The Big “What If”: Kiprusoff over Nabokov, Part II

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This is Part II of my series examining the ramifications of the San Jose Sharks trading away Evgeni Nabokov instead of Miikka Kiprusoff in late 2003. For Part I of this series, focusing on the Sharks, click here.


FROM CALGARY’S PERSPECTIVE

2003-04: Flames fans were ecstatic to find out that Calgary had gone out and acquired Evgeni Nabokov from San Jose. Not only did Calgary have a likely Roman Turek replacement, but they had found one with a very good track record in his short time as an NHL goalie. Nabokov would make his debut on November 20th, starting at home against the Montreal Canadiens; The former Calder Trophy winner would face 23 shots from the Habs, stopping all but one as the Flames would go on to win by a score of 2-1. That game proved to be no fluke, as Nabokov would play 38 games down the stretch, recording a .921 SV% in his time with Calgary.

The Flames now had a reliable (and healthy) starter, which put them in a good position going into the 2004 Stanley Cup Playoffs. With 92 points, Calgary would finish 6th in the West, setting up a first round match-up with their Northwestern rivals Vancouver. The Canucks were built more for scoring, with Brendan Morrison, Markus Naslund, and the Sedin twins, but one of their biggest stars was missing, as Todd Bertuzzi had been suspended a month prior for his blindside assault on Colorado’s Steve Moore. Vancouver also lacked the goaltending consistency that Calgary boasted, as Marc Crawford would cycle between Dan Cloutier, Johan Hedberg, and Alex Auld throughout the series. The absence of Bertuzzi, plus the goalie carousel, might have tipped the balance just enough, as Calgary would take the series in seven games.

Taking down Vancouver was one thing, but beating the dynastic Detroit Red Wings would be a real feather in the cap of the Flames. Detroit was even more stacked than the Canucks, with Brett Hull, Pavel Datsyuk, Brendan Shanahan, and Steve Yzerman providing the offensive touch, and a blue line that included Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios, and Mathieu Schneider. And if all that wasn’t enough, they had Curtis Joseph in goal to stymie any potential Calgary attacks. Amazingly, even with all of that talent, even after outshooting the Flames in five of six games, Detroit still couldn’t get the job done. The saviour for the Flames was Evgeni Nabokov, who would put up an otherworldly .958 SV%, winning Games Five and Six without conceding a goal.

Nabokov had become every bit the star that Calgary was imagining he’d be when they acquired him, but now, he was going to have to back it up big, as his Flames would face his old team, the San Jose Sharks. Not only had the Sharks matched the Flames at every step, but Miikka Kiprusoff had risen to the challenge of the starting job, recording a .933 SV% and a 1.69 GAA that season – both of which led the league. Experience, however, would be the deciding factor, as Kiprusoff had not played this amount of hockey at the NHL level, while Nabokov had played almost 80 total games in the 2001-02 season, and could thus handle the extended schedule. Evgeni’s Flames would come out on top in a close series, winning in six games.

The city of Calgary hadn’t seen a run like this since the late 1980s. The Flames were back in the Stanley Cup Final, taking on the Tampa Bay Lightning. Led by coach John Tortorella, the Lightning had triumphed in a weak Southeast Division, but showed they could hang with the rest of the East, eliminating the Islanders, Montreal, and Philadelphia in order. In a duel of Russian goalies, Evgeni Nabokov and Nikolai Khabibulin traded save after save, as the series would go seven games – although it could have been ended earlier than that, but for a Martin Gelinas effort in Game Six being waved off. That “no goal” call was important, as not only would Tampa Bay win that game, but they would take the decider as well, winning their first-ever Stanley Cup.

For Calgary, it was the worst of disappointments. They had advanced to the very final game of the year, only to lose out on the Cup. But even in their despair in the days following Game Seven, Calgary could take solace in the fact that the move that was to define their season turned out to work brilliantly. Evgeni Nabokov had come in and grabbed the starting job by the horns, leading his team to within a single game of hoisting the Stanley Cup. Darryl Sutter was being hailed as a genius, having orchestrated the Nabokov trade, then led his team to the Cup Final from behind the bench. He would not get the Jack Adams Award, though, as that, too would go to Tampa Bay and coach Tortorella.

