I realize it's very easy to complain about the Flames in this space, and I do it regularly. But lately I have very little to complain about. The Flames have been a very good team for more than a month now, and are showing signs of being an excellent team. The win over Minnesota was one of those signs for me — they found a way to win a game in which they didn't play that well. I've always felt elite teams can do that, because the right combination of strategy and personnel can overcome off nights from a couple of players, or hot opponents who aren't as fundamentally sound.
We've all seen the change in strategy that's led to a less aggressive, more zone-focused approach since the oft-mentioned San Jose blowout that immediately preceded this run of success. But the success wouldn't have been possible without the emergence of so many new players on this team — many of whom were developed internally, through a farm system oft-maligned.
I've been in the group that's complained about the lack of good prospects on the farm, and I've seen what teams like San Jose, Detroit and now Boston can do when it develops young players from within.
But, the Flames' recent success — and particularly the emergence of Rene Bourque, and Curtis Glencross before he got injured — has me wondering if it might still be possible to build an elite team without having great success in the draft.
Calgary has four legitimate Tier 1 performers, none of whom are within less than five years of retirement, in Miikka Kiprusoff, Jarome Iginla, Robyn Regehr and Dion Phaneuf. Building from that core, and from last year's supporting cast, it added 11 players this season who've played regular minutes:
• Brandon Prust
• Adam Pardy
• Mark Giordano
• Eric Nystrom
• Dustin Boyd
(I include Nystrom and Boyd on this list because it's the first year they're legitimate top-12ers.)
• Rene Bourque
• Curtis Glencross
• Mike Cammalleri
• Todd Bertuzzi
• Andre Roy
Of these 10 players, four — Cammalleri, Glencross, Bourque and Pardy — have made significant contributions. Most importantly, though, all but Cammalleri have performed above expectations — in the cases of Bourque and Pardy, well above. Bourque is starting to look like a steal of the Huselius/Kiprusoff variety.
Of the others, Nystrom is a reliable, trustworthy fourth-line player who kills penalties effectively, and Boyd is the same with more upside. And Mark Giordano's 12- to 15-minutes a game are usually full value.
I won't bother getting into Bertuzzi, but it's important to also note that the Flames have had their greatest success this season while missing various players to injury who would presumably be everyday contributors — meaning the team has now acquired depth above its top 18 skaters.
So, who did these 10 players replace? I'd argue you could almost make it player-for-player:
• Alex Tanguay/Mike Cammalleri
• Kristian Huselius/Rene Bourque
• Owen Nolan/Todd Bertuzzi
• Stephane Yelle/Curtis Glencross
• Marcus Nilson/Dustin Boyd
• Mark Smith/Brandon Prust and Eric Nystrom
• Eric Godard/Andre Roy
• David Hale/Mark Giordano
• Anders Eriksson/Adam Pardy
Right now, I'd make all those trades one-for-one as a Flames fan with the possible exception of Tanguay/Cammalleri — and that's a lot closer than I thought it would be. In some cases, there's a massive improvement.
Tie that in with an obvious steps forward from David Moss, and you have a much improved team despite sub-par first halves from three of your four Tier 1 guys. Are there still concerns? Of course, but going into 2009, I'm feeling pretty optimistic about the chance that the Flames maybe, just maybe, might win a playoff round or two this year.
And that, my friends, would be a very nice step forward for this team. And with another summer like this year's, maybe the opening bits of evidence that a team can build outside the draft.