by George Johnson
The process began to intensify six weeks ago, an-hour-and-a-half’s drive west down Highway 1 in Banff.
And won’t see a drop-off for an additional six, minimum.
After all, the NHL draft is creeping ever closer, less than a month away at American Airlines Center in Big D. The check/re-check/triple-check behind-the-scenes spadework required to possibly inject new blood into the lineup via free agency, opening July 1, is also in full swing.
There are current players to evaluate. Proposals to mull over. Feelers to throw out.
As well, incoming head honcho Bill Peters needs to finalize two assistants to his coaching staff.
“Obviously,” says Flames’ VP of Hockey Operations Don Maloney, “it’s a busy, busy time right now.
“We were all very, very disappointed with the way the season went. That’s no secret. It wasn’t good enough.
“So we started at the top and worked all the way down, evaluating everything – from how we look at individual players – here, outside, in Stockton – to the team we have currently, how we play in relation to the direction the game is headed, and tried to come up with ways to be better.
“First thing, you evaluate your team, dispassionately. Then you look at the free-agency market coming up, understanding you can’t build your team that way but there might be one or two pieces you’d like to add to make a difference.
“Right now we’re looking at value. Who’s under-priced in today’s market and how do we get that player. Might not necessarily be the big names – that home-run guy – but there are players who are interesting to us.
“The bigger thing we’re doing right now with the pro staff is going through each team and identifying trading partners.”
The Flames faded down the stretch to miss out on the post-season party by 11 points in a tightly-bunched Western Conference.
“We need a little more scoring,” reckons Maloney, “help on the top couple lines and the lower lines need to be quicker and more productive.
“Even the mix on our blueline needs attention. We were a team that looked great on paper in that department, but we did not perform that way.
“So we need to look hard at the people and how we’re coached, how we play. And with a new coach coming in, there’s a lot to get a handle on.”
The analysis process is painstaking.
“Every team has a skeleton – a map, so to speak – of how to build your team,” says Maloney. “What do we want in, say, a second line? What are the attributes a certain player has that fit the outline you want?
“To me, that’s how the game has changed most in the last 10-15 years. Ten years ago a team’s fourth line would’ve been a face-off role player and a tough guy; the third line that checking line. Pretty standard stuff for a long, long time, right?
“Now, all four lines have to be able score and to play with pace.
“So the whole model, the dynamic, is different.
“The second part that has changed the landscape are analytics and how they play into the evaluation process. Analytics are, simply, better than ever before. Chris Snow runs our analytics department and is excellent at what he does, how he looks at games and numbers to identify who’s doing what.
“It’s become a very important piece in evaluating and acquiring players. If we had this conversation five years ago you wouldn’t be paying much attention to it. Now, it’s essential; critical to making better decisions.
“If you were Billy Bean back with the Oakland A’s 20 years ago using analytics when nobody else was, you had a real edge. Now everybody does their homework. Diligently. But it’s also how you use it and how much weight you put on it.
“I think there’s a balance, a ratio. You can’t just rely on analytics and you can’t go strictly by the eye-test.
“There are boxes we have to fill.”
The significant off-season dates are quickly closing in and the work is ongoing.
“We’re not,” Maloney reminds you, “the only team terribly disappointed. There’s probably 20 of ’em just like us and another 10 upset that they didn’t win the Cup.
“So from now until July 1 is the time to improve your team, make your deals, formulate your plan moving forward.
“We have to be better. Simple as that.
“Not only because we didn’t get to where we wanted to last year but also because you have to assume everyone else is going to be better this year, too.”