The Flames would have the 18th Overall Pick in the 2004 Draft, but wouldn’t hold it for long, trading with the New York Rangers to move down in the order. With the 24th Pick, Calgary would end up selecting Kris Chucko from the BCHL’s Salmon Arm Silverbacks.

2004-05: As July turned to August, and then September, the concern for Flames fans should have been whether Evgeni Nabokov could repeat his heroics in a full season with the team. Instead, they, like fans across North America, were focused on the impending work stoppage that would take effect on September 15th. The lockout would drag on through the months, with the league eventually cancelling the season in February. Instead of anticipation and excitement, there was only anger from fans in Cowtown, with their anger being shared across the continent.

The lockout would stretch into July, at which point it would finally be resolved. Flames’ minority stakeholder Harley Hotchkiss would be one of the key voices that was considered vital to bringing the work stoppage to an end, allowing business as usual to resume. Because of the stoppage, the NHL Draft would be delayed into late July; with the 26th Overall Pick, Calgary would select Matt Pelech, a defenceman from the Sarnia Sting of the OHL.

2005-06: The resumption of NHL hockey was music to Calgary fans’ ears. After their fantastic 2004 playoff run, the Flames would now have a chance to defend their Western Conference title, with some new faces to bolster their ranks. Daymond Langkow, having been acquired in the 2004 off-season, would have a chance to add some scoring depth, while defensive prospect Dion Phaneuf would get his shot with the big club. One of his likely blue-line partners would be Roman Hamrlik, who had just been signed from the Islanders as a free agent. And of course, there were still Iginla and Nabokov to lead the way.

Daymond Langkow was good (59 points). Jarome Iginla was good (35 goals and 67 points). Dion Phaneuf was REALLY good (49 points, and a Calder Trophy nomination). But for all of their success, there was one massive failure: Evgeni Nabokov. Now trusted full time with the starting job, Nabokov proved awful, posting a .885 SV% – 14 points below the league average. Even worse, Evgeni was forced into 74 games, as his two back-ups, Philippe Sauve and Brian Boucher, were clearly not cut out for even occasional starts. It was a testament to the efforts of Phaneuf, Iginla, and the rest of the team that Calgary, despite their horrid goaltending, would sneak into the playoffs in 8th place with 93 points.

As bad as Nabokov may have been in the regular season, the slate was clean for the playoffs, especially considering he would be facing a team he had beaten before in the Detroit Red Wings. With a new coach in Mike Babcock, and more trust in young stars Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, the Wings were still poised to dominate, even in a “new” NHL. The Wings were hungry to exact revenge on the Flames, but Nabokov was just as hungry to erase his poor season. Despite a pretty good effort from the Russian netminder (a .906 SV% in the series), Detroit would eliminate Calgary in seven games.

For all the talent that was starting to emerge on the Flames, Nabokov’s regression meant that there was still work to be done. Questions were asked as to whether the new skill-based NHL might be too much for him, or if Nabokov needed a reliable back-up to take a share of the workload. Darryl Sutter, however, was more concerned with bolstering the offence, as he would make a Draft Day Trade to acquire winger Alex Tanguay from the Colorado Avalanche, sacrificing young D-man Jordan Leopold and a couple of picks to do so. Tanguay had just come off two straight seasons in which he narrowly missed recording 80 points; having him set up Iginla was a tantalizing prospect for both Calgary staff and fans alike.

Calgary, who held the 16th Overall Pick, would make another trade, this time with San Jose. The Sharks would move up to the Flames’ spot, while Calgary would drop to #26, taking goalie Leland Irving from the WHL’s Everett Silvertips. With the other pick Calgary acquired, they would select blue-liner Mathieu Carle (not to be confused with Matt Carle) from the Acadie-Bathurst Titan of the QMJHL.

2006-07: The Flames had expectations going into the 2006-07 season, as they now had a deadly duo in Iginla and Tanguay to rely on, as well as the emergent Dion Phaneuf on the blue line, who played with both offensive flair and physicality. But there were still question marks in the off-season, as not only had Evgeni Nabokov regressed horribly following his first season as a Flame, but now, the team would have a new coach in Jim Playfair, who was set to take over the bench duties following the resignation of Darryl Sutter, who would instead serve as the team’s GM. Would Playfair be able to get Nabokov back into starting form, or would the coaching change only destabilize the team further?

