Being a Flames fan and writer is making for interesting times right now. On the one hand, you have the Flames making a strong playoff push with one regulation loss and two extra point losses over the last 12 games. On the other hand, this is a team that that is not built for sustained success, whether through the season, the playoffs, or next season altogether.
In December the Flames were hovering around 14th place in the Western Conference. They had a few bad bounces, but largely, they were simply getting outplayed. They were slow, ineffective, and seemingly apathetic about winning puck battles along the boards. Jump to today, and the Flames have been holding steady in and around 8th place, with what seems like half of the Western Conference right next to them. For instance, the 13th place team is St. Louis with 59 points in 55 games- 4 less games than the Flames have played.
But you’ve heard all about how tight the Western Conference is, what about the Flames? A quick glance at their recent record (12-1-2) and the closeness of the Western Conference will tell the most casual observer that the Flames need to push for the playoffs. I mean, once you get to the playoffs, anything can happen right? Especially if you come into the playoffs “hot”. Because that’s what the Flyers proved last year.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. First, let’s look at the “hot” factor. Gabe Desjardins talks about going into the playoffs “hot” or “cold” in this excellent article. And the conclusion? It doesn’t matter.
Well, okay, but anything can happen when you get in, right? Wrong. Let’s take everyone’s favorite example- the Philadelphia Flyers, who as a 7 seed that made the playoffs on a shootout win over the Rangers, who made the Stanley Cup Finals last year. Sure, they were a great feel-good team (if you ignore the fact that they’re from Philadelphia) with sneaking into the playoffs, relying on two career backup goalies, and coming back from a 0-3 series deficit.
But more important than being a “feel-good” team, they were a very very good team. Just look at the lineup. Carter, Briere, Richards, Giroux, Gagne, Pronger, Hartnell, and Leino. Not only are their personnel very good, but they played that way throughout the season, accumulating a shot differential of +243, good for fifth in the league. It’s safe to say that a combination of bad bounces and playing in the hardest division last season led them to a few regular season woes.
Neither of those apply to the Calgary Flames this year. The lineup is far from stacked- Jarome Iginla is still a top quality player, but he’s hardly the player he was when he could drag a team of 3rd liners to the Stanley Cup finals- and it shows. He’s less physical, less engaged in puck battles on the boards, and in general has taken a step back from the Iggy Flames fans love and remember. And who’s after him on the forward depth chart? Rene Bourque? Alex Tanguay? Curtis Glencross?
As much as I love them all, for they are indeed Calgary Flames, the reasonable part of my mind looks at the Flames lineup and thinks “This is hardly a playoff caliber team”. The Flames may make the playoffs. They probably will in fact. But they won’t go very far. They manage to outshoot their opposition, but there’s a lack of elite shooting ability, beyond Jarome Iginla. They rely on players like Curtis Glencross and Tim Jackman to have career years, and given that “career years” are by their very nature outliers, that’s not something that fills you with confidence.
Finally, at the end of the day, the Flames are old. They have exactly two players under the age of 26 on the regular roster (I’m not including current call-up Lance Bouma) one of whom is at best a 6th defenceman with very little hopes of being anything more.
So where does this leave the Flames and Interim GM Jay Feaster? It leaves them on a playoff bubble, with no real chances of making it past a single round. It leaves them in an even worse position next year when the team is older- and being older is a good thing for only two players on the roster (Mikkelson and Mikael Backlund). There is a lack of quality prospects (when Max Reinhart is one of the better ones, you’re in trouble) and no significant draft picks in the near future. The Flames are not a bad team right now, but they’re certainly not a good one, and have little hopes of making it there in the near future.
On the other hand, there’s something great about watching them obliterate the Colorado Avalanche 9-1.