There's More Than Tanking To Build A NHL Contender
As Chuck Berry once said, “It goes to show you never can tell.” While some NHL clubs employ the now-accepted Tanking Method to rebuild their rosters, the Calgary Flames seem to have transformed their roster without the requisite embarrassment of repeated last-place finishes and failed No. 1 overall draft picks.
The result is the No. 1 team in the Western Conference, a dynamic offensive force that currently leads second-place San Jose by six points in the race to have home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs. While no one knows how the young Flames will handle the rigours of the playoffs, no one is writing them off in the postseason, either.
While the Flames revival has caught many people offguard, it’s not an overnight sensation. Yes, they missed the playoffs for five straight years from 2010-2014. And yes, they enjoyed some prime draft picks— although none higher than fourth overall in 2014 when they selected Sam Bennett. And yes, before this year they hadn’t won more than 45 games since 2008-09.
But they haven’t turned their fortunes using a slew of Top Three picks. Compare that to the performance of their northern cousins, the Edmonton Oilers, over the same period. The Oil had the top draft pick four times in a decade plus a brace of other prime Top Ten selections. In spite of this largesse they are still mired in another rebuild, far from the playoffs.
Or take the Ottawa Senators. Please. They’re just descending into Tanking Hell to join the misbegotten rabble of the NHL. Even the vaunted Toronto Maple Leafs, who scraped bottom for an extended period, are still having trouble putting together the final elements on their talented, rebuilt roster.
And then there are the Flames, who seem to defy the conventional. Their two key players are a fourth-round pick, forward Johnny Gaudreau, and a free agent, defence man Mark Giordano. Their highest pick, Bennett, remains a work in progress. The defence alongside Giordano is a collection of unsung players acquired through trades and savvy drafting. T.J. Brodie, arguably the No. 2 defence man, was a fourth-round pick.
Giordano, the 35-year-old Flames captain, is now odds-on favourite to be the Norris Trophy winner. A long way for the free agent who bet on himself, leaving the Flames for a year to play in Russia in 2007-08 when the club was wavering on making a commitment to him. Giordano came back and took what was widely considered an under-market four-year contract, explaining that as a kid from modest means in Woodbridge, Ont., he owed it to his family to secure their future.
He finally cashed in with a four-year contract worth $6.75 M a year. And has rewarded the team with his best play this year.
Symbolic of the Flames understated rebuild was the 2015 draft year. Calgary had just four selections, none until the second round. But three of the four players they selected are logging significant ice time for the club this year. Their two second-round defencemen, Swedes Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington, have won the confidence of coach Bill Peters. Sixth round forward Andrew Mangiapane is skating with the first line some nights.
Just as impressive there are five players, led by Giordano, who were signed as free agents and are now getting regular shifts on the team. Starting goalie Czech David Rittich went undrafted.
Best of all, the Flames are fun to watch. Gaudreau is a magician with the puck, Sean Monahan is a reliable sniper and forward Matthew Tkachuk, son of NHL star Keith, is the best combination of malice and skill this side of Brad Marchand. Their specialty this season has been a slow start followed by explosions of offence late in games. In a recent game against Ottawa, they came from behind in the third with a six-goal explosion.
Certainly the city of Calgary could use some good news. The collapse of the Alberta energy industry has cost tens of thousands of jobs in the city. That has led to a disappearance of many restaurants and retail outlets in the city. Tickets to Flames games, once like gold, are easily obtained for all but the top games.
The fact the Flames owners still haven’t even announced a new arena a decade after saying the Saddledome was out of date also doesn’t help (although little whispers tell IDLM that an east village proposal might be nigh). Especially considering Edmonton has a new building themselves.
But for now, they’ll cherish their handle as the little team that could— could— break Canada’s 26-year-jinx on the Stanley Cup.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the publisher of the website Not The Public Broadcaster . He’s also a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also a best-selling author whose new book Cap In Hand: How Salary Caps Are Killing Pro Sports And Why The Free Market Could Save Them is now available.