The offence that Calgary fans were hoping for had arrived. With Alex Tanguay now feeding him passes (59 assists and 81 points), Jarome Iginla returned to form with a team-leading 39 goals and 94 points. The two of them were bolstered by Kristian Huselius and Daymond Langkow, both of whom put up 77 points, and Dion Phaneuf, who added 50 more from the blue line. The one major weakness of the team, however, seemed to be defending in their own end; Calgary would give up the 3rd most shots in the NHL that year, as opposing teams found a way to break them down. Evgeni Nabokov could hardly be blamed for the resulting glut of goals against, as he would play 74 games, recording a respectable .914 SV% in that time.

In previous years, 90 points would have been enough for the Flames to squeak into the post-season. This year, however, with the Western Conference so stacked, it wasn’t enough. Calgary would finish 9th in the Conference, a few points behind Northwest Division rivals Colorado for the last spot. Though players on the team defended their coach from criticism from both fans and media alike, their voices weren’t enough for Darryl Sutter to demote Jim Playfair to an associate role. Brought in as his replacement would be former Stanley Cup winner Mike Keenan, who had most recently served as General Manager of the Florida Panthers. Despite his success, Keenan had a prickly reputation, and there were going to be concerns as to how he would coexist with both Sutter and the team.

Though the Flames had the 12th Overall Pick in the 2007 Draft, they would elect to trade down, acquiring the 24th Pick from St. Louis, as well as selections in the 2nd and 3rd Rounds. Calgary would use the 24th Pick on Swedish centre Mikael Backlund, then selected winger Simon Hjalmarsson and defender John Negrin with the next two picks, respectively.

2007-08: Calgary had the offensive talent, and they had their starter back. Now, with a new coach set to bring in a tighter defensive system, there were going to be no excuses for this group. Darryl Sutter got to work quickly on bolstering the blue line, first acquiring Adrian Aucoin prior to the 2007 Draft, then signing free agent Cory Sarich to a multi-year deal. Two of the key pieces of the core, Robyn Regehr and Jarome Iginla, would be extended for five years each just after July 1st, ensuring that the team would aim to be competitive over the next few seasons.

As the season went on, it was clear that the team was having a bit of trouble adapting to Keenan’s coaching style; nonetheless, the Flames at least held on to be competitive throughout the year. The two key players of this season would be Iginla and Phaneuf once again, with both players setting career highs in points (98 and 60, respectively). Calgary once again struggled to get any defensive responsibility from their bottom six, as the depth forwards were the clear weak link on the team. Even with their ineptitude, however, Evgeni Nabokov was there to bail the team out, posting a .910 SV% in 74 appearances.

Calgary were still in the middle of the pack, but not only did they make a slight gain on the previous season with 92 points, they also finished 7th in the Western Conference. Back in the post-season, the Flames wouldn’t get much of a reward, having to deal with the San Jose Sharks in the first round. Evgeni Nabokov’s former team had only improved over the past few years, and were a couple of seasons removed from a Stanley Cup Final appearance. Though the teams were pretty much equal in goaltending and top-end offence, it was depth that would win the day for San Jose, as Ryane Clowe would emerge as the key player of the series with a team-leading 8 points. Clowe’s break-out was the difference as the Sharks would win a hard-fought seven-game series, leaving Calgary out in the first round.

It was kind of hard to call what Calgary had done “progress”. Yes, they had made the playoffs, and yes, they had improved in points, but it wasn’t much of a change. Furthermore, the team was having trouble responding to Keenan’s coaching, for whatever reason that may be. They were still defensively irresponsible at times, despite having gone out and solidified their blue line in the past off-season. Very few of those new acquisitions had really worked out, and Darryl Sutter wasn’t about to stall. He would swing two trades on Draft Day, sending Alex Tanguay to Montreal, and acquiring Mike Cammalleri from the Kings.

Also in those deals, Calgary traded away their natural 1st-Round Pick, while also picking up Montreal’s 1st-Rounder. With the 25th Overall selection, the Flames would select Greg Nemisz, a winger from the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires.

