The Philadelphia Flyers traveled to Calgary to take on the Flames Monday night.
The game was dreadful. It was utterly plain and lacked the intensity you’d expect from two teams fighting for their playoff lives.
It wasn’t that long ago the Flames were challenging for the Northwest Division lead and considered by some as Stanley Cup hopefuls, while at the same time the Flyers stunk and had sunk to near the bottom of the East. The Flyers knew they had the talent, so they changed philosophies behind the bench by bringing in Peter Laviolette. The move didn’t pay off immediately, but the team pulled together two four-game winning streaks within a little more than a month of the decision, putting Philadelphia back on track.
Calgary, however, doesn’t have room for error. The Flyers play in a weaker conference and had more games to work with on the schedule back in December. The Flames, who have lost 12 of their past 14 games, need immediate results or they’ll miss the playoffs for the first time since they selected Dion Phaneuf in 2003.
In the Saddledome Monday, the energy wasn’t just sucked from the Flames players, but their fans as well. It was almost as if the patrons were still dazed over the Dion deal, trying to come to terms with the separation of a franchise cornerstone. When it came time to boo their team’s lackluster effort on the ice, it was a protest from fans upset that their one-time contenders were slipping away right before their eyes, much like Ottawa had before them.
The Phaneuf trade, though costly, had a semblance of reason behind it. The Flames lacked offense, scoring just 12 goals during a nine-game losing streak, and acquired a little punch and depth for a playoff push. What was a deal for the future for Toronto was clearly a deal for the now in Calgary.
But the Olli Jokinen trade that went down shortly after another shutout loss Monday reeks of desperation and really puts the Sutter era on the hot seat. Jokinen wasn’t producing at a rate a player with his cap hit ($5.25 million) is expected to and he never gelled with Jarome Iginla the way GM Darryl Sutter banked on when he acquired the Finn last season.
But it’s not as though the Flames replaced Jokinen with anyone fans can be optimistic about.
Ales Kotalik and Chris Higgins bring a combined cap hit that will equal Jokinen’s, with a production value very similar. While Jokinen struggled with 11 goals, 35 points and a plus-2 rating, the two former Rangers bring a total of 14 goals, 36 points and a minus-27 rating.
If the Flames were unhappy about the cash tied up in Jokinen, they could have allowed him to walk as a free agent at season’s end, instead they are now attached to UFA-to-be Higgins and a tease in Kotalik who will absorb $3 million against the cap for two more seasons. Neither are Sutter-type players (not that Jokinen played like one either), so you can’t help but wonder if dressing room chemistry played into this move.
Jokinen fits in with the overpaid atmosphere in New York and provides them with a much-needed big body down the middle. Calgarians have heard this one before, but the Rangers are hoping Jokinen can find chemistry with their shifty superstar Marian Gaborik. If he does, the Rangers will instantly become a better team. If he doesn’t, they are free to open up the cap space this summer.
The two deals Sutter has pulled the past two days brought in scoring depth, but nothing that will drive a franchise or inspire a reeling fan base. On the other side, both deals cost his contemporaries spare parts and middling assets in return for top-line players in off years. For the price, Toronto and New York can’t lose, while Calgary opens itself up to Armageddon this off-season if the rough-around-the-edges pieces don’t fit the puzzle.
Look at it this way: dating back to when they acquired Jokinen last March, the Flames have given up him, Brandon Prust, Jim Vandermeer, Matthew Lombardi and a first round pick for Higgins, Kotalik and a third-rounder.
At one point in time the Sutters seemed a perfect hometown fit in Calgary; it was a marriage that couldn’t end. But the spotlights are up, the fat lady is exercising her vocal chords and the party is drawing to a close.
There’s a simmering crater in Cowtown today and if the Flames fail to make the post-season – or win a round when they get there – another impact is on its way this summer.
The question is, will the Sutter brothers be there to pick up the pieces?
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