By Stu Hackel
What might the Flames start to look like with Jay Feaster now in charge -- at least on an interim basis -- after Darryl Sutter was asked by Flames president Ken King to step down as general manager? Don't expect them to look like the Tampa Bay Lightning, which Feaster turned into Stanley Cup champions, any time soon.
The buzz in Calgary had been that Sutter's brother Brent, the team's head coach, would take the fall. That turned out not to be true, and Feaster said today in Calgary that he's not planning to change the coaching staff, and that he thinks Brent Sutter "has done a very good job. He's a very good coach." So if the GM changes and the coach is safe, there are only two ways for this team to improve: The players either have to start playing better or different players will be brought in.
There has been much thought that trading Jarome Iginla, the popular captain, would be an important step in rebuilding this team. The Flames have no cap space now and, according to CapGeek.com, $56,265,833 is already committed for next season. The thinking is that moving Iginla to the right team could fetch the kind of return that Atlanta got from New Jersey for Ilya Kovalchuk, a deal that helped the Thrashers to some extent become a competitive team this season. Of course, Atlanta also got some very important players from the cap-troubled Blackhawks: Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd have helped lead the Thrashers, along with the depth that the former Devils have provided.
For the moment, Feaster claims to not be planning any major moves, saying, "I believe in our marquee players. I think our marquee players are among the best in the NHL." That group would include Iginla, Olli Jokinen, Jay Bouwmeester and Miikka Kiprusoff, although all have struggled to varying degrees this season -- Kiprusoff probably more from overwork and exhaustion than anything. He's played the third-most minutes of all goalies this season (behind Carey Price and Jonas Hiller).
But overpaid and unproductive are two words often associated with the Flames' high-priced veterans and Feaster is not about to devalue his assets publicly. The trade deadline is February 28, only two months away, and Feaster made a point of saying that pro scout Michel Goulet is going to have a good amount of input into how this team moves forward.
It's worth remembering that Feaster's Lightning were built around a core of talented young players, including forwards Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis, defenseman Dan Boyle. They added veteran goalie Nikolai Khabibulin. They were coached by the fiery John Tortorella. Feaster had a hand in constructing that club as an assistant to GM Rick Dudley until 2002, when he took over as GM. Prior to that, he handled contracts and other business matters for the club.
This was before the lockout changed the way that the NHL does business. Still, one of the things that Feaster had going for him was that he ran a Stanley Cup team on a relatively low budget, under $34 million, as the 2003-04 season began, which was about half of what the top spending teams, the Red Wings and Rangers, doled out. So he knows how to stay within certain fiscal guidelines. And he understands that youth is the way to go.
The combination of big contracts that Feaster doled out after Tampa Bay's Cup win, the onset of the salary cap, plus the wild and underfunded mismanagement of the OK Hockey Group broke that team's core up over time. Only Lecavalier and St. Louis remain. Feaster departed the scene shortly after Oren Koules and Len Barrie bought the club and installed Brian Lawton over him. "This new ownership group did not need my advice or expertise," Feaster said, diplomatically when he resigned. "I came to the conclusion that it was time to move on."
Feaster did not say much more publicly about OK Hockey until very recently when he spoke up on the mishandling of Steven Stamkos as a rookie. After he left the Lightning, one of the things that he did was write interesting blog posts for The Hockey News, and you can read them here. They provide some interesting insight into how NHL front offices operate and also served to keep him visible in the hockey community.
The Flames hired Feaster this past offseason and some believe that King wanted him to eventually replace Sutter. But others thought that Sutter was asked by King to find someone to assist him, to get a new voice and new eyes on the situation, and he chose Feaster. Today at their news conference, King called this a "horrible" day and Feaster said of the former GM, "I owe him for everything, for the fact that I'm back in the game." He added that when the two met in May to discuss the job, he told Sutter that he wanted to be a GM again, but not the GM of the Flames, and that Sutter was not insecure about working with a former GM, which Feaster believes many sitting GMs would be loathe to do. That lends credence to the idea that Sutter at least had input, if not the leading role in hiring Feaster.
Feaster says he will now put together a comprehensive plan for the Flames that encompasses the short, medium and long terms. He'll bring it to King and see if King agrees. As someone tweeted earlier today, it will be fun to watch the Flames in the next few months, more fun than it has been watching them play this year.