Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Flames Preview: Akim Aliu Autograph Card

This will likely be the preface to all of this year's Season Preview posts: 2020 is a different beast and requires adaptability; in my case, it means the joint posts with my "main/personal" blog will not be in the "player here/analysis there" format but rather the entire scope of the analysis will take place here and the player will have some sort of direct connection to what's written. Two more caveats: at this point, the NHL has not even confirmed the division make-ups yet despite the season being set to start a month from now, and several impact players such as 25-to-30-goal scorer Mike Hoffman and 20-goal journeyman forward Anthony Duclair, among others, haven't found a team yet. And quite a few teams are currently above the salary cap, which means there is much maneuvering left to do.

That being said, let's start with the one division we're pretty sure is going to happen if only because of the border situation, the Canadian/North Division, and the Calgary Flames.

Calgary has been trending downwards since looking overmatched in the 2019 playoffs against a much better and faster Colorado Avalanche team, with the entire first line of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm appearing to be in the midst of mid-life crises.

What makes their odds look good:
GM Brad Treliving was faced with a huge dilemme: which team is the real Flames, the one which finished with the second-best offense and ninth-best defense in the league in 2018-19, or the 20th-best offense and 18th defense in 2019-20? Instead of betting on one and hoping for the best, he retooled his defense and added the best goalie on either the free agent or trade market - legitimate Vezina contender Jacob Markstrom - so that even if Gaudreau and Monahan have dropped from 90-point producers to 65-point players, the back end will be able to compensate by shutting the door more effectively in the defensive zone, at least.

Also, it's now clear that Mark Giordano no longer has to both anchor the blue line and be the team's heart and soul - that latter task now rests on the younger shoulders of Matthew Tkachuk, and he relishes it.

Speaking of the back end, T.J. Brodie and Travis Hamonic may have left as free agents duing the offseason, but Rasmus Andersson and Juuso Valimaki are ready to take their place, with Noah Hanifin completing what remains one of the best top-fours in the league, definitely in the top-10.

Question marks:
Is Geoff Ward an NHL-level head coach and if not, how does a team make a change in a Covid-19, two-week quarantine world?

Can Gaudreau bounce back?

Markstrom is an improvement over Cam Talbot between the pipes, the defense got five years younger but remains as good, and there is some depth - Tkachuk, Andrew Mangiapane, Mikael Backlund, playoff Sam Bennett showcasing his stuff for a Seattle expansion draft, Dillon Dubé - up front. I just always expect the Flames to fire their coach and hire a Sutter to take them to a Stanely Cup Final.

In a Canadian division, Calgary is not as good as the Vancouver Canucks, not as deep as the Montréal Canadiens and lack the star power of the Edmonton Oilers; I see them fighting with the Toronto Maple Leafs for the final playoff spot and I believe the team that takes the season series wins the berth, and I believe the Flames can etch out one more win than the Leafs.

Fourth in the Canadian Division.

Akim Aliu may have left the Flames organization in 2013, but he has had an impact on the team as recently as last season, one which is still felt today, as his outing of the abuse head coach Bill Peters in November, following the dismissal of Mike Babcock from the Leafs; Peters was replaced by Ward, who may or may not be in over his head at the NHL level.

If you don't know Aliu's story, I urge you to read his side of it first, so that if you do form an initial opinion, it is at least based on your perception of his side of it. From the language barrier as a kid to growing up poor in two countries to the Steve Downie incident in Juniors to the Peters incident in the AHL, it is a testament that, yes, hockey is tough on many, but more so on people of colour, who still have to struggle with oftentimes worse socio-economical situations and the weight of slurs often having the meaning of "less than human" attached to them.

He's 31 years old at this point, for all intents and purposes removed from an NHL job for having spent most of his development and prime years just trying to keep a job in the lower echelons of the sport - and I recall instances where the Toronto media would try to help him by interviewing him in October, as he was still searching for a job, practising with local Juniors or University teams hoping for an NHL GM to call, instead answering the bell to play abroad. His skill-set still has him dominate in the ECHL, but he's more of a middle-of-the-linup AHLer or Tier II European star at this point, whereas he would have (probably) been a dependable middle-six NHLer if given a proper chance.

Regardless of the angle you take it on, hockey has to be an inclusive sport. If only for the economics, you want as many people as possible to purchase gear, apparel, and memorabilia, but the marketing of the sport also needs every kid to be able to dream they have a spot in it if they want it; on an HR level, why would you go out of your way to reduce the pool of candidates for any given job, especially since hiring someone that doesn't fit in the traditional mold might be what's needed to provide a new train of thought that gives you the outside edge. It's gotten better and easier for Russians and Eastern Bloc hockey folks to make it in North America, but it's also time kids from decrepit rinks in poor parts of Toronto and Winnipeg, people from the Far North and other Indeginous peoples to also get the access to a fair shake.

Jay Feaster was on the right side of many a one-sided move as GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Flames, including a deal to loan Aliu from the Winnipeg Jets to try him out and then send John Negrin for his actual rights, and with 3 points and 12 penalty minutes in two games in 2011-12 and another 14 PIMs in 5 games in 2012-13, he knew he had a guy who would stand his ground to keep his spot, but he lost his footing - a contending team going into a sudden rebuild due to inuries to starting goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, a tight salary cap that cost depth inn the middle of the lineup and young guys like Giordano, Brodie and Backlund taking just a tad too long to develop - and had to trade away Hall Of Fame captain Jarome Iginla before losing his job. I personally would have loved to see Iginla and Steve Bégin take Aliu under their wings and mesh his natural talent and determination with an irreproachable work ethic that would have made this sight one that lasts 8 years instead of 8 games:
That's the signed insert version of card #109 from Upper Deck's 2012-13 SP Game-Used Edition set and Authentic Rookies sub-set. It features an on-sticker blue-sharpied autograph and shows hi wearin gthe team's classic red uniform.

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