Sometimes, change in professional sport is all about meticulous planning: An organization’s personnel get together in the off-season, realistically anticipates where it is at in the developmental cycle, and makes its plans accordingly.
Other times, however, change is simply thrust upon you.
The Calgary Flames entered that real-world twilight zone some time in the second period Tuesday against the Detroit Red Wings, when goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff tweaked something in his lower body and couldn’t start the third period. Leland Irving, in his eighth NHL appearance, came off the bench and stopped six shots to preserve a 4-1 win.
Officially, the Flames listed Kiprusoff as out “day-to-day” and described the injury as “short term.” In the meantime, they signed minor-league veteran Danny Taylor on Wednesday to back up Irving when Calgary visits the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday.
With Kiprusoff sidelined, the Flames get a glimpse into a future they know is coming, maybe sooner than expected.
Kiprusoff has just a year left on his contract, one of those “back-diving” deals the recent NHL-NHLPA labour dispute keyed on. In 2013-14, his salary drops to $1.5-million (U.S.) from $5-million. It is unclear if he’s prepared to pay for that rock-bottom number or, at 36, walk away from the NHL.
Along with team captain Jarome Iginla, Kiprusoff is one of the Flames’ two organizational beacons. In good times and bad, his goaltending gave the Flames their best chance to win most nights.
In the seven years between lockouts, Kiprusoff never played fewer than 70 games, and always won 35 or more.
He has been ultra-durable, which was why this recent injury was so unexpected. Irving (selected 26th overall in 2006) will finally get a chance to show if he’s ready for the NHL.
If it works out, the Flames get some answers to the question of life after Kiprusoff.
If it doesn’t, and the Flames (2-3-2, last in the Western Conference but only four points out of eighth) fall further off the pace, they may need to turn to Plan B and decide if this is the year they allow themselves to drift to the bottom of the standings.
It is a course of action that doesn’t get talked about much in Calgary: the possibility of finding a middle ground between a scorched earth rebuild and the organization’s standing mandate of staying competitive year after year. The challenge of doing so has left it open to considerable mockery around the NHL, where the prevailing wisdom is the only way to create a Stanley Cup contender is to bottom out periodically.
The reality is a team needs to do that just once: capitalize on its high draft choices and then go back to Plan A the next season. Consider the Philadelphia Flyers, who went from 101 points to 56 to 95 in the first three years coming out of the last lockout. Or the Colorado Avalanche, who went 95 points to 69 to 95 again in the middle three years.
On both occasions, the teams helped replenish their respective talent bases without enduring the numbing, never-ending sort of rebuild that has gone on with the New York Islanders or Edmonton Oilers.
Iginla is on an expiring contract and last month, during the abbreviated training camp, he and general manager Jay Feaster were on the same page: A contract extension was something they would discuss in the off-season. In the past, Iginla was signed, sealed and delivered before he came this close to unrestricted free agency – and so the door to a departure is open, if only a crack.
The Flames are a veteran team, patched together for the here-and-now, and really, really reluctant to ponder – publicly anyway – what raising the white flag might look like. But this is early February, and by the April 3 trade deadline, they should have some answers about their prospects for the season.
If they are grim, then maybe it’s time to take their medicine now – just this once – and see what the market might be for Iginla and/or Kiprusoff.
And if the shortened 48-game season represents a bottoming-out moment for the franchise, the possibility of landing a prospect such as Seth Jones, Nathan MacKinnon or Jonathan Drouin should be a well-received consolation prize.