Mark Twain may have had hockey and the Calgary Flames in mind when he said, “The reports of (my) death were an exaggeration.” Even though the Flames were left for dead around Christmas, they’ve completely turned things around and have not only disassociated themselves from the Oilers, but they’ve become a good bet to emerge as a playoff team come April. So what is the difference?
The Flames have won their last three games and five of their last six going into tonight’s game in Phoenix. Since Feaster took over the GM position on an interim basis on December 28th, the Flames have a sparkling 20-6-6 record for 46 points in 32 games. Contrast that to the 35 points the Flames had earned under the Darryl Sutter’s 37 games at the beginning of the year. What does that mean? They used to look like a rebuilding team like Florida Panthers; now they’re the Vancouver Canucks. They’ve gone from a team that fans thought should be rebuilding to a team who is competing for home-ice advantage in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. How did this happen?
There’s been some speculation that the Flames just needed someone else in the GMs chair. In Darryl Sutter, they had a strong personality who—well, has a strong personality. Just like a coaching change can change the atmosphere around a team, it looks like Jay Feaster’s (temporary) persona is wearing off on his team. Then again, winning is fun. So which is it—did the winning cause the improved atmosphere or did the improved atmosphere lead to the wins?
No matter which side of the question you fall on, it’s hard to argue against Feaster and the team’s performance since he took over. It also helps that his best players have been playing extremely well since he took over (that will make anyone look like a genius). Last week, Jarome Iginla became the 5th player in NHL history to score 30 goals in 10 straight seasons. Miikka Kiprusoff has survived a rocky start to the season and is tied with Carey Price with the most wins in the league (32). The rest of the team has been keeping pace and people have been making awful “red-hot Flames” puns for the better part of two months.
One of the secrets to Calgary’s success has been focusing on the here-and-now. Trying to make up that much ground in a short time span can be a daunting task, so they chose to go with a focused attack during their assent in the standings. Feaster relayed their strategy to Adrian Dater at SI.com:
“Our coach (Brent Sutter) put out a challenge to our team before a December 23 game in Dallas. It was: ‘Let’s win two out of three from here on out. Just focus on three-game blocks at a time.’ Since he put that challenge out there, our record is 21-6-6. When you take it out of the realm of ‘Boy, look at all these teams we’re chasing and have to climb over’, that new outlook kind of made it seem less daunting in the bigger picture. Let’s just look at now as a three-game playoff, and you have to win two out of three.”
Sometimes a team will flip a switch and we never really find an adequate explanation. In this case, we have a pretty clear separation between the embarrassing version of the team that started the season and the dangerous version of the team that is tearing through the Western Conference.
Calgary Flames President and CEO Ken King agreed with Jay Feaster before promoting him in December that the GM position would be on an interim basis for the rest of the year and they’d revisit the position at the end of the season. If the team keeps it up, the Flames organization may as well order that nameplate for Feaster’s office. He might be in Alberta for a while.