2008-09: Faced with being a constant “bubble” team, Darryl Sutter was going to do whatever it took to get Calgary out of the pack. Of course, a few player moves here and there are one thing, but when your team signs one of the villains of the decade, there is sure to be some blowback. Todd Bertuzzi had played a few NHL seasons since his assault on Colorado’s Steve Moore, but the fact that he was still playing at all riled up more than a few fans across the league – especially in Calgary, a team that Bertuzzi had played against a number of times as a Canuck. Once a target for booing, Bertuzzi’s arrival as a Flame showed that no moves were forbidden for Calgary when trying to advance up the standings.

In Calgary colours, Bertuzzi proved okay, but not game-changing. He had settled into a typical 40-point groove, having reached that total last year with Anaheim. The Flames’ other major forward acquisition, Mike Cammalleri, fared much better; he would finish second in team scoring with 82 points, while leading the team in goals with 39. For all of the success he showed, other players regressed, as both Daymond Langkow and Dion Phaneuf dropped below 50 points – the first time in ten years that Langkow had fallen below that mark. Evgeni Nabokov was once again given well over 70 games of action, winning over 40 games and recording his customary .910 SV%.

The Flames were finally finding their groove, and were now starting to push a few of the top teams, as they finished 5th in the Western Conference with 99 points. They would get the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round, a team that was starting to come into their own. Chicago had endured some horrible years under the penny-pinching eye of Bill Wirtz, but with him now deceased, his son Rocky had taken over and promised a revamp of the team. They had the pieces to do so, with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith all blossoming as stars of the league, but the series against Calgary would be their first big test; Chicago would pass, eliminating the Flames in six games.

It seemed like nothing Calgary could do would change the fact that they were still stuck in the middle of the West, with no prospect for moving up in the table. Darryl Sutter, never one to wait on a big decision, would strike soon after the team’s ouster from the playoffs, firing Mike Keenan as coach. Brought in to replace Mike would be Darryl’s brother Brent, who had previously been with the New Jersey Devils. Brent had a decorated resume of his own prior to his NHL tenure, having led the Canadian World Junior team to gold medals in 2005 and 2006.

As was tradition for Darryl Sutter, the Flames would move down in the draft order in 2009, trading with New Jersey to drop to the 23rd spot. With that pick, the Flames would select Tim Erixon, a defenceman with Skelleftea in the Elitserien.

2009-10: The Flames were still in the bind of “mediocrity”, and Darryl Sutter was willing to do anything it took to get his team back on track. His first big move would come on the second day of the NHL Draft, as Calgary would trade the rights to Jordan Leopold and a 2009 3rd-Round Pick to Florida for the rights to impending free agent Jay Bouwmeester, then sign the blue-liner to a five-year deal. His arrival meant that other players would have to be cast out, however, and both Todd Bertuzzi and Mike Cammalleri would depart as free agents – the latter of whom having done so despite an 82-point season with the Flames last year.

The focus on defending was continuing, and the offence suffered for it. By the middle part of the year, the Flames could get very little scoring from anybody not named Jarome Iginla or Rene Bourque. Even Dion Phaneuf’s totals were beginning to crater, and he would regress badly enough to be left off the Canadian Olympic team; this, despite featuring in a prominent Nike ad campaign in the fall and winter of ’09. With Calgary still struggling in January, Darryl Sutter would swing another massive trade, sending Phaneuf, Fredrik Sjostrom, and prospect Keith Aulie to the Maple Leafs for Ian White, Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman, and Jamal Mayers.

The trade didn’t help. Calgary was still sinking on the scoresheet, and had just given up on a blue-liner still yet to reach his prime. But re-building wasn’t even an option, thanks to the play of Evgeni Nabokov, who would almost single-handedly keep his team in post-season contention with his fantastic play in 73 games (36 wins and a .922 SV%). Nabokov’s heroics were ultimately wasted, as the Flames would finish 9th in the West with 92 points, just a few behind the Avalanche. No matter what the Sutter brothers did, the Flames were still stuck in the middle, and if they could not get this ship right soon, their reckoning was imminent.

