By Allan Muir
Tuesday night’s 4-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings may have been the high point of the season for the struggling Calgary Flames. But the victory was soured when veteran netminder Miikka Kiprusoff was forced to leave early after suffering a lower body injury.
After the game, coach Bob Hartley was unsure of the extent of the injury, saying Kiprusoff would be evaluated today.
So maybe it’s nothing major. A little tweak, maybe a day or two on the sidelines and the Flames’ all-time wins leader is back between the pipes.
But what if it’s something serious, something that keeps Kiprusoff out for weeks or months? Would that really be the worst possible outcome for a team that’s relied on him to start 90 percent of its games over the last seven years?
Not at all. In fact, it might be the best thing that could happen to the franchise.
Here’s the grim reality: The Flames haven’t made the playoffs in three seasons, and they haven’t advanced past the first round since their terrific Stanley Cup Final run back in 2004.
That was a team led by Jarome Iginla and Kiprusoff, a couple of warriors in their primes. But here they are now, nine years later, being asked to perform the same roles. The results show that it’s a lousy recipe. Iginla hadn’t scored until Tuesday night and Kiprusoff has been brutal, needing two strong periods against the Red Wings to boost his save percentage to a miserable .870.
Even with the win, and a strong performance against Chicago on Saturday, no one in Calgary should kid themselves. Sure, the Flames could catch lightning in a bottle and sneak into the playoffs, but this is not a team built for success now.
More to the point, it’s not a team built for success in the future.
For some reason, GM Jay Feaster can’t seem to see what the rest of the hockey world does. His team is built around a couple of aging tentpoles that shouldn’t be expected to bear the same load they did a decade ago. But even as their value dwindles, he seems more concerned about not being known as the guy who traded these two legends than he is about the health of the franchise. So Feaster continues to spackle over the problems by signing overpriced free agents like Dennis Wideman or long-shots like Roman Cervenka, and making ill-advised trades for the likes of Matt Stajan and Mike Cammalleri.
It’s a plan alright, but it makes as much sense as Super Gluing your six-year-old’s loose tooth in place so it won’t fall out before picture day.
So maybe this ends up being a fortuitous event. Fate has yanked the tooth for him. Now Feaster can get a no-risk taste of what life might be like for the Flames without their workhorse netminder.
Maybe Leland Irving, the former first-rounder, is ready to assume a larger role. Before Kipper’s injury, there was no way of knowing. Kiprusoff probably would have started all 48 games. Maybe Kari Ramo, who is playing in the KHL, is the answer. Or maybe it’s Danny Taylor, the 26-year-old British-born keeper who has put up sterling numbers (1.77 GAA, .930 save percentage) with Abbotsford of the AHL.
(It tells you how ill-prepared Feaster was for this situation that he had to sign Taylor on Wednesday morning. After trading Henrik Karlsson to the Blakchawks, the Flames were the only NHL team without a No. 3 goalie under contract in North America. Brilliant planning.)
And if it’s not one of those three netminders, there are other options. Maybe it’s a trade for Ben Bishop or Jonathan Bernier. It could be someone else. But it has to be someone with a future.
Moving on from legends is scary. So are rebuilds because there are no guarantees. A few good drafts could yield championship-caliber pieces like they did in Chicago and Pittsburgh. Or maybe the team ends up in a perpetual state of hopelessness like the Islanders.
But there’s no upside at all to doing nothing. A year or two down the road, Kiprusoff and Iginla will skate off into the sunset leaving nothing but good memories and a pair of empty lockers.
If Kiprusoff is hurt, Feaster will learn that life goes on. And if he’s not, maybe the GM uses this as a wake-up call.
One way or another, change is coming for the Flames. Better it be under Feaster’s terms.