A Calgary Flames fan’s survival guide for the rebuild

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Flames fans of a certain age or era will never have had to live through a rebuild.

The previous time the franchise embarked on a transitional phase like the one they are about to enter was more than a decade ago, when Jarome Iginla was dealt at the 2013 trade deadline.

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Following a club during a rebuild is a markedly different experience than your typical fanship. Typically, hockey management, coaching, players and the audience care about the same things at the same time: Contending, or soon becoming a contender, with a sizable focus on being competitive in the present.

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That focus shifts almost exclusively to the long-term for a team’s front office during a rebuild, causing a kind of misalignment between the GM and everyone else.

Coaches and players naturally are competitive and have strong incentives to always “play to win,” while most fans would prefer to cheer for wins over losses. Even a fanbase that is theoretically on board with a rebuild strategy won’t be overly enthusiastic watching their club lose night after night during the dark times. This paradoxical misalignment is the reason the organization is loath to rebuild explicitly.

Nevertheless, transitional phases are an inevitability thanks to the cyclical nature of team building in the NHL. And, naturally, fans will have to live through the reality that the team they cheer for isn’t going to be competitive for a while.

For those who haven’t yet had to cheer for the future rather than the present, here are some survival tips from someone who lived through the Young Guns and watched the Iginla era suddenly, heartbreakingly dissolve.

Freedom to experiment

Coaches and GMs don’t tend to colour outside the lines too much when it comes to roster decisions, tactics or depth charts when there is something on the line.

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The incumbent starter, well-liked checker and reputational veteran usually get preference when a team is driving for the playoffs. A rebuilding team, however, will always have some space for experimentation.

As the vets are sold off or leave as free agents, creativity is often forced on the decision-makers in the absence of their typical options. And while coaches and players are always playing to win, the pressure to skate through injury or dress the most-experienced lineup every night lessens when a club is out of the playoff picture by February.

A historical example is the club elevating Mark Giordano in Jay Bouwmeester’s absence after the latter was traded in 2013. Giordano immediately rose to the challenge, scoring at a 60+ point pace the very next season as he ascended to the team’s top defender.

Even this year, the Flames have seen surprising results from guys like Connor Zary and Martin Pospisil, who may not have even been on the parent roster’s radar under different circumstances.

Combining them with Nazem Kadri — a strange experiment on its face — unexpectedly yielded one of the Flames’ most consistent offensive combinations.

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Rebuild experimentation doesn’t always yield good results. It often fails. But because the organization’s priority is the long-term and not the present, the good results matter and the bad results don’t.

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Small victories

For a while, the big stuff is going to be out of reach.

It’s unlikely the Flames will be a contender any time soon, so instead it’s better to concentrate on the smaller stuff: A young players’ development, a shutout against the Oilers on Hockey Night in Canada, the unlikely emergence of a waiver-wire pickup, the darkhorse mid-round pick who might become a star.

Calgary will have a lot of draft picks over the next few years and a lot of opportunities to play spoiler in key moments against their rivals. And none of the pressure of trying to squeeze into the second wild-card spot no matter the cost.

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Star search

Of course, the main reason to stay tuned during a rebuild is the search for the next era-defining talent(s).

Trade deadlines and draft days are uniquely intriguing for fanbases of a rebuilding club. Of course, it is uncertain when that might happen.

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Jarome Iginla was acquired for Joe Nieuwendyk in the great 90’s sell-off. Johnny Gaudreau was snagged in the fourth round. Matthew Tkachuk was picked sixth overall after the Vancouver Canucks bafflingly picked Olli Juolevi at fifth overall instead.

There naturally is a much greater chance to pick a superstar with more (and higher) draft picks, but however it happens, the entire mood and tenor of the fanbase will noticeably shift when that player is uncovered.

Chicago Blackhawks fans knew their team was going to remain bad heading into the season, but their merchandise sales reportedly doubled before Connor Bedard even stepped foot on the ice.

Over the next few seasons the Flames aren’t likely to be amongst the Western Conference’s contenders and wins will often be difficult to come by.

But, if you’re patient and know what to look for, this will be one of the more interesting periods for fans willing to stick it out.

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