After finishing 2013 with the fifth worst record in the NHL, the Calgary Flames have been reduced to a pile of smoldering embers. After years of delaying the inevitable, GM Jay Feaster has finally blown the core to smithereens and begun to rebuild.
The Flames’ future began in April when they parted ways with captain Jarome Iginla after 16 seasons. The two-time “Rocket” Richard Trophy Winner returned top prospects Kenneth Agostino, Ben Hanowski and the first round pick that became Morgan Klimchuk from the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Feaster also rid his books of alternate captain Jay Bouwmeester‘s bloated contract by sending the under-achieving defenseman to St. Louis. That deal allowed the Flames to nab another first round pick (Emile Poirier) and two lesser prospects.
After the big trade deadline deals, the parade out of town continued. Calgary’s fourth leading scorer Alex Tanguay returned to Colorado via trade, and franchise goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff called it quits.
The 2006 Vezina Trophy winner’s absence should be the toughest to endure moving forward. The Flames have put their faith in the unproven Karri Ramo to replace the legend. Despite the fact that Ramo hasn’t played an NHL game since 2009, Feaster handed him a two-year $5.5 million deal.
The 27-year old Finn shares a home country with Kiprusoff, but four strong seasons with Avangard Omsk in Russia’s KHL do little to ease the doubts of Flames fans. Perhaps Feaster has found a diamond in the rough, much like the Boston Bruins did when they pulled American Tim Thomas out of Finland’s SM-liiga.
Importing prime-aged goalies has become a solid option in recent years. The Anaheim Ducks had Swedish-import Viktor Fasth to thank for their Pacific Division title a year ago. However, Ramo’s .895 save-percentage in 53 career NHL appearances means that he will face an uphill battle to establish himself as Calgary’s netminder of the future.
Outside the crease, the Flames are fraught with problems. Their top six returning point producers will all be 30 or older by the end of the season, meaning major changes are required in the near future.
In order to replace their aging core, the Flames will rely on the emergence of a few key prospects. Swiss scorer Sven Baertschi now faces mountains of pressure to become the next Iginla. Expecting the 2011 first rounder to fill the future hall of famer’s skates is unfair, but the fleet-footed winger should be a full-time NHLer this season after a strong rookie year with the AHL’s Abbotsford Heat.
Baertschi could be joined by Boston College star John Gaudreau. The so-called “Johnny Hockey” will likely return to BC for his senior season, but the under-sized winger looked ready for an NHL shot in a dazzling World Junior performance last winter. Gaudreau led Team USA to gold with seven goals in seven games, earning him comparisons to Martin St. Louis.
Neither top prospect needs to be rushed considering that the Flames won’t be postseason bound for at least a few seasons. By the time Baertschi and Gaudreau reach the next level they could be joined by several members of Calgary’s deep prospect stash.
Though the Flames took some heat for reaching on two of their three 2013 first round picks, they picked up a potential star at number six in Sean Monahan. Monahan’s superb two-way game is similar in style to Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. If the 18-year old can develop into half of the player Toews is, fans in Calgary will be over the moon. The aforementioned reaches, Poirier and Klimchuk, will be long-term projects, much like 2012 first rounder Mark Jankowski.
Despite the remarkable depth of Calgary’s pool of forward prospects, the Flames are suffering a major drought of young talent on the blue line. Considering that they ranked 28th in goals-against last season, their defensive corps needs an overhaul. Either Mark Giordano or T.J. Brodie will likely join Dennis Wideman on a sub-par top pairing that will provide Karri Ramo with little confidence.
The long-term rebuild will undoubtedly necessitate the acquisition of two or three new top-four defensemen. Jay Feaster has plenty of young wingers to market moving forward, but if he can’t bring in some new blue line talent soon, it will cost him his job.
Moving into a very difficult Pacific Division this season, the Flames are the clear favorites to finish dead last in the league standings. They will take a pounding from the offensively loaded California clubs that they will now see on a regular basis. If Karri Ramo doesn’t respond to his trial by fire with a legendary campaign, the Flames will be picking very early on draft day in 2014.