Meister: Flames need to know when to fold ’em

A perfect metaphor for the position the Calgary Flames organization currently finds itself in is a really bad relationship that will inevitably come to an end, but neither person wants to be the first to admit it.

For the third straight season, the Flames have had to fight for their playoff lives, and with just two games left on their schedule, qualifying is essentially out of reach. To make it worse, add on the four seasons prior to 2009-10, where the Flames made first round exits from the playoffs.

For players like Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff, the near Cinderella ending to their 2003-04 season must feel like a lifetime ago.

Lost in all the talk about making a playoff push is the reality that the Flames are teetering on the edge of collapse. With one of the oldest rosters in the NHL, limited salary cap space, and very little prospect depth, it may be time for someone to admit this relationship is over.

Both Darryl Sutter and Jay Feaster spent to the cap without doing much to change the core group of veteran players. All the while, draft picks were traded, and those prospects selected don’t measure up as replacements for the current team leaders. Having held off the inevitable for this long, while doing little to plan for the future, are Flames fans, management and players ready to take the lead from their Alberta rivals and start from the ground up?

The reality is that regardless of the 2011-12 season results, Iginla and Kiprusoff are both nearing the end of their contracts and careers, with little time left to be trade assets with high return. It’s about time everyone looked at the Flames situation without bias or player allegiance.

Iginla and Kiprusoff are at the centre of all Flames trade talk. There is little that hasn’t been said about their value. Both would command strong return in the form of draft picks, prospects, and young roster players.

The challenge for the Flames, and the aspect most avoided, is what to do with much of the remaining roster. If the Flames are in need of a true rebuild, as I feel they are, it means breaking the team down to its core. With three or four veterans being retained for leadership, much of the roster needs to be cleared for youth. And that youth is unlikely to come from within.

Mikael Backlund, Sven Baertschi, TJ Brodie and Leland Irving lead the group internally, while players like Roman Horak, Ryan Howse, Max Reinhart, Greg Nemisz, Michael Ferland and Mitch Wahl round out a list of players with questionable potential at the NHL level.

As for veterans, Alex Tanguay, Mark Giordano and possibly Curtis Glencross, stand out as potential mentors. Olli Jokinen, if resigned, would give some experience down the middle. This leaves a long list of underperforming, overpaid, and NMC/NTC veterans to find new homes for – I never said a rebuild would be easy.

If Iginla and Kiprusoff can bring the elite prospects that many expect, the remaining roster players would very likely be moved at a discount, or management’s hands would be tied until contracts expire.

Unfortunately, even if teams are trying to reach the salary cap floor, would anyone really take the contracts that Sutter handed to Jay Bouwmeester and Matt Stajan?

Reinventing a team is difficult. Reinventing it for the future is even more difficult. The Florida Panthers reinvented themselves for immediate results and are on the verge of a playoff appearance that few predicted. The Edmonton Oilers reinvented themselves for the future and are stacked with offensive strength, defensive deficiencies, goaltending questions, and yet another lottery draft pick. The Columbus Blue Jackets have tried to reinvent themselves for the future, then reinvent themselves for immediate results, and in every case have failed in their attempts because of a string of prospects that never panned out, disgruntled trade acquisitions, and failed free agency signings.

There is no guarantee when a team decides to rebuild.

For the Flames, the writing is unfortunately on the wall. Everything is coming together to create a potential disaster, leaving the team with little choice than attempt a rebuild. Aging players continue to lose trade value, and with little on-ice success, the potential only increases for them to test free agency and leave the team with nothing in return. A history of poor drafting has left the cupboards bare. If ownership and management in Calgary continues to bury their collective head in the sand, things will get much worse before they get better.

As fans become more educated in the business of hockey, they also become more accepting of difficult decisions. The fans in Calgary are knowledgeable. They are some of the first to acknowledge that this team, as it stands today, isn’t built to truly contend for a Stanley Cup. Assertions about fan’s negative response to a rebuild are simply unfounded. Just like in any break-up, the five stages of grief will be experienced by all those involved, but at the end of the day, everyone comes out stronger from it.

Calgary is a city built on volatility. People live and breathe by the always fluctuating price of oil. That reality has created a city of painfully realistic citizens. If something doesn’t work, don’t keep it. If something better exists, get it. So spending $64 million a year for a product that doesn’t work isn’t something most fans in Calgary can understand or relate to. Ultimately, the ends justify the means. If the means is a rebuild, and the end result is a successful team, then fans will accept the decision to rebuild.

If a rebuild is done right – have a plan, stick to it, and be willing to make sacrifices – there is a good chance that after a few seasons, Calgary will see June hockey once again.

In a sport full of clichés, one rings true for Jay Feaster: You got to know when to hold’em, know when to fold’em.

And it sure isn’t time to hold’em.

– Sean Meister, Contributing Writer

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