Sunday, June 09, 2013

Iginla Post-Mortem - A Dozen Thoughts

Jarome Iginla's Stanley Cup dream is dead for another season. This isn't an autopsy of how it died as much as it is a reflection back on his 73 days with Pittsburgh, which all began that weird Wednesday night at the Saddledome on March 27. You'll remember the night, the Flames-Avs game was nothing more than the occasional diversion from everyone's main focus of trying to figure out where Iginla, a healthy scratch, was going to be traded. Ultimately landing with the Penguins despite rumours that had him most certainly going to Boston -- and what a fiasco that was, his season in black and gold came to a screeching halt on June 7 in Pittsburgh's stunning sweep at the hands of the Bruins in the Eastern Conference final.

Before I get to my dozen thoughts on Iginla's time with the Penguins, let me preface it by saying that I have only the utmost respect for everything he has accomplished in his 16 NHL seasons. Iginla is a future hall-of-famer whose accomplished nearly everything except winning the Stanley Cup. As the face of a Flames franchise that has enjoyed very little post-season success the last two-plus decades, it couldn't have been easy standing up and answering to the media after every loss, especially in a passionate, scrutinizing, hockey-mad market like Calgary. Yet, he did so and always with class.

A Genuine Good Guy

As good a player as Iginla was on the ice, he's always been a better person off it, right from his first media scrum as an 18-year-old in April 1996 after his NHL debut in the playoffs against Chicago (which I'll always remember was kicked off by local sports radio/TV reporter John Henderson with the question, "What was more exciting, your first NHL game or wearing Jim Peplinski's old number?"), to his lengthy and heartfelt farewell address the morning after the trade, as he packed up his things and departed for Pennsylvania. Iginla was always a true gentleman to deal with and in the Calgary media, we have been spoiled compared to the antagonistic relationships some other markets have had over the years with their star player(s).

No, Jarome is never going to be confused with the likes of Chris Chelios, Jeremy Roenick or Brett Hull -- guys us media types love because of their propensity to speak first, think later. Rarely did we get anything too candid from the self-censoring Iginla, instead getting a lot of cliches, a lot of rinse and repeat from the previous game. Just like his nine years as the Flames captain, his play on the ice is always what spoke loudest.

A Dozen Thoughts on Iginla's Time In Pittsburgh

1. A Date to Forget

Let's face it, June 7 isn't a day Iginla will ever have fond memories of. His best two chances to win a Stanley Cup, so far, have both ended on this fateful day.
  • June 7, 2004 - It was a Monday night, Calgary had just blown a chance to win the Stanley Cup at home on Saturday losing 3-2 in double overtime. Now they were back in sunny Tampa Bay for game 7. Down 2-0 after two, Craig Conroy scored in the third but that was as close as they got. It ended 2-1 and the Flames Cinderella run came up one game shy.
  • June 7, 2013 - So used to having a Finnish goaltending saviour in the net behind him, this time the unflappable Finn was in the opposition net and Boston's Tuukka Rask had the playoff series of a lifetime stopping 133 of 135 shots in the Bruins four-game sweep. Last time Pittsburgh were held to a paltry two goals over a four-game span was Oct. 31 to Nov. 7, 1973, back when the roles of Crosby, Malkin, and Letang were played by Syl Apps, Jean Pronovost and Ron Stackhouse.

2. An Aging Chassis

What makes Iginla an impactful player is his hard-nosed style and all-round power game. He can score -- 530 career goals, and he's also tough, willing to drop the gloves and go toe-to-toe with anyone -- 63 scraps on his NHL fight card. In his prime, it seemed like he would put the team on his back and could will the Flames to victory.

But, carrying the weight of a franchise's high expectations on one's shoulders for well over a decade isn't healthy, nor is Iginla's gritty style of game conducive to career longevity. There are vehicles that have been 'highway driven' and remain in good condition forever. Iginla is more like a 4x4 half-ton, which has been driven only on gravel roads. The wear and tear adds up and as the playoffs wore on, the soon-to-be 36-year-old couldn't seem to find that extra gear he once had. That left Pittsburgh with a vehicle that despite reasonable mileage, just looked like it had been driven too hard for too long.

3. Beyond the Numbers, Part 1 - Regular Season

Iginla put up decent numbers during his one month of regular season action in Pittsburgh. The challenge of adjusting to a new team, new system and new conference mitigated by the benefits of getting to play alongside offensive dynamos like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni MalkinKris Letang, James Neal and Chris Kunitz. However, was it as impressive as it looked? 
  • On the surface: Had five goals and 11 points in 13 regular season games with Pittsburgh -- that's a good pace.
  • Below the surface: Four of his five goals came on the power play and seven of his 11 points came against non-playoff teams. (Two of his five goals were against Buffalo, five of his six assists were against Carolina and Tampa Bay.)

4. Beyond the Numbers, Part 2 - The Playoffs

Iginla's regular season scoring pace continued into the first round of the playoffs against the New York Islanders. However, the deeper Pittsburgh progressed, his production tailed off and it seemed to happen during those pivotal moments in the post-season when the Penguins needed him the most -- and was part of the impetus in General Manager Ray Shero making the deal to acquire him and add that offensive depth.
  • On the surface: Had four goals and 12 points in 15 playoff games
  • Below the surface: Two of the goals and nine of the points came against the 8th seed Islanders, playing in the post-season for the first time in six seasons. Over the final two series, Iginla had just 2 goals and 1 assist and one of the goals was a meaningless power-play tally late in the third period of a 7-3 blowout of the Senators.

