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1990-96 Calgary Flames: most underachieving team ever?

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Old
09-08-2010, 10:41 PM
  #1
Mayor Bee
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1990-96 Calgary Flames: most underachieving team ever?

For about six years after the Flames won the Cup in 1989, it seemed like they never could quite hit the same level of performance in spite of a still-impressive supply of talent. I always swore that I would re-analyze once something close to proper historical context could be done, and I'd say that, 15 years later, it's safe to look back.

In that Stanley Cup year, Calgary had 117 points and won the Presidents Trophy. They went 5-1-2 in the regular season against Vancouver, but needed into overtime of the seventh game to (not really) prevail. Give them credit for storming through the rest of the playoffs and winning the Cup though. After the year, Hakan Loob went back to Europe.

In 1989-90, Calgary had 99 points (first in the Campbell, second overall), the highest-scoring offense in the league, and the 4th-fewest goals allowed. Loob's 85 points were replaced with Sergei Makarov and his 86 points, and several other young players continued to develop. In spite of going 4-3-1 against Los Angeles in the regular season, they lost in six games (again, not really).

In 1990-91, Calgary had 100 points, the best offense, and the sixth-best defense. As was the case the year prior, they lost to a team (Edmonton) they'd won the season series against by a 4-3-1 margin.

1991-92 was a disaster.

1992-93 saw Calgary bounce back to some extent, finishing second in the division with 97 points. They split the season series with Los Angeles (3-3-1), but lost to them in the first round in six games.

1993-94 featured a better Flames team, as several key players were in the prime of their careers. 97 points was good enough for second in the West, but yet another first-round exit to an inferior team spoiled it. Calgary was 4-2-1 against Vancouver in the regular season, but lost in seven after blowing a 3-1 series lead.

Calgary finished atop the division again and second in the West in 1994-95, but lost to San Jose in seven games in the first round (3-1 against in the regular season).

And in 1995-96, Calgary finished second in the division (below .500, but still second). Paired off against a Chicago team they were 2-0-2 against in the regular season, they were swept in four.

Looking at the talent available to the Flames, both in terms of the top lines and in terms of depth, this chronology of failure is astonishing. Theo Fleury, Joe Nieuwendyk, Al MacInnis, Gary Roberts, Mike Vernon, Joel Otto, and Gary Suter were there for either all or most of this time frame, and the depth players weren't replaced with inferior versions.

What's even more astonishing is the home and road records. The following are the splits, starting in the 1987-88 season. Points breakdown is in parentheses.

1987-88 - 26-11-3 home, 22-12-6 road (55/50)
1988-89 - 32-4-4 home, 22-13-5 road (68/49)
1989-90 - 28-7-5 home, 14-16-10 road (61/38)
1990-91 - 29-8-3 home, 17-18-5 road (61/39)
1991-92 - 19-14-7 home, 12-23-5 road (45/29)
1992-93 - 23-14-5 home, 20-16-6 road (51/46)
1993-94 - 25-12-5 home, 17-17-8 road (55/42)
1994-95 - 15-7-2 home, 9-10-5 road (32/19)
1995-96 - 18-18-5 home, 16-19-6 road (41/38)

Was Calgary simply too inconsistent to put a sustained run together? Were they unable to handle the adversity of the playoffs, as the sizable home/road splits in the regular season might indicate? Was it simply a lot of bad luck that just happened to fall in what appears to be a pattern but really isn't?

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09-08-2010, 11:00 PM
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Coaching and Goaltending

Two reasons why the Calgary Flames underachieved between 1990 and 1996.

Coaching. Starting with Doug Risebrough in 1991, then Dave King - 1992 and Pierre Page - 1995 the Flames lacked stable and solid coaching.

Goaltending. After 1986 and 1989 Mike Vernon looked like a Billy Smith type goaltender that could step-up in the playoffs. Rarely happened.

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09-09-2010, 01:15 AM
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Vernon was awful. In the years between the 1989 Cup and his trade from Calgary, there were a lot of rumblings that he was drinking and partying way too much, and his performance on the ice didn't do anything to quell those rumours. Save % fell into the .870s (despite playing for a powerhouse) in 1989-90 and 1990-91, and his playoff performances were generally terrible.

