There have been a slew of surprises in this truncated NHL season: the Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders currently sit fifth and sixth in their respective conferences; on certain nights, the Pittsburgh Penguins and defending Stanley Cup champion L.A. Kings have looked ordinary; and Wade Redden has scored more goals than Phil Kessel.
However, some things aren’t much of a shock at all. And the Calgary Flames being at the very bottom of the Western Conference is right at the top of that list. In fact, if you’re taken aback by their start to the year, I’d wager you’re either a paid employee of the team, a true believer of the first order, or you’ve had your capacity for surprise surgically removed at some point.
For years now, the Flames have been an ongoing study in the law of diminishing returns. Despite calls from fans, media and many experienced NHL people to acknowledge the obvious and take a meat cleaver to the roster as soon as possible so that a top-to-bottom rebuild can begin in earnest, Calgary management and ownership have doubled down on their core of Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff each and every season.
What good has it gotten them? Not much at all. The Flames haven’t made the playoffs since 2009 and have failed to win a post-season series since their run to the Cup final in 2004. But the word “fail” seems to fall on ears that either are deaf or Pollyannaish in a way that would make Anne Hathaway’s next contrived acting award acceptance speech seem crude and surly.
Yes, this season isn’t 10 games old yet and things could change. But I’m sorry, when your top scorers are Lee Stempniak, Curtis Glencross and Alex Tanguay, you have no basis to imagine yourself as anything close to a mover and a shaker. You have to come to the conclusion that you are, in the words of former Flames GM Craig Button, a “7/11 team” – i.e. one that, if everything goes right, could finish seventh in the West, but one that more likely will end up 11th in the conference, so just high enough to miss out on the cream of the crop in the NHL Entry Draft and just low enough to miss out on the post-season again.
No man’s land. If it weren’t for the Toronto Maple Leafs, that would be the exclusive domain of the Calgary Flames.
Whispers among NHL management types have long suggested team president Ken King and majority owner Murray Edwards do not want to be known as the men who traded Iginla out of town. There’s certainly no way the quintessential team player Iginla will ever demand a trade, so it falls squarely on the shoulders of Edwards, King and GM Jay Feaster to make the brave move of being the bad guys for a few months and taking the heat for ending the Iginla Era. Their images will suffer temporarily, but the team will be better for it.
Even then, it isn’t as if the dealing of Iginla (and Kiprusoff, who almost assuredly would want out once Iginla was moved) will be an instant cure-all for Calgary. As one former GM told THN.com, “Remember what Atlanta got for trading Marian Hossa: Colby Armstrong, Angelo Esposito and a first round draft pick.” In other words, the return for a star is not often going to be the foundation upon which your future is built. The pain will be felt in Calgary for years to come.
But there is really no choice for the Flames anymore. Iginla can be an unrestricted free agent this summer. Kiprusoff will gain his freedom a year after that. Off-season additions Jiri Hudler and Dennis Wideman aren’t making a measurable difference. Meanwhile, their scouting and development staff has not provided the Flames with enough up-and-coming young talent to offset their fading collection of veterans.
In past years, Rene Bourque didn’t make a difference. Neither did Matt Stajan, Daymond Langkow or Kristian Huselius. It isn’t about best-case scenarios now. It is about an intervention of reality, a cold, wet slap across the face that wakes you up to what people around you have recognized for a while.
Look at the standings. The Flames are at the bottom of them not because of some cosmic injustice or cruel spate of injuries. They’re there because that was going to be their destiny the moment management decided to sprawl out and take comfort in the shade of a Calgary icon and not face the heat over the short term for the betterment of the franchise by moving that icon.
From this point on, the motto of every Calgary fan should be, “Free Iginla and free Kiprusoff.” If the Flames actually did so, they would free themselves from the shadows of the past and set a clear course for a change in fortunes.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.
Follow Adam on Twitter at @ProteauType.