Because of the trade that brought Olli Jokinen and Brandon Prust to Calgary in 2009, the Flames did not have their own 1st-Round Pick this year. Instead, that selection was held by Phoenix, who would use the 14th Overall Pick on Tri-City Storm forward Jaden Schwartz.

2010-11: Time was running out for both Darryl Sutter and Jarome Iginla, in Calgary. While Iginla had done yeoman’s work in keeping Calgary competitive, the moves that Sutter had made just never seemed to help the team’s chances much. It didn’t help that after a few years of 70+ games a season for Calgary, Evgeni Nabokov demanded a major contract in negotiations – one that Sutter was not willing to give. Instead, the Flames would sign Antti Niemi, just removed from a Stanley Cup victory; despite his emergence in the playoffs for the Chicago Blackhawks, Niemi was let go due to a salary cap crunch, and the Flames swooped in immediately to get him under contract.

Sutter, in a desperate state, would reach to the past to supplement Iginla, bringing back Alex Tanguay and Olli Jokinen on free agent deals; Jokinen’s signing was particularly interesting, as he had just been traded away last season. Though Iginla, Tanguay, and Jokinen would be the team’s top three scorers, it wasn’t enough for Darryl, who would be asked to step down in late December, as the team was near the bottom of the Western pack. Jay Feaster would take his spot as interim GM, and somehow, someway, the move worked. Calgary would climb up the standings over the last few months, in part due to the impressive goaltending of Antti Niemi (a .920 SV% in 71 games).

As per usual, Calgary was in the middle of the West, but this time, they had done just enough to qualify for the post-season, beating out Niemi’s old team Chicago for the last spot. The Flames would be drawn against the Vancouver Canucks in the first round, a team that Niemi must have relished facing, considering he had eliminated them with Chicago the previous year. Unfortunately, with Calgary, the Finnish starter no longer had the likes of Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, and Dustin Byfuglien to clean up in front of him. The Canucks, with their almost endless array of talent, made short work of the Flames, eliminating Calgary in a sweep.

Even when it seemed like Calgary was finally set to move into re-building mode, they just ended up getting sucked back to the middle. This time, however, it looked like there were pieces for the Flames to build on. They had a pretty good first line again, even if all of the players on it were above 30. They had found a great Nabokov replacement in Antti Niemi, and some solid blue line pieces in Bouwmeester, Anton Babchuk, and Mark Giordano; Giordano, in particular, was a revelation, having previously been cast out by the team and left to play in the KHL. Mark would set a career high with 43 points in 2010-11, and looked like a defenceman the team could build around very soon.

Calgary would have the 18th Pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, selecting centre Mark McNeill from the Prince Albert Raiders of the WHL.

2011-12: Jay Feaster had come in mid-season last year, and knew that his job would be to assess what they had before going in to his first full season as General Manager. As was the case for so many years, the question was whether the Calgary Flames were a team needing a push to become a contender, or a team that would soon need to be torn apart for the sake of the future. Finishing 8th, 9th, and 10th every year was not helping matters; while the Flames did everything they could over the past half-decade to move themselves into contention, some factor would not allow them to rise (or fall) out of the middle of the pack.

Last year’s quest to bring in older names masked a major problem with this roster, that being a lack of secondary scoring; this year, that problem could no longer be hidden, as only four players – Jarome Iginla, Olli Jokinen, Alex Tanguay, and Curtis Glencross – managed more than 40 points. Feaster only continued the cycle of desperation by bringing back Mike Cammalleri in a mid-season trade, and though Cammalleri did manage 19 points in 28 games with Calgary, it was far too little, far too late to have an impact. Normally, a team like this would be buried in the standings, but Antti Niemi was determined to keep his team in every one of the 70 games he stepped in for, with his .915 SV% sitting just above the league average.

The Flames’ scoring woes had come back to haunt them, as Calgary would miss out on the playoffs, finishing 11th in the West with 87 points. Having now sunk a bit further in the standings, a picture of the team’s short-term future was beginning to come into clarity; with so many aging forwards, and so few prospects to replace them, the Flames would very likely be looking at a re-build as their next move. Brent Sutter would not be a part of that future, as he would not be offered a contract extension, instead being let go to become a free agent. Jarome Iginla looked next, as with one year remaining on his deal, he looked likely to be a sought-after rental in 2013.