MacInnis also struggled to duplicate his 1989 form and turned in a string of very average playoff performances.

Basically, they kept scoring a ton in the playoffs (check out some of the numbers Fleury put up in losing causes) but defense and especially goaltending really let them down when it mattered. And yeah, lack of a quality coach was likely a part of that as well.

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09-09-2010, 01:37 AM
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Vernon was really a mediocre/bad goalie. I've watched a lot of classic games from various years with Mike Vernon and they really make this guy look pretty bad.

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09-09-2010, 05:37 AM
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Not to mention their god awful draft record. Between 89-95 the best players they drafted were Stillman, Reichel and Svehla (who didnt play one game for them). Dont forget about the Gilmour trade too.

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09-09-2010, 09:25 AM
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I don't know, it's difficult for me to say that they are the most underachieving when the 1998-08 Ottawa Senators existed.

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09-09-2010, 11:16 AM
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One of the reasons why the Flames lost in 91 to the Oilers in 7 games was becasue Fleury had an injury he refused to heal. I remember reading in his book he said he didnt want to miss the last couple games of the year because he wanted to hit 50 goals and get a bonus. He ended up getting the bonus but playing average in the playoffs except for his O.T goal. I was very young when the Flames bombed those years but I remember after the lockout the Flames had one of the best home records but a terrible road record. Seems to be consistent through out the history of the team. Would anyone know why?

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09-09-2010, 11:47 AM
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Coaching

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Originally Posted by IggyFan12 View Post
One of the reasons why the Flames lost in 91 to the Oilers in 7 games was becasue Fleury had an injury he refused to heal. I remember reading in his book he said he didnt want to miss the last couple games of the year because he wanted to hit 50 goals and get a bonus. He ended up getting the bonus but playing average in the playoffs except for his O.T goal. I was very young when the Flames bombed those years but I remember after the lockout the Flames had one of the best home records but a terrible road record. Seems to be consistent through out the history of the team. Would anyone know why?
Inevitably comes down to coaching - match-ups, game management, line changes, etc.. Harder to do on the road.


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09-09-2010, 02:07 PM
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You look at the talent they had, and there's no doubt they should have won more. They were victims of circumstances before 1989 - years in which the top two or three teams in the league were in the Smythe. 88, for example. Top three teams in the league in 85 were in the Smythe. They should have waltzed to the Cup in 86 after beating Edmonton, but that series against Edmonton was their Stanley Cup. They had nothing left after that series, and it showed. They barely beat a St. Louis team that they should have overwhelmed. And then they were fairly easy pickings for Roy's Habs.

1990 might have been the year with the most unbalance between the Smythe and the rest of the league. The Patrick was abysmal, the Norris was starting to emerge, but nobody had more than a marginal shot of beating a playoff team in the Smythe, and outside of Boston, nobody in the Adams was going to challenge a team from the Smythe, either. It was that stacked. Calgary should have dispatched LA fairly quickly - the Smythe strength is no excuse for Calgary losing that series.

Years like 1991, 1993 and 1995 should have yielded a Calgary first round series victory. For whatever reason, Calgary had problems with Edmonton, and the year in which they beat Edmonton (86), they had nothing left. In 89, they didn't have to go through Edmonton.

1994 was a great opportunity. Whoever wins that first round series between Vancouver and Calgary goes to the final. Especially after Detroit was dispatched by San Jose. (Although Vancouver or Calgary would have beaten Detroit. Canucks and Flames were built for the playoffs. Detroit was not). Anyone with a feel for the game knew that Vancouver would dispose of Dallas and Toronto. It was just a matter of how many games it would take. And anyone would have known that Calgary would have quickly taken care of Toronto, San Jose or Dallas.

