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Steinberg's Slant

by Staff Writer / Calgary Flames

Jay Feaster has a word with Craig Conroy at the 2011 NHL Draft
Jay Feaster delivered a message at a town hall meeting the Flames held for season ticket-holders prior to the start of the season.  While it certainly drew the ire of fans to our north, I couldn’t help but nod my head a little with his sentiments.  My positive response, which continues more than two months into the season, has nothing to do with Calgary’s 3-0 record against Edmonton, nor does it have anything to do with the directions of the two teams.  It has more to do with my belief that “burning it to the ground” as it were is rarely the desired method of moving your team forward.

Feaster clearly shares that thought, as does the rest of the Flames organization.  With limited flexibility this season, Jay has started to move the team closer to the vision he has for them, and has begun what looks like a long term plan for the franchise.  This type of retooling isn’t always successful, but neither is the method that other teams have elected for.  I’ve come up with three cautionary reasons why “blowing it up” might just leave gum all over your face.

Horror Stories

Sorry Oilers fans, it’s far too early to say whether or not the current plan is going to end up producing positive results for your team.  The only real success stories you can point to in the “worst to first” model reside in Pittsburgh and Chicago (with Washington and maybe a few others debatable).  The Penguins finished fifth in the Atlantic Division for four consecutive seasons with a high of 28 wins in that span.  On the bright side, franchise mainstays Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Marc-Andre Fleury were all drafted during that same span.  The 2009 Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks endured an entire decade of hardship, seeing just one playoff series in a span of ten years.  The final five years of that saw them on the outside looking in, a time when Chicago was able to draft Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Brent Seabrook in the first round.  Both teams have recently won Cups, thanks in large part to those aforementioned players.

Always forgotten in that argument, however, seems to be the numerous teams who have “walked the desert” in recent years.  The New York Islanders have one playoff appearance over their last six campaigns with no signals pointing to that trend changing, despite five top ten picks over the same period of time.  With eight top ten picks over the last decade or so, the Florida Panthers have zero playoff appearances to show for it, a stretch going back to 2000.  The Maple Leafs and Jets/Thrashers fall into the same category of teams who have finished plenty down in the standings but have never been able to ascend as hoped.

You gotta be good to be lucky

Imagine the Penguins didn’t win the lottery in 2005?  A second overall pick would have garnered them Bobby Ryan, who is a great player but not in the same stratosphere as Crosby.  The same question can be asked when looking at the 2007 draft, when Chicago won the lottery and jumped up four spots to select Patrick Kane.  No knock on the foursome drafted following the dynamic Kane, but names like Kyle Turris and James Van Riemsdyk aren’t quite in the franchise player category.

Drafting first overall isn’t rocket science on most occasions, and drafting in the top end of the draft gives you a good chance of getting a solid player down the road.  But it isn’t without good fortune involved, and a little luck helped the Penguins and Hawks along their noticeable ascension.  The main point is, regardless of where you draft, there’s always a crap shoot element to it, which is why it’s folly to bank on high picks solely to rebuild your team.

The easy way isn’t always the right way

I think it’s easier to be bad for a significant amount of time and be handed the opportunity to draft the top end players than to try and position your team for the future while staying competitive.  But with the financial resources supplied by ownership in this city, I think it’s the job of a General Manager to take the hard road and the road that may encompass more planning and tough decisions.  San Jose, Detroit, Vancouver, and Boston have forged identities for themselves by having runs of elite play without having to couple it with long stretches of mediocre hockey.

Over the last decade those teams haven’t gone more than two years in a row without playoff hockey, and the Bruins are the only team to have even done that.  All four of those teams have either won a Stanley Cup or have made it to the final four during that time, finishing near the top of league standings along the way (all but the Bruins have won a President's Trophy).

To make that model work, those teams have had to be clicking at a high level in all departments from scouting and drafting to development to smart free agent signings.  But having all those things working at a high grade should be what teams and GM’s strive for, and Calgary should be no different.  In a market like this one, long term success is important and I believe there is plenty of patience among a loyal group of fans for a goal to be reached.  But opting to blow it up with nothing close to a guarantee of success seems a little shortsighted and unnecessary.

I’m not advocating for the Calgary Flames to stay loyal to everyone on the team, nor am I suggesting the team shouldn’t consider making moves that could help them down the road.  Change and progression are important concepts that need to be applied to this team, and I believe they are.  Just because we aren’t seeing a fire sale in December doesn’t mean Jay Feaster hasn’t started to affect his vision.  Regardless of what Oilers fans think, it’s far too early to deem his tenure a failure, the same way it would be premature to say it’ll succeed. 

Pat Steinberg can be heard on the Big Show weekdays from 1-4 pm and on Overtime after every Flames game on Sportsnet 960 The Fan radio.

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