Wednesday, December 05, 2007

What's Wrong With Calgary?

Before the season, I picked the Calgary Flames to win the West Conference. This prediction does not look very good with Calgary currently sitting in 13th place in the West Conference with an 11-17 record (with 4 losses counted as regulation ties). They have an even worse record than their battle of Alberta rival the Edmonton Oilers (who I called the worst team in hockey). Why has Calgary not lived up to my prediction? In part, I must admit my prediction was likely incorrect. It is far too common to blame the team (i.e. they don't have enough heart) for their not living up to your incorrect predictions.

Calgary has a good offence that is led by Jarome Iginla, who is one of the best players in the NHL. They have other talented players to go with Iginla in Alex Tanguay, Daymond Langkow, Kristian Huselius and Matthew Lombardi, but beyond those few players lack depth. This is common in the salary capped era. Teams with frontline talent cannot afford depth as well.

Their defence is very good. Dion Phaneuf, Robyn Regehr and Adrian Aucoin may be the best threesome of defencemen in the NHL right now. Rhett Warrener, Cory Sarich and Anders Eriksson provide some good depth. This team has allowed the third least shots of goal in the league, with 25.4 shots allowed per game.

The weakness has surprisingly been in goal. Miikka Kiprusoff won the 2006 Vezina Trophy and was nominated again in 2007 and thus should be expected to provide top notch goaltending. So far he hasn't. Among goalies with a significant amount of ice time, Kiprusoff has the third worst saves percentage in the NHL at a .886 mark. Only Andrew Raycroft of Toronto and Dominik Hasek of Detroit have been worse. Kiprusoff's last two saves percentages were .917 and .923 and a mark on that level would be much more expected. Merely by seeing Kiprusoff improve his saves percentage to expectation, Calgary would be one of the top teams in the league in goals against and that alone should be enough to make them the first place team in the Northwest Division.

The problem in Calgary is that Kiprusoff recently signed a six year $35 million contract. Calgary has committed a large portion of their salary cap money to a goalie who is not playing well. It is rare for a goalie who has had Kiprusoff's success suddenly lose the ability to play well in goal (although precedent exists is for example Jose Theodore). Should that happen, Calgary would likely be in a bad position for the remainder of this contract or until they can trade it.

Kiprusoff is the only legitimate goaltending option in Calgary. Curtis McElhinney and Matt Keetley have played parts of four games between them, but they have never done anything to prove they might be NHL regulars. In the short term, Calgary needs to find a qualified goalie who can push Kiprusoff for playing time. The competition may help to get his game going.

It is rare to find a situation where an underachieving team can be blamed almost entirely upon one player, but this is the case in Calgary. If Miikka Kiprusoff was playing at established levels, Calgary would be one of the better teams in the league. Because Kiprusoff has been one of the worst goalies in the league, Calgary is one of the worse teams in the standings. They depend upon a low goals against to win and their defence has provided a low number of shots against. So far that has not translated to a low goals against.

One simple reason why you should have NEVER picked Calgary: Mike Keenan.

Enough said
Mike Keenan has usually had short term success with his teams. He pushes them to the limit and they overachieve until the point where things break and they are in a far worse sitaution than before the hiring of Keenan. I was expecting this to coccur in Calgary this season. With the exception of very poor goaltending the Flames have played well so far. But the goaltending falures are too important and have kept them from any real success.
Keenan also likes to play the "Goalie Shell Game" a lot. Bringing in a true backup goalie means that Kipper will get his pants hauled out of the game more often when he lets in a softie. Kipper is proving that his ego may be easily bruised; I wonder if he'll react poorly to that kind of treatment.
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