Vancouver was a dangerous team in 1994. They started the year in 7-1 and then went into cruise control. They had been eliminated from the playoffs in the second round the two previous years, and then it sunk in: regular season records mean nothing. You win the division? That's nice. But you play regular season games to make the playoffs. And your season is ultimately judged on what you do in April, May, and if you make it that far, June. The Canucks could have played all-out hockey from October to April, won the division, picked up the 1 or 2 seed in the conference, and then hoped they had enough for the playoffs. Instead, they had the hot start, and then coasted to a seventh place finish. Their run wasn't a fluke; it was a reflection of expectations from the start of the season. When they wanted to turn it up, they did. When they felt the need for a statement game, they had one. I went to a game in which they lost 4-2 to a bad Hartford team. Two nights later, they travelled to Detroit and won 6-3. Yeah, they were mad because they played poorly against Hartford. But they also wanted to use that Detroit game to send a message, and they did by soundly beating an excellent regular season team.

Calgary's loss to San Jose in 1995 will confound me until the day I die. Calgary was still strong. San Jose was a borderline playoff team. It was Calgary's last shot, and they lost in seven to a team they should have defeated in five. From the start of the series, you had this sense that it wasn't there for the Flames.

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09-09-2010, 04:35 PM
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tony d
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Calgary should have won at least 1 more Cup in the early 90's. Seems they where always a top team in the regular season. They certainly had the talent to do in those years.

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09-09-2010, 06:17 PM
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Kyle McMahon
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Originally Posted by popculturereference View Post
I don't know, it's difficult for me to say that they are the most underachieving when the 1998-08 Ottawa Senators existed.
Except that Ottawa made one final and very nearly another. Calgary not winning even one playoff round after their Cup is what makes them stand out as all-time underchievers.

Poor goaltending has been mentioned, and this is why Mike Vernon, despite his two Cups and Smythe, will never get my support as a HOFer. This guy lost his job to Jeff Reese of all people in the midst of the 1993 debacle against the Kings.

A complete lack of killer instinct has to be brought up as well. Calgary's OT record during the span in question was an appalling 1-9, including three Game 7 losses in the extra session, all of them on home ice.

In 1991, the Flames built a quick 3-0 lead on the Oilers and looked to be on their way. Esa Tikkanen then proceeded to score a hat trick, including the OT winner.

The Flames led the Canucks 3-1 in games in 1994 before dropping three straight in OT. They led Game 7 with under five minutes to play, but allowed the Canucks to tie and then eventually win the game.

The Flames fell behind 2-0 to San Jose in 1995, but absolutely crushed them three straight to take control of the series. But they couldn't finish it off and found themselves back on home ice in Game 7 where Ray Whitney's seeing-eye shot from the half boards somehow eluded Trevor Kidd in double OT.

Leadership and coaching definitely have to be scrutinized when a team manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory repeatedly like that.

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09-09-2010, 06:26 PM
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Tell me about it......

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09-09-2010, 06:37 PM
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but what happened to this team, especially pre-gilmour trade? it's such a strange thing because you had fleury, who was often the only really good flame in the playoffs those years, guys like gilmour and nieuwendyk, who went on to great playoff success, and guys with healthy to great playoff resumes like macinnis, mccrimmon, suter, macoun, otto, roberts, makarov if you count international competition, and yes vernon.

most of those guys already knew how to win, they were all looked on as leaders on very good teams at some point in their careers. you wouldn't expect that group to lack a killer instinct, with three past or future conn smythes on the roster.

did the loss of loob, and later mullen really make that much of a difference? could it really have been the leadership vaccuum after the departure of mcdonald, peplinski, and ramage? complacency because everyone already had theirs?

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09-09-2010, 06:45 PM
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Vernon was really a mediocre/bad goalie. I've watched a lot of classic games from various years with Mike Vernon and they really make this guy look pretty bad.
The other night the Game 7 classic between Van/Calgary from the 1989 playoffs was on. If you watched that game, or most games from 1989 you'd feel differently. Vernon was a feast or famine goalie. His career had peaks and valleys like no other I've ever seen. In other words when he was good, he was great. When he was bad he was BAD!

