There was something appropriate about the way the Calgary Flames' postseason quest came to a predictable end last Saturday night, with an overtime loss to the Vancouver Canucks. It marked the 16th time in 21 tries this season that the Flames lost a game that was deadlocked after 60 minutes, and represents the primary reason they are out of the NHL playoffs for the third year in a row.
Now that the postmortem on the season is officially under way in Cowtown, Calgary's inability to win the close one will also be the most seductive red herring to ponder in the months ahead. In effect, it provides ownership and management with one more opportunity to delude themselves into thinking the club is close to respectability – and with a break here and there, the Flames would be in the postseason, ready to make life difficult for a higher-seeded opponent.
That's generally how it has gone these past few seasons in Calgary, with a massive disconnect between the handful of organizational decision makers and the rest of the hockey world at large. Internally, the Flames genuinely seem to think that the bones of a successful team are in place. Externally, most people see a middle- to lower-echelon club whose primary stars, right winger Jarome Iginla and goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, are one year older and one year further removed from their respective primes.
Iginla turns 35 on July 1. He will also be entering the final year of a five-year, $35-million (all currency U.S.) contract he signed in 2008 and some time this summer he will need to give the organization a clear sense of his plans for the future. The key question: Does Iginla want to stay through the rebuilding process that's coming eventually? If so, fine. He should be given the right to do so, maybe at a contractual discount. If not, then his change of heart will need to be communicated early because everything else will hinge on getting full value for him in the trade market.
Kiprusoff's contractual situation is far more complicated, given that he has two years left on a deal that will pay him $5-million in 2012-13, but then drops to $1.5-million in 2013-14. Kiprusoff, 35, was one of the first to sign one of those heavily frontloaded, salary-cap circumventing contracts, and thus, his will be one of the first to come home to roost. Contracts cannot be renegotiated, so he'll either need to play on a contract in two years time where his compensation will be roughly the equivalent of a third-line winger or a fifth defenceman or retire.
Either way, he is coming to a turning point soon, as is Iginla, and the case for keeping both would be far stronger if Calgary had a passel of quality young players, ready for prime time.
As it is, the Flames have just one – Sven Baertschi, drafted 12th overall in 2011, and a player with the sort of finishing ability around the net that they've failed to draft or develop for more than a decade. Baertschi had a brief five-game cameo when the Flames had half-a-dozen regular forwards out a couple of weeks back, and he gave a glimpse of good things to come. He was smart around the net and demonstrated a scorer's touch, finding that extra half-second in traffic to create space for himself.
Alex Tanguay has that, too, as does Mike Cammalleri, but they are the exceptions on a Flames' team that specializes in banging pucks into the well-padded middles of goalies around the NHL, making them all look good. Iginla said as much after a loss last Friday to the Colorado Avalanche – too many times this season, Flames players are tipping their hats to the opposition goalies. Does everybody gear up so intently for Calgary? Or is the real problem Calgary's inability to conjure up something artistic around the net that would leave the opposing goalie helpless and out of position? Watch the Flames play enough and you know the answer is the latter, not the former.
General manager Jay Feaster started a soft rebuild about a third of the way through the current season, giving T.J. Brodie, Lance Bouma, Roman Horak and Paul Byron the chance to play. Brodie looks as if he'll eventually evolve into a long-term NHLer, maybe Horak, too. But apart from Baertschi, there is no one in the pipeline that can compare to the Edmonton Oilers' improving kiddie corps, and no strong sense that the team as it is currently constituted has a significant upside.
So Feaster is at a crossroads, too, and it is not pretty. Coach Brent Sutter's status will need to be reviewed. His contract runs out this year. Six players (Olli Jokinen, Lee Stempniak, David Moss, Tom Kostopoulos, Cory Sarich and Scott Hannan) will become unrestricted free agents and, if they all leave, then Feaster has a few dollars more to spend next summer. But his primary need – for a No. 1 centre – is also the primary need of a dozen other teams, and surprisingly, none will come available on a relatively thin free-agent market this summer.
For years, Feaster, and Darryl Sutter before him, has been advised to tear the team down, so it can be rebuilt again. For years, the Flames have resisted the temptation, which has resulted in three consecutive mediocre seasons in which they ultimately weren't good enough. Treading water for two more years to acknowledge the obvious makes little practical sense.