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The preseason starts in slightly more than two weeks and that in turn has prompted a large and growing number of hockey publications reputable and otherwise to begin publishing their predictions for who will finish where in the standings.
There is, as you might expect, some disparity between each prediction, especially as it relates to the middle and, particularly, toward the top of the League. While this is a year in which it feels wise and just to rate the reigning Stanley Cup winners as especially clear favorites, which is something you can't always say despite the fact that everyone does it on an annual basis nonetheless, the fact of the matter is that the new playoff format, division changes, etc. are doing a lot to muddy the waters around the middle and even bottom of the standings.
There is, however, a pretty clear consensus as to who it is that will finish in the League's basement.
They are, obviously, the Calgary Flames, who have been spectacularly mediocre with delusions that they were on the very cusp of goodness for a period of a few years.
Only recently, as in "during the last four or five months," has Jay Feaster realized that the mandate that he try to build a playoff-worthy team was Sisyphian in nature, and finally stopped pushing the rock up the hill less than halfway to the top and instead let it roll over him, so that it could bounce down and down and down to the very bottom of the valley.
The hockey world seems in agreement that the Calgary Flames will be, to put it nicely, hot garbage this season. And with good reason: They were a semi-competent team in the first half of last season, with fenwick close numbers approaching 52 percent, meaning that they had 52 percent of non-blocked shot attempts at even strength when the score was close, and while that may seem counter-intuitive given how bad you perceived the team to have been, the good news is that the back half of the season more than made up for it. Only Dallas, Buffalo and Toronto had even comparably low fenwick close numbers in the second half, and Calgary dropped to slightly more than 44 percent, by far the biggest drop, both on a proportional and overall basis, in the entire league.
This, obviously, was right in line with the trades of Jay Bouwmeester and Jarome Iginla, as the team committed hard to the nosedive every rational observer had been screaming for in each of the prior two seasons.
Now the Flames enter the season prepared to run out more or less the same roster, except that they also swapped out Alex Tanguay for David Jones (a downgrade) and Cory Sarich for Shane O'Brien (maybe an upgrade but almost entirely because Sarich is a disaster at this point in his career, rather than anything O'Brien brings to the table).
There's plenty of reason to suspect that everything is going to go remarkably poorly: Matt Stajan is their No. 1 center, for starters.
That Matt Stajan, yes.
Mikael Backlund and two of several young-and-not-very-good guys are the Nos. 2-4. That's a problem. So too is the team's complete lack of defensive depth.
One area you'd think would be a major concern is goaltending, given the fact that they seem content with rolling a tandem of kind-of-rookie/pretty KHLer Kari Ramo and career backup's backup Joey MacDonald, with Miikka Kiprusoff having shuffled off the NHL career coil rather meekly and largely without fanfare. But in reality, the Calgary netminders' statistics last season were the worst in the league since people started keeping track of the statistics in question (a team save percentage of .889, and none of that is a typo). So while no sane team has ever said to themselves, "This guy who wasn't even the best goaltender last season in his weird foreign league that stinks and Joey MacDonald are our guys," those two goalies could absolutely stink next season — a very real possibility — and still be better than their predecessors by a pretty decent margin, which is kind of amazing if you think about it.
But here's the thing about those first- and second-half splits: Through 24 games, the Flames were still dead last in the West, and only two points ahead of the Florida Panthers. That's with their having performed relatively well in terms of possession. That they only picked up another 20 points in the final 24 games of the season might have even been a little generous.
This is a team that's going to be absolutely putrid, and their competition is about to get harder. Calgary is now loaded out of a division with softer opponents like the Avalanche and Oilers, who finished within three points of the Flames on either side, and into one that includes titans like San Jose and Los Angeles.
That this team wasn't the worst in its division before says a lot about the quality thereof, and that it's about to be the worst by a wide margin speaks volumes about the pummeling it has coming to it over the coming six-plus months.
Really, only the Panthers will give them a run for their money in this particular race to the bottom and they likewise come into a new division designed to beat their brains out, but given all the young talent on their NHL roster they've stockpiled from years of being "kind of bad" to "truly bad" (your Jonthan Huberdeaus, your Dmitry Kulikovs, your Erik Gudbransons, your Nick Bjugstads, your Aleksander Barkovs) while the Flames have Sven Baertschi and that's more or less it.
Calgary would have to be really and deeply bad, though, to get down into the low 60s or high 50s that have typified the worst teams of the shootout era. Those sides, like the 2005-06 St. Louis Blues (56 points and a minus-95 goal differential), 2006-07 Flyers (303 goals allowed), or 2008-09 Islanders (who won just nine road games all season), are going to be tough to stack up against.
To finish that badly, or really, anywhere safely in the bottom two or three, you need to get many unlucky (or, put another and more accurate way for this scenario, lucky) bounces over 82 games. I'm talking injuries to key players, running into opponents when they're at their hottest, and so forth. You also need to be willing to offload anyone even remotely good and over the age of 30 still on your roster at the deadline, and most of all you need a total organizational commitment to not being very good at all, and failing by putting kids as green as possible in high-leverage situations just to see how they do (then they have to perform like you'd expect).
However, that's what Calgary seems, at long last, to have committed to doing.
Years too late, sure, but they did it.
That's what should give Calgary fans who want them to bottom out as hard as humanly possible this season a little pause. When was the last time the Flames correctly did anything they set out to do?
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