But the OP gave us something to think about. It really is a good question about Calgary. Are they the worst playoff underacheivers during 1990-'96? It wouldn't have been a surprise had they won a Cup in that time frame, or even two, no one would have batted an eyelash. The Sens from 1998-'08 are a good example though, about as close to them as possible. They did reach the final though in 2007. But they had huge disapointments in 1999, 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2006. Not to mention the constant failure against the Leafs no matter how good their team was. In 2007-'08 remember when their early record in the season had a few nuts screaming "1977 Canadiens"? By the 2008 playoffs they were so bad that Pittsburgh basically used that series as a practice in the first round. So the Sens are about as close to the Flames as possible.

How about the 2006-present day Sharks? Generally speaking they made the 2nd round all the time and peaked at the third round in 2010. Their loss to the Ducks in 2009 in the first round was very "Flamish from the 1990s" though.

That's all I can think of really, the OP might be onto something. The early 1970s Rangers were great but at least they made a trip to the final and were always in the mix in the playoffs.

Maybe if you throw the 1962-'67 Hawks in the mix it makes more sense. They did reach two finals in that timeframe (1962, 1965) but other than that it was first round losses no matter how great their teams were. And when they lost the clinching game it was almost always ugly rather than constantly in overtime like Calgary. Like Vernon though, Hall is the biggest reason why Chicago lost those years so it came down to goaltending. And Hall himself has always had that "feast or famine" type play in the playoffs. So those are my picks

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09-09-2010, 07:08 PM
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Coaching, leadership and really some bad luck. The 1995 series against San Jose the Flames outscored the Sharks in the seven game series and lost. 1994 they seemed to have the series locked up against Vancouver but yet again blew 3 straight OT's to lose the series in seven. 1993 was just bonkers, the Flames were not ready for the Kings at all plus a healthy Gretzky who was sidelined most of the year due to a back injury was just in time for playoff hockey. The most infamous memory I have from the Kings/Flames series that year was Gary Roberts getting ousted I think it was game 3 or 4 swinging his stick towards the camera and smashing it against the wall...almost hitting a police officer. 1992 was the Glimour trade that sunk the Flames that year, the Jets grabbed the last playoff spot in the Smythe Division that year. 1991, again just bad luck..same with 1990.

1996 was no excuse though, they lost to a better Blackhawks team.

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09-09-2010, 07:13 PM
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The flames sucked but Theo Fleury was always awesome in the playoffs.

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09-09-2010, 07:20 PM
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i agree they were a decent team back then it felt like they should have won at least another cup.

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09-09-2010, 07:33 PM
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I remember back in 89 thinking it was a team that could win two or three more cups. I never expected the Oilers to rebound and the Pens & Rangers to get that good that fast, so I thought the Flames would dominate the early 90's.

That said, the 70's Bruins and 90's Pens only winning 2 cups each would qualify as bigger disappointments IMO. Calgary was a deep team, but just didn't have the star power those teams had.


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09-09-2010, 09:41 PM
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Quote:
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The other night the Game 7 classic between Van/Calgary from the 1989 playoffs was on. If you watched that game, or most games from 1989 you'd feel differently. Vernon was a feast or famine goalie. His career had peaks and valleys like no other I've ever seen. In other words when he was good, he was great. When he was bad he was BAD!

But the OP gave us something to think about. It really is a good question about Calgary. Are they the worst playoff underacheivers during 1990-'96? It wouldn't have been a surprise had they won a Cup in that time frame, or even two, no one would have batted an eyelash. The Sens from 1998-'08 are a good example though, about as close to them as possible. They did reach the final though in 2007. But they had huge disapointments in 1999, 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2006. Not to mention the constant failure against the Leafs no matter how good their team was. In 2007-'08 remember when their early record in the season had a few nuts screaming "1977 Canadiens"? By the 2008 playoffs they were so bad that Pittsburgh basically used that series as a practice in the first round. So the Sens are about as close to the Flames as possible.

How about the 2006-present day Sharks? Generally speaking they made the 2nd round all the time and peaked at the third round in 2010. Their loss to the Ducks in 2009 in the first round was very "Flamish from the 1990s" though.

That's all I can think of really, the OP might be onto something. The early 1970s Rangers were great but at least they made a trip to the final and were always in the mix in the playoffs.

