October 5, 2011
Flames GM believes his team worthy of playoffs
By RANDY SPORTAK, QMI Agency
For some reason, Jay Feaster’s proclamation caused quite a ruckus.
In the pre-season, the Calgary Flames GM said on TV during an intermission interview his team would make the playoffs.
It was emphatic, too, with the words: “write it down.”
Considering we’re talking about a Flames team that has missed the Stanley Cup tournament in each of the last two seasons and there were minimal changes in the off-season, the twiiterverse went a little crazy, with detractors firing off the shots.
Feaster would never relent.
“I don’t understand the question, because I don’t know what anybody would expect a manager in the National Hockey League to say. Do people expect me to say, ‘Oh God. Playoffs?!? Playoffs?!? You’re talking about playoffs?!?’ “ he said while providing a great impersonation of the infamous response from former NFL coach Jim Mora.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me. Of course, I feel that way, and I do believe we’re a good enough team to be a playoff team and not just sneak in.
“And of course, when I get those questions, I’m going to be emphatic about it.”
Still, you can see why there would be doubters.
The Flames finished 10th in the Western Conference in each of the past two campaigns, traded away their best shutdown defenceman in Robyn Regehr, and starting goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff is about to turn 35 years old.
It’s easy to ask Feaster why he genuinely feels that way.
“I watched what we accomplished the second half of last year, and I honestly believe we started to come together as a team, that we started to understand what Brent (Sutter), as the coach, was looking for, and we started to buy into the team concept,” said Feaster, whose team ended the season with a 27-11-9 run. “We started to understand if we play the way the coaches ask us to play, play as a team, we are a very good collection of players.
“This group, in the exit meetings, to a man, acknowledged there was a transformation, a coming together as a team and will be ready to take the next step.”
That annals of hockey history are filled with teams which had strong conclusions to seasons but didn’t carry over that success to the coming season, so only time will tell whether Feaster’s theory is correct.
However, you can say he has faith by keeping the vast majority of the 2010-11 team intact.
Feaster did make a couple of big changes by dealing away Regehr and the under-achieving Ales Kotalik for defenceman Chris Butler and minor-league forward Paul Byron.
Butler has big shoes to fill in a top-four role.
The other big deal has to be a positive simply from the perspective of man-games played. Centre Daymond Langkow made an incredible comeback from a horrific neck injury suffered late in the 2009-10 season, but hw missed all but four games last season. Feaster sent the veteran and his US$4.5-million salary cap hit to the Phoenix Coyotes for winger Lee Stempniak, who scored 28 goals two seasons ago.
In turn, Feaster believes Calgary has a deeper team that will be better able to survive injuries and has the salary cap space to bring in players or make moves at any time.
Remember, at the trade deadline last season, the Flames were handcuffed, but they will go into this season with a cushion of around $3.6 million on the $64-million cap.
Still, the GM must keep an eye on the long-term future, and Feaster has his hands full in that regard.
A decade of bad drafts have left the Flames with a dearth of legitimate high-end prospects. In fact, many will argue the Flames even have a dozen future NHLers.
The Flames had a complete changing of the guard among their prospects, cutting free several players who hadn’t made the jump, including a pair of first-round draft picks in Kris Chucko (2004) and Matt Pelech (2005), opting for a plan to rely on fewer youngsters in the minors and putting more veteran minor leaguers around them to keep the pressure off them and provide leadership.
“The conversation we had with everybody going to Abbotsford was ‘Don’t wait to make an impression in Abbotsford because we’re deeper down there than we’ve been before.’ That’s a reality the guys have acknowledged,” Feaster said. “Talking to the guys who were in Abby last year, they know we’re going to have a deeper team, and we’re pleased with that.
“We’re pleased with the juniors who we had at camp, too.”
Moving forward, Feaster has some big decisions on his plate.
As of now, there are 11 players due to become unrestricted free agents.
The opportunity to make sweeping changes is there.
“I like the idea of having a lot of guys in the last year of their deals. I think guys on the last year of their deals are playing for something and are hungry, and want to get that next contract,” Feaster said. “As an organization, this will allow us to make decisions about who fits into the plans going forward and gives the opportunity to change the look of things.”
Having had the job of running the Flames since Darryl Sutter was told to resign just before Christmas, Feaster has made two major changes to the atmosphere around the team.
The first was something he said would happen right off the hop: Making it a fun place to be around.
“My job is to take the tension out of the job and make sure that’s how it is. Everybody’s working hard, but it’s more loose. We laugh, rib each other, smile,” he said.
The other isn’t something as well seen but just as critical.
While the Sutter brothers had a strained relationship, Feaster and Brent Sutter can always be spotted talking to each other.
During game-day skates and optional practices, they can usually be seen in the owners’ suite watching the team and discussing things.
Feaster, who openly admits his lack of experience playing professional hockey makes him defer to the knowledge of others, intently watches to see who the coaching staff has one-on-one talks with to ensure he knows why and make sure he can deliver the same message if needed.
“It doesn’t work unless the coach and GM are on the same page and communicating all the time,” he said. “I talk to the coach during the season more than my wife during the season. I think it’s that important.
“At the same time, the guys see it, recognize it. The players are smart enough to know when there’s a rift or a divide.”