Calgary would have the 11th Pick in the 2012 Entry Draft. Jay Feaster would follow in the footsteps of his predecessor and trade down in the draft to get the 21st Pick from Buffalo; while the Sabres would take Swedish forward Filip Forsberg with Calgary’s pick, the Flames would use their acquired selection on Stanstead College centre Mark Jankowski. With the additional pick acquired, Calgary would take defenceman Patrick Sieloff from the U.S. NTDP.

2012-13: Were they of a conspiratorial mind, Calgary fans might think that Murray Edwards, the majority owner of the team since the late ‘90s, was taking a hard-line stance in the 2012 lockout in order to delay the team’s eventual disappointment. Despite making moves to bring in Dennis Wideman, Jiri Hudler, and former Colorado head coach Bob Hartley, Calgary still looked like a team destined for the bottom third of the standings – and that was a best-case scenario. Of course, because of that lockout, much of the season would be wiped out; the campaign would finally kick off in January of 2013, with the schedule reduced to 48 games.

It became clear that Bob Hartley had very little to work with. The scoring load was once again shouldered by veteran players, with Mike Cammalleri and second-year Flame Lee Stempniak tying for the team lead with 32 points. Their efforts were nowhere near enough to keep the Flames in contention, and Jay Feaster would find himself with the unenviable task of trying to find trade partners for some of the club’s older players. Jay Bouwmeester was expected to be headed out of town, and would join the Blues on deadline day, but it was the trade of a few days earlier that dominated the Calgary headlines. On March 28th, Jarome Iginla would be traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins, representing a true changing of the guard. The captain – nay, the hero of a city – was gone, likely never to return as a player, and his “C” would not grace another Flame sweater for the rest of 2013.

If the team had another goalie, they might have been competitive in the draft lottery. Once again, however, Antti Niemi would virtually carry the team (43 games, .924 SV%) as they finished in 12th in the Western Conference with 45 points. The path forward was now clear; this team had to re-build. After so many years of trying to build upon what they had (and failing), Calgary now had to become a seller, and the departure of a team legend was the first blow of the wrecking ball. For those remaining, the next year or two would represent a chance to raise their own price on the trade market, or show that they were willing to stick around for the hard days; those who gave less than 100% in the next couple of season would likely be putting their career in jeopardy.

Calgary would end up with the 7th Pick in the 2013 Entry Draft. They would look to bolster their blue line, selecting Darnell Nurse from the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.

THE FLAMES AFTER TEN YEARS: At the time of the trade, Calgary was a team with a clear offensive talisman, and little else. Yes, they had Jarome Iginla at his peak at that point, but the rest of the team wasn’t quite good enough to keep up with him. The Flames’ biggest need, however, was in goal, with Roman Turek deteriorating by the year, and Jamie McLennan not trusted with a heavier workload. The trade to get Evgeni Nabokov worked out brilliantly; not only did Calgary go out and acquire a goalie, but one who was already a proven starter at the NHL level. Nabokov would lead the Flames to a Stanley Cup Final appearance, and were it not for a Martin Gelinas shot that didn’t quite trickle across the line, they could have hoisted the Cup itself that year.

Nabokov’s heroics that year, however, masked the underlying problems with the squad that year. They still didn’t have players to support Iginla, and they lacked defensive acumen from their depth forwards. Darryl Sutter went out to try and bring in some new faces, and while some of them had brief impact (Alex Tanguay, Mike Cammalleri, and Dion Phaneuf in particular), the depth still lacked; even when everything seemed to click in 05-06, Nabokov himself would falter that year. Calgary was locked in a constant state of mediocrity, with no exit in sight until the new decade. After the steady degradation of the Flames’ roster, Jay Feaster would finally pull the trigger on the re-build, trading away the franchise legend Iginla in 2013.

As for Nabokov, other than that one year of poor goaltending, he performed mostly as advertised for Calgary. He would play 70+ games every year, and had no problems doing so – just as long as he was fairly compensated. When it came time to renew his contract, however, the Flames would balk at his price, instead opting to bring in Cup-winning goalie Antti Niemi. He, too, has been trusted with a heavy workload, and he, too, has performed admirably. Unfortunately for Niemi, his efforts have mostly been in vain; if it weren’t for his impressive work in goal, the Flames would likely be in the mix for a lottery pick or two.

