Flames Next Steps - Get Competitive by 2016-17

Kent Wilson
July 17 2014 08:51PM

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In this series we've already noted the Flames need to up their functional toughness and improve their blueline depth behind Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie in order to climb out of the Western Conference basement. This final part is more focused on the "when" than the "how". Although I'm sure the team's executives and fans would prefer sooner rather than later, the more realistic deadline for the club to be a threat again is two seasons from now: 2016-17.

Relative to some other rebuilds we've been witness to (ahem, Oilers), 2016 is a fairly aggressive and optimistic expectation. But it's grounded in reality. 

Although players like Sean Monahan, Sam Bennett and Johnny Gaudreau are popularly considered to be the new core of the Calgary Flames, in truth the team already has three pillar players around which it can build: Mikael Backlund, Brodie and Giordano, which is what makes climbing the ladder within a few seasons somewhat reasonable.

The schedule roughly accords with the Backlund and Brodie's peak seasons as well as the expected maturation of some of the aforementioned hopefuls. The implicit goal would be to get the team over the hump quickly enough so that organization doesn't waste all of the B's best seasons on last place finishes (not to mention Gio's last few useful years as well).

Let's take a look at how the key pieces and the kids are going to age...

Approaching the Peak

CoreAge

This table shows the age of each player during the season in question. I've arranged the tiers according to a rough approximation of each guy's value - so current play drivers (the core), probable difference makers (future core), potential top six guys and then probable support players to one degree or another. Obviously the list isn't exhaustive, so please avoid bemoaning the lack of your favourite darkhorse prospect in the comments.

I've highlighted some names to foreground the guys who will be entering the typical "peak scoring age" for NHLers by 2016-17. Studies into the matter have found points per minute of ice time peaks at around 24 and stays relatively consistent until about 29 for skaters. Of course, scoring rate isn't an exact proxy for player quality, but for now we'll assume it's close enough for our purposes.

In three seasons, the Flames could have two of their existing core pieces operating more or less at the height of their powers (assuming no intervening injuries). In addition, Johnny Gaudreau will be 23 entering his third year of pro and Monahan, though just 22, will be a wily veteran of 250+ NHL games.

Beyond them, the club could have as many as 6-8 other guys poised to jump into the fat part of their career arcs. It's probably unrealistic to assume all of them will make the team or still be with the franchise down the road, but even if only two players from the list (say, Granlund and Baertschi) are in the rotation as top-9 options, the franchise would then have no less than 6 guys playing meaningful minutes who are 23-27 years old. That doesn't take into account Sam Bennett, who is a good bet to be on the team and ahead of the age curve by that time.

The other reason the Flames will want to start competing by 2016-17 is money. The org has a lot of cap space currently, but things are going to start getting expensive once all the kids begin to mature.

Dollar Bills

Ageprice

Here's the same table, except with cap hit projections for each player. Obviously it's a bit of a fools errand to try to predict any of the kids future contracts, but this is more about illustrating the Flames position than being perfectly accurate.

By 2016-17, Backlund, Brodie and Giordano will all need new deals. It's an open question whether Gio would re-sign with the team or not, but if he has another season remotely close to the one he had last year, the Flames will have to pony up to keep him, assuming he chooses to stay (even at 33). Backlund and Brodie probably won't break the bank, but they won't be dirt cheap anymore either. It's possible all three of them could cost north of $16M combined by that time.

Monahan, Arnold, Gaudreau, Baertschi, Granlund, Wotherspoon, Reinhart and Knight will also be past their entry level contracts. We can bet on at least two of these players getting significant pay raises in the interim and perhaps a few others getting 100%+ bumps as well. If that happens, we're up to $33M+ for around nine guys. Sam Bennett would be in line for his raise the year after to boot in he makes the team as a 19 year old.

It's probable my projections are going to be wildly off in a few directions for some of these players. If one or two guys blow up, then we'll probably see some $6M deals land in there. If everyone crashes and burns, however, then they'll still have plenty of cap space to work with (and will still suck, rendering this all moot). 

One of the worst tragedies of rebuilds gone awry is an organization emerging from its young players larval stage and then having to pay them all real NHL money yet still battling to get out of the basement. It's one thing to be a lousy team with low cap commitments and a flexible budget. It's another thing entirely to stink and boast a prohibitively expensive roster as well.

Conclusion

The Flames have core players in place and potential core players ripening on the vine. If a few coins land on heads, the club could have a whole slew of useful NHLers at or near their prime in a couple of years.