Maybe if you throw the 1962-'67 Hawks in the mix it makes more sense. They did reach two finals in that timeframe (1962, 1965) but other than that it was first round losses no matter how great their teams were. And when they lost the clinching game it was almost always ugly rather than constantly in overtime like Calgary. Like Vernon though, Hall is the biggest reason why Chicago lost those years so it came down to goaltending. And Hall himself has always had that "feast or famine" type play in the playoffs. So those are my picks
For all those matches where Ottawa was upset, how many of them can you look at the rosters on paper and say Ottawa had the advantage up the middle or between the pipes?

Maybe I'm looking at things with the benefit of hindsight but I always felt Ottawa was at a distinct disadvantage in both goal and the centre position in almost every series they played.

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09-09-2010, 10:04 PM
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For all those matches where Ottawa was upset, how many of them can you look at the rosters on paper and say Ottawa had the advantage up the middle or between the pipes?

Maybe I'm looking at things with the benefit of hindsight but I always felt Ottawa was at a distinct disadvantage in both goal and the centre position in almost every series they played.
It really didn't matter in 4 of those failures because if Ottawa played a team featuring Gary Roberts... they lose.

He was like kryptonite to all those soft chewy Sens teams.

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09-10-2010, 05:26 AM
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but what happened to this team, especially pre-gilmour trade? it's such a strange thing because you had fleury, who was often the only really good flame in the playoffs those years, guys like gilmour and nieuwendyk, who went on to great playoff success, and guys with healthy to great playoff resumes like macinnis, mccrimmon, suter, macoun, otto, roberts, makarov if you count international competition, and yes vernon.

most of those guys already knew how to win, they were all looked on as leaders on very good teams at some point in their careers. you wouldn't expect that group to lack a killer instinct, with three past or future conn smythes on the roster.

did the loss of loob, and later mullen really make that much of a difference? could it really have been the leadership vaccuum after the departure of mcdonald, peplinski, and ramage? complacency because everyone already had theirs?
We're arguably looking at the matter upside down. The Flames team that did win the cup had an on-form goalie, mean defense, quality two-way players, top-six scoring, secondary scoring, depth, abundance of muscle and lethal powerplay. Yet that team still couldn't stop putting a gun to its own head a couple of times along the way. Given their fragility with an outstandingly strong hand and Vernon on fire, little wonder they tended to collapse when he slumped or when other factors weren't perfectly aligned. Some teams need everything to fall their way to win, whilst others overcome adversity. The latter teams are the ones that win consistently.

Before 1989, the Flames were a team that always found a way to lose in the playoffs. Even in 89, they came within a whisker of doing themselves in against Vancouver. They'd finished 43 points clear of the Canucks during regular season, had a 5-1-2 head-to-head record, 3-0-1 at home. Then in game one of the playoffs they lose in overtime at the Saddledome, a process they nearly repeated in game seven.

By the time they'd staggered through that series, the Oilers were out, Gretzky's Kings were spent and the Jets had missed the playoffs altogether. All the teams or players who'd haunted them in the past had suddenly disappeared, excepting Montreal. In the finals, the Flames made life tough for themselves, failing to hold onto the lead with a minute left in game 3 and losing in overtime to go 2-1 down in the series.

With regard to 1990 specifically, coach Terry Crisp lost the locker room. The link below is from a March 1990 article by Sports Illustrated. The article mentions loss of leadership, complacency and a general post-Cup hangover too. Its author clearly thought the Flames' dethronement was on the cards, albeit more likely at Edmonton's hands.

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vau...85/1/index.htm

Given these shortcomings and their unreliable goalie, it becomes far less of a surprise that they fell to a team containing Gretzky.

I am writing in hindsight here. At the time, I loved the Flames and thought they were going to win a lot of cups.

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09-10-2010, 03:23 PM
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I think the Flames struggles extend further than just 1990. From 1985 to 1995, they advanced past the first round three times in 11 years. (1986, 1988 and 1989). Yet they had the talent to be so much more.

Granted, there was some hard luck in there. As I said before, I believe that the top three teams in the league in 85 were in the Smythe. One of those teams was not going to advance past the first round. It was Calgary. And I firmly believe that if the Flames beat the Canucks in 1994, they reach the final. (I remember going to bed after Game 7 in 1994 with a big smile on my face, because I knew the Canucks were going to the final. Dallas, Toronto and San Jose weren't going to beat us).

