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Pucks and PR

Because hockey is more than just a game

Source: Calgary Herald

The Sutter era is over in Calgary. Not just because Darryl is gone or that reports say Duane is being let go as director of player development. No, the Sutter era mindset and system is over thanks to Jay Feaster and reshaped management group.

While Feaster is having an obvious impact on hockey operations, his impact on the Flames’ public image really began to emerge at last weekend’s NHL Draft.

The Flames’ biggest challenges from both operations and image standpoints, are salary cap issues, prospect shortage and on ice style.

Under Darryl Sutter, the Flames spent to the cap ceiling, drafted poorly or traded picks and built a team focused on grit. By the 2009-2010 season, fans were disenchanted with the Sutter system.

Jay Feaster started to address these issues at the draft. And in doing so, he has gotten Calgary’s attention.

Feaster is refreshingly open with fans and media. Like any good spokesperson, he acknowledges problems without dwelling on them. Feaster doesn’t attribute blame to Darryl Sutter, or use past decisions as excuses. Aside from being classy, he is being smart in doing so. While fans are more than willing to attribute blame to Sutter, if Feaster were to follow suit it would be a strategy quickly labelled as a copout.

As a GM without a history as an NHL player, Feaster has done well in establishing credibility in the Calgary market. His open communication is central to that, but another key piece is his commitment to a plan. Hockey fans love to hear that there is a plan – much like voters like to hear politicians have a plan. It shows an acknowledgment of issues, an understanding of the need for direction and a commitment to change.

And Feaster has put his plan into motion. From what I can see, his plan has three core components, and those components are the problems mentioned earlier.

Salary cap

The Flames are shackled to large contracts and an abundance of no movement/no trade clauses. Unfortunately for management, fans are all too aware of this – thanks a lot capgeek.com!

To address this reality, Feaster traded a cornerstone player (Robyn Regehr) and a seemingly untradeable salary cap killer (Ales Kotalik). With those players in Buffalo, Feaster was then able to resign Alex Tanguay to a long term deal and still have $7.5 million in cap space for July 1.

Losing Regehr is hard for the Flames. When a player’s career has been exclusively with one team fans get attached. But Feaster was open about it. He need to get out of ‘salary cap jail’, as he called it, and moving a contract like Kotalik’s doesn’t happen unless a more desirable player is included in the deal.

Prospects

Even more troubling than salary cap woes has been the dearth of NHL level talent in the Flames’ farm system.

Deals such as the Olli Jokinen trade from Phoenix left the draft pick cupboards bare, and when selections have been made, the players just haven’t panned out.

Feaster has said, refreshingly so for Flames fans, that he wants a younger team with better prospects. The youth component of the Regehr trade should hopefully offset some concern over losing such a strong shutdown guy. Both Chris Butler and Paul Byron are under 25 years old and can be looked at as legitimate prospects. Byron’s 26 goals and 53 points last season in the AHL also bode well for a team that lacks offensive depth.

For 2011, Feaster even added draft picks rather than trade them away. Although he lost a second round pick for 2012 in the Buffalo trade in order to offload Kotalik.

Adding Sven Baertschi in the draft, a player ranked seventh by NHL central scouting, has certainly started the rebuilding of the Flames farm system.

On ice style

This is a work in progress and is the result of the above two issues.

It’s hard to know how Feaster will address the need for more offense, but he has been open about the desire to do so. From an image perspective, that is good enough for now.

Fans don’t expect him to completely reshape the team in one offseason, especially when dealing with the salary and NMC/NTC issues he faces. However, they certainly expect it to be more than just words.

Trading for Byron, drafting Baertschi and resigning Tanguay were all good moves this weekend to show he means what he says. All three of those players bring strength to the offensive now and in the future.

But the Flames still look a lot like Darryl Sutter. To become the team Feaster says he wants, there will need to be more than tinkering. What happens on July 1 and into the summer will truly shape how fans view Feaster’s commitment to moving away from the Sutter brand of hockey.

Feaster is expected to deliver a winning team. And he has said he will. But more important, he has changed the atmosphere in Calgary.

The Flames have moved from a team shrouded in secrecy, to one that includes contract details in press releases. The tone of coverage by Calgary media has changed from highly critical to cautiously optimistic. And fans are buying into what Feaster is selling. They acknowledge it might not happen right away, but there is a plan.

Funny how a little open and honest communication can change gloom to hope in a hockey mad market.

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