The Calgary Flames have gone on a tear recently, picking up three straight wins to put them over .500 for the first time in a long time and, surprisingly enough, just two points shy of a playoff berth.
Does this mean the players have finally gotten on board with Coach Sutter's defense-first style of play and are executing the system effectively?
Or is this just a repeat of last year's too-little, too-late surge that got them oh-so-close to the postseason, but left them on the outside looking in for the second straight year?
My guess is the latter, not the former.
The Flames are suffering from two key problems: age and a bad game plan. Neither is easily correctable without making some significant changes.
Age is a major factor within the organization. The Flames' roster currently includes 10 players over the age of 30, including big-name talents Jarome Iginla, Alex Tanguay and Miikka Kiprusoff. Kipper, who is the oldest of the bunch at 35, has been the linchpin of the franchise since he was acquired during the 2003-2004 season.
However, his numbers last year were unremarkable and, notwithstanding a shutout Saturday night, this year he has the 21st-best save percentage in the NHL (.916) and 19th-best goals against average (2.40). On a team that is prioritizing defense, that's simply not good enough.
Iginla's story isn't much better.
The team captain's production is on pace to be his worst in more than a decade—Iggy's 21 points are only good enough for 58th-best in the league and the team needs more than that out of their undisputed leader.
Tanguay's offensive numbers are also down this year and, worse yet, his normally strong two-way play is also suffering—he's showing a minus-6 for the year, which would be the worst of his career.
In an NHL where clutch-and-grab play has largely been eliminated, the age of the team is showing, with the vets a step behind younger, faster teams. Kipper's days when he could put the entire team on his back and carry them single-handedly during rough patches are behind him.
As the trade deadline starts getting closer, some of the veterans who can round out a team with real playoff hopes need to get moved in favor of a younger, quicker, hungrier squad.
The other problem, as much as I hate to say it, is Brent Sutter.
Sutter is a great developmental coach, as evidenced by his success with the Red Deer Rebels in juniors as well as his two gold medals at the World Junior Championships. Pushing a defensive system on this team has only put them at 17th-best in the NHL for goals against, with 80, so it's just not working for this team.
A Flames team that can't put the puck in the net and whose core playing philosophy emphasizes defense over offense isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Sutter needs to go and he needs to be replaced with someone who will open up their style of play.
Not all is lost, however.
The team's defensive corps has a number of kids who should be entering their prime. Mark Giordano has had a slow start this year, but he is fully capable of being a 40-50 point guy every year.
Jay Bouwmeester has shown himself capable of putting up big numbers, if given a chance to go back to being a pure offensive defenseman and not worry so much about his defense. Anton Babchuk is solid at both ends of the ice and should just be entering his best years.
The Flames, I think, need to concede defeat this year and start making changes for the future.
Offloading aging veterans such as Iginla, Tanguay and Kiprusoff for younger talent with upside and loading up on draft picks is the way they need to go if they plan on competing for the Stanley Cup anytime soon.