On opening night of the 2013-14 season, the Flames look like this:

F1. Curtis Glencross – Mikael Backlund – Jiri Hudler

F2. Lee Stempniak – Matt Stajan – T.J. Galiardi

F3. Lance Bouma – Paul Byron – David Jones

F4. Brian McGrattan – Joe Colborne – Ben Street

D1. Mark Giordano – T.J. Brodie

D2. Dennis Wideman – Kris Russell

D3. Chris Butler – Shane O’Brien

G1. Antti Niemi

G2. Karri Ramo

There was once a time when the Flames had Jarome Iginla, and not much else. Those times are over; now, they don’t even have Iginla. There are absolutely no prime scoring threats anywhere in this roster, and it may be a while before they get anybody of that ilk. There are guys like Glencross, Backlund, Hudler, and Stempniak that would be serviceable middle-six options elsewhere in the league, but on this team, they’re shoehorned into top-line roles just because of the team’s sheer lack of depth. It gets worse when you realize that the team is actually dressing Brian McGrattan, an enforcer in an era when enforcers are getting quickly shuffled out of the league.

Defensively, the team isn’t quite as bad. The top pairing of Giordano and Brodie is a pair of revelations for the team over the past few years, and while Giordano has already shown first-pairing talent, Brodie isn’t too far off, either. The second pairing of Wideman and Russell combines Wideman’s offensive instinct with Russell’s shut-down play, but neither of them are one-dimensional, as they can cover for each other easily. The third pairing of Butler and O’Brien aren’t exactly amazing, but with the four ahead of them, they probably won’t get much ice time, anyway.

The one bolded player on this squad is the starting goalie, Antti Niemi. Niemi comes to Calgary as a result of the departure of Evgeni Nabokov in free agency in 2010, as with their #1 goalie spot now vacant, they have to sign the Cup-winner instead of San Jose in the OTL. Niemi has proven himself pretty reliable, even fantastic at times, but it seems like more often than not, his efforts are wasted on the team in front of him. Behind him in the depth chart is Karri Ramo, who is returning to North America after a few years in the KHL. Prior to his departure for Avangard Omsk, Ramo was in the Tampa Bay system, playing three years at the NHL level for the Lightning.


EFFECTS ON THE NHL

It seems like on a few occasions, one single change can affect the entire fate of a franchise; a simple loss in a Draft Lottery means the Pittsburgh Penguins might move to Kansas City, while a power play in the boardroom could mean that the Maple Leafs never have to endure the terrible reign of Harold Ballard. But for all of those small changes, there is sometimes a point of divergence that changes very little. In the case of San Jose and Calgary, switching out Kiprusoff for Nabokov – even with the additional assets the Sharks get in return – changes virtually nothing.

There are several reasons why the two sides don’t move much in the standings in this new timeline, but there are two in particular which make the difference. The first is all about goaltending talent, or, more specifically, what the Sharks give up. In the end, the gulf in talent between Miikka Kiprusoff and Evgeni Nabokov is miniscule; while Kiprusoff may have been better in his peaks, Nabokov was much more consistent, save for one really bad season. The second reason for little change is the habit that both San Jose and Calgary had of trading picks on Draft Day. With little movement in the standings for both sides, their trading habits (trading up for the Sharks, and trading down for the Flames) remain much the same, thus leading to little alteration in terms of players.

And even as time goes on past the ten years following the trade, the two sides still don’t change course. Yes, San Jose does part ways with both Todd McLellan and Doug Wilson, but in the year following their playoff miss, the Sharks are right back where they started, making the post-season after finishing 2nd in the new Pacific Division. The Flames, too, are still mired in the doldrums in that same Division, only saved from last place in the Pacific by the constant ineptitude of their rivals Edmonton. The Kiprusoff/Nabokov switch is a classic case of a massive change leading to pretty much the same outcome.


Next month, I look at one of the most notorious draft busts in history: What if the Montreal Canadiens drafted Denis Savard instead of Doug Wickenheiser?

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