5. Plus and Minus of it All

Regular season and playoffs combined, Iginla played 28 games with the Penguins, scoring nine goals and racking up 23 points. However, only three of those goals came at even strength. That's a pace of only eight even-strength goals over an 82-game season.

The man advantage was the source of many of the points for Iginla, who finished the playoffs minus-4, worst among Pittsburgh's forwards and better only than Deryk Engelland (minus-6). Iginla was a plus player in only four of Pittsburgh's 15 post-season games.

6. Diminishing Ice Time

If you look back over his last 12 seasons, Iginla had received less than 14 minutes of ice time in a game just eight times.  The first three were all games in which Iginla left the game early due to injury (Mar. 20/03 - shoulder, Jan. 17/04 - leg, Jan. 4/07 - ankle). His only 'legitimate' sub-14 minute game with Calgary was Feb. 13 of this year against Dallas. That night in which he finished at 13:01, he also spent seven minutes in the penalty box.

The other four games in which Iginla had less than 14 minutes time-on-ice were with the Penguins and it came in four of Pittsburgh's final six playoff games. In fact, he would have been below 14 minutes in five of the last six as he was only at 12:34 TOI after three periods the night of the double-OT game. On the night Pittsburgh was eliminated, Iginla had a season-low 15 shifts and played a mere 11:16. 

7. Boston Too Strong

Iginla certainly had plenty of company in the category of underachiever versus the Bruins but the final numbers for Iginla in the series in which Pittsburgh desperately needed some complementary scoring with Malkin/Crosby stifled, were just not good enough -- no points, just five shots, and a minus-4.

8. Debating Iginla's Usage

Could Iginla have had a bigger impact with a greater role and more minutes? How he was used, especially as the playoffs marched on, will be one of the things scrutinized when assessing the performance of Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma. We've seen many examples over the years of guys who are more effective when they play more. But, was Iginla deserving of more playing time? That's the counter argument and I'm of the school of thought that no, not really.

Was playing him on left wing a mistake? Should he have seen more time with Crosby in an attempt to conjure up some Vancouver 2010 gold medal magic? Why did his power-play minutes seem to dry up in the third round? It would be interesting to see Iginla re-sign with Pittsburgh next year just to see what he could do over a full season. I just don't think that is going to happen.

9. Flames Traded High - Sorta

Without question, trading Iginla a few years earlier while he still had term left on his contract and had younger legs would have netted the Flames a much greater return than what they ultimately ended up with this year at the trade deadline. That said, the way Iginla's closing three weeks of the playoffs went and his decreased role, the Flames came away with a better haul than they would have otherwise.

The game in which Pittsburgh was eliminated was Iginla's 59th game of the year. In a normal season, the NHL trade deadline is historically around the 60-game mark. Granted, Iginla wouldn't have been being used as a third liner in Calgary, but I'd argue the Flames do not get a first rounder and two prospects from the Penguins if that trade is made today.

10. Net Results of 'The Trade'

It will be years before we know if Calgary ends up winning the trade with Pittsburgh but given the harsh and sudden departure of the Penguins from the post-season this year -- and with Iginla destined for unrestricted free agency, there will be no scenario in which the Flames end up losing the trade.

Will Ben Hanowski and/or Kenny Agostino find a niche in the NHL and have a prolonged impact in a Flames uniform? It is certainly possible but far from certain. Early reviews have been great and Hanowski showed in his cup of coffee with Calgary in April that he has a nose for the net and a scoring touch. For me, it's the 1st round draft pick in this year's draft, which will be 28th overall, which could really make it a great deal for the Flames. Selected 28th in the draft in the past were Corey Perry and Justin Williams so getting a guy of that ilk that late in the first round, while rare, is certainly possible. Others chosen at No. 28 like Matt Niskanen and Nick Foligno would work out just fine, too.

11. What Does the Future Hold?

Admittedly, this is not the same opinion I would have had if you asked me six weeks ago but the way things unfolded in the Steel City, I'd be shocked if Iginla finds his way back to Pittsburgh as an unrestricted free agent this summer. Those favourable first impressions were put to bed long ago and an irritated 'what have you done for me lately' Penguins fan base will not be too receptive to bringing back the same parts that didn't get it done, especially in the case of Iginla, who would need to be re-signed and whose role became so reduced. 

Boston, having seen No. 12 up close for four games, likely won't be too interested any longer, either, unless it's a very economical contract accompanied by expectations of less significant role. My gut says Iginla ends up back in the West but it won't necessarily be on the contender he wants -- previously agreeing to be traded to Chicago and L.A., as ultimately a team needs to want the player just as much as the player wants the team. It will be an interesting storyline to follow this summer, that's for sure, with Flames fans hoping that of all places, Iginla doesn't end up signing three hours up the highway to the north and playing for his hometown.

12. The Next Contract - What will be the Number?

I'm intrigued to see what kind of contract Iginla commands this summer. To play for a Stanley Cup contender, he most certainly will have to accept a reduced role and such a reduction would apply to his salary too. That said, NHL general managers are an unpredictable lot at the best of times and it only takes one who feels Jarome still has plenty left in the tank for him to get a big contract similar to what he just had. My prediction is something in the $3 to $4-million range for two or three years, which could turn out to be a steal although just as likely could end up being a contract a team will regret.

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