But how do they lose in 87 to the Jets (the last time Winnipeg/Phoenix would win a playoff series, and the only best-of-seven series win in Jets/Coyotes history) or in 95 to the Sharks? The Kings in 90 and 93, and the Oilers in 91, were good teams, but those were series in which the Flames were expected to win. Especially the series with LA in 1990. LA had a heck of a team, better than their record indicated, but Calgary was the Cup favourite that year, and should have won the series.

Even in 88, when they reached the second round, they were swept by the Oilers in Round 2. A lot of people were questioning the make-up of the Flames at that point. Of course, those questions were tossed out by the time June of 1989 rolled around, but perhaps we should look at 1989 as the exception for the Flames in that 11-year span when they had the potential to be so much more.

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09-10-2010, 06:59 PM
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Even in 88, when they reached the second round, they were swept by the Oilers in Round 2. A lot of people were questioning the make-up of the Flames at that point. Of course, those questions were tossed out by the time June of 1989 rolled around, but perhaps we should look at 1989 as the exception for the Flames in that 11-year span when they had the potential to be so much more.
I'm not going to take anything away from the 1989 Flames, I really loved and respected that team. But I think one thing that gets underrated here is the one person most responsible for the Flames Cup win in 1989. MacInnis? Vernon? Gilmour? Mullen? Nope, guess again. Peter Pocklington. I don't think he gets enough credit for dismantling a dynasty (only he and Jack Adams can lay that infamous claim) and I think a Flames fan should have him on their Christmas card list for the last 20 years

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09-10-2010, 07:20 PM
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Originally Posted by Big Phil View Post
I'm not going to take anything away from the 1989 Flames, I really loved and respected that team. But I think one thing that gets underrated here is the one person most responsible for the Flames Cup win in 1989. MacInnis? Vernon? Gilmour? Mullen? Nope, guess again. Peter Pocklington. I don't think he gets enough credit for dismantling a dynasty (only he and Jack Adams can lay that infamous claim) and I think a Flames fan should have him on their Christmas card list for the last 20 years
Ronald Corey cries me! me! me!. Harold Ballard chuckles. The Norris family group winks know there is always a fall guy.

Destroying a great franchise or dismantling a dynasty. Six of one half dozen of another

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09-11-2010, 11:45 AM
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Mayor Bee
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My thinking with the thread title for the Flames rather than some of the other teams that Big Phil mentioned is this. San Jose and Ottawa over the last 10-12 years, New York during the 70s, and Chicago in the 60s have been disappointing, but either the circumstances were unfavorable or there had been enough roster overhaul to make the comparisons less than ideal.

But in the case of the Flames post-1989, nearly the entire core was intact and a great deal of both extremely tough regular season and postseason play had been experienced. Up front, it's not like Fleury, Nieuwendyk, or Otto were fourth-liners or healthy scratches on a Cup-winning team. MacInnis won the Conn Smythe, and Vernon played like a pretty good goalie. The Islanders took criticism in the late 70s for underachieving, as did Edmonton in the early 80s. But those were a bunch of young guys who were still coming together and hadn't yet figured out how to win. Calgary had come together and knew how to win, and what ensued was a six-year failure. Trying to imagine the Islanders winning in 1980 and not again or Edmonton in 1984 and not again boggles the mind.

On the topic of Vernon, I've always thought of him as being a more erratic version of Kirk McLean. When both were on their game, Vernon was better than McLean, but Vernon's lows were much worse than McLean. There was a year in the early 90s (it may well have been 1993) when Vernon had a string of spectacular games and played like an elite goalie. But I also question how bad his 1993 playoff performance was from a historical standpoint. Among the worst I've seen, that and Ron Hextall with the Islanders in 1994 are the bottom two. To use an NFL comparison, I'd look at Vernon being like Rex Grossman; one game he looks like an All-Pro, the next he looks like an incapacitated Ryan Leaf.


Last edited by Mayor Bee: 09-11-2010 at 11:51 AM.
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