a 5.83M cap hit sunk into the starter, the Flames are unlikely to invest in a proven, credible back-up until both the kid and Kipper himself prove to be ineffective.

You won't find many pundits or Flames fans that will admit it, but not moving Kipper this summer represents a sizable gamble by Darryl Sutter: if Miikka rebounds, he reclaims his value to the club and in marketplace. If he stumbles again, however, he'll take another firm step towards being an overpaid, washed up former star. Given the direction his performance has been headed since 2004, one of those two possibilities seems rather more likely than the other.

2.) Dion Phaneuf

In 1994, a big, mean, high scoring defenseman was selected first overall in the NHL entry draft by the Florida Panthers. After managing a better than PPG pace in the OHL, the player made the leap directly into the NHL as a 19/20 year old and gathered relatively impressive stats for such a young rearguard: 10 goals and 21 points in 70 games. With those shiny results and his notable draft pedigree, many expected Ed Jovanovski to become a franchise defensemen: a guy who plays all game and puts up points against anyone.

It didn't happened. Jovo struggled a bit as a youngster, never scoring more than 25 points in a season for the Panthers before being traded to the Canucks in '98. His development plateaued during the ensuing 7 seasons in Vancouver: while the point totals began to climb, Jovo became known just as widely for his erratic defensive play and propensity to commit horrible gaffes in his own end of the rink. To this day, he remains a second pairing defender who can put up some points on the power play. At best.

There are some depressing parralells between Jovo and the Flames own big, mean, high scoring defender: the hype, the draft pedigree, the early leap to the big leagues, the style of play. Thanks to a combination of factors, Phaneuf took a sizable step backwards last season and, at 24 years old and with 348 NHL games under his belt, he remains a second pairing defenseman who can score, but one who is still frequently victimized in his own end. Last year, Dion was scored on 77 times at ES - the most in goals against at 5on5 of any player in the league - and he also allowed the most total shots against per 60 minutes of ice of any Flames defender. That's despite starting way, way more in the offensive zone than the defensive zone and rarely facing the big guns.

It's not all bad news with Dion, of course: his early output far outstrips that of Jovanovski's, and there's some indications that his recent struggles were more due to injury than a simple leveling off of the development curve.

At 6.5M/year, Phaneuf will have to take the next step sooner rather than later in order for the club to garner value out of his deal. The other bit of good news is: should Dion fail to improve, the Flames now have enough blueline depth to deal him for parts without much concern.

3.) Jarome Iginla

I know. Another expensive star. That's just the way it is.

In a way, it seems unfair to put Iginla here. He was the highest scoring right winger in the league last year, after all. He also led the club in scoring by 7 points and was 8th highest scoring player overall.

That said, there were some very real signs of a slow down from the Captain: his shot rate fell to 3.5 shots/game from 4.1 the year before, despite playing the 3rd most amongst forwards behind just Malkin and Ovechkin. He didn't lead the team in any advanced category, including ES production efficiency, PP efficiency, plus/minus or corsi rate. Nor did he face the toughest competition on the club.

On top of all that, Iginla was worse than mediocre against quality teams last year, instead piling up most of his points against lesser competition:

Jarome scored just 4 goals and was a -19 in 21 games against the best teams in the league this year. In contrast, he scored 27 of his 35 goals in 41 games against the weak sisters and was a +14. Of course, good teams are good teams for a reason so we can probably expect almost any players rates to take a hit relative to his output versus the bottom of the barrel. That said, Jarome scored on just 3 of the nine clubs that made the "top tier"cut and was a plus against just one of them.

That's a disconcerting trend for a team with no other offensive superstar forwards on the roster or, indeed, anywhere in the organization. Until another heavy hitter is added or emerges, we're going to have to hope Iginla re-discovers the form that saw him dominate whoever he played for so many years...because the roster is, once again, fairly top heavy. Speaking of which...

4.) Offense

Calgary has one of the cheapest forward rosters in the league, despite being a cap team. Only three Flames forwards will be making more than $2M next year (assuming no other moves): Iggy, Langkow and Jokinen. All of them are 30 or older, so it's fairly unlikely any of them will experience a career year. To be sure, there are some cheap players who are good bets to cover their cap hits on the roster (Conroy, Moss, Bourque, Glencross), but the fact remains the organization is extremely light on proven offensive difference makers. As many as two or three of the Flames top 6 forwards next season will be guys who have never played that role yet in their careers. Of the 5 players in question (Moss, Bourque, Glencross, Boyd and Dawes), Rene Bourque has the highest single season point total thus far at 40. As such, if all the supporting players have hit their ceiling or take a step back, the Flames may be middling or worse in terms of goals for.

Calgary was a high scoring team last season, so they can probably survive a slight reduction - assuming, of course, the theoretical defensive improvement under Brent Sutter actually happens. Unfortunately, the reduction may prove more than "slight" should issues 3 and 4 of this list occur in concert.