Ideally, 2014-15 will be the last bottom-5 finish for the club before it begins the ascension. I figure the the evolution could (will?) go: 2014-15, 25th or lower, 2015-16, 15th or lower, 2016-17, 12th or better. In terms of points improvements, that would look something like: 75 points, 87 points, 96 points or about a 10-point jump each season, give or take. It may not proceed in step-like fashion as illustrated, but the important thing is the end-point here.

This is an important consideration, because it will dictate how the management group runs the team for the next few seasons, assuming they agree with me. This season will be another evaluation and experiment year. The club can get a feel for what they have with a few of the kids and make sure the lead horses get some at bats in the majors so they have their legs under them by 2017. They can also judge which veterans to hold on to as the club progresses and what holes they'll need to fill in each of the subsequent off-seasons. For instance, Curtis Glencross is making noises about getting an extension from Calgary once his current contract expires. He'll have to prove he can be part of the solution going forward (rather than a guy looking to cash-in because he was grossly underpaid over the course of his last deal).

Treliving did the right thing this off-season by staying out of the bidding for any of the big names, but come summer 2016, the Flames are going to want to start plugging in one or two big time mercenaries that can help put them over the top.

Flames Next Steps Series

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Former Nations Overlord. Current Fn contributor and curmudgeon For questions, complaints, criticisms, etc contact Kent @ kent.wilson@gmail. Follow him on Twitter here.
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#51 RexLibris
July 20 2014, 10:34PM
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Baalzamon wrote:

I really wish people would stop considering RW and LW as separate positions (when discussing organizational depth). I realize I'm starting to sound (read?) like a broken record here, but almost all wingers can play on either side.

That line of thinking has led people to propose the Flames trade away LW depth for RWers... why? Why bother? We have wingers, we have centers who can be moved to the wing, we don't need more wingers. We need defense.

I don't entirely agree, but with some exceptions.

Some players can switch from L to R. Some can't.

Take the defense for instance.

Lots of talk in Edmonton about the team drowning in LD players and prospects, and a severe shortage of RD options.

Now, as prospects go, Musil and Simpson can play the right side as LD and feel perfectly comfortable.

Andrew Ference, on the other hand (see what I did there), was tried on the right side and it didn't work.

The Oilers at one time played Randy Gregg, Charlie Huddy and Craig Muni all on their off wing without significant issue.

However, many players aren't comfortable moving from one side to the other. They just can't make the adjustment. Even Ovechkin complained about making the LW/RW switch and said that it took him nearly half a season to adjust.

I think that the distinction about a player moving from one wing to another depends greatly on the person involved.

It also depends on a coach's deployment. Eakins moved Perron and Yakupov to alternate wings because he prefers that a winger play in a position so that his stick falls naturally against the boards.

While you are right to say that the LW/RW distinction isn't set in stone and it is premature to suggest that a player be traded simply because he shoots one way or another, it isn't something that should be entirely disregarded either.

Many players have habits and comfort zones that they simply can't break out of and perform to the same degree. Moving one from one position to another needs to be assessed on an individual basis with the understanding that it doesn't always work out.

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#52 RexLibris
July 20 2014, 11:17PM
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@Jeff Lebowski

Okay, I'll try to keep this brief, because I've tried to write a response before and it was getting way too long. Even for me.

Coaching - Oilers did well hiring Renney who tried to shelter the young players as best he could, given the pathetic roster he inherited. Fault there goes to the GM who failed to even provide the basic level of talent required for the team to stand a chance.

Drafting - Oilers have the worst record, historically, of 1st round draft picks in the NHL dating back to 1979. 42% of their 1st rounders went on to play 200+ NHL games, lowest in the league by a wide margin. Since 2008, with the promotion of Stu MacGregor, they have selected Eberle, Pajaarvi, Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Klefbom, Yakupov, Nurse and Draisaitl.

Eliminate the 1st overalls if you wish, and that still leaves you with a very strong draft record. So what you suggest:

[t]ons more can be said about what the oilers continue to get wrong, namely drafting after the first round.

seems a bit presumptuous.

Accountability and culture: with all due respect, these terms are thrown around like candy in today's society, be it sporting, political, corporate, or what have you. They mean nothing because they are too often applied as post hoc rationalizations or as talking points designed to obscure specifics.

The Oilers signed Eberle, Hall and Nugent-Hopkins to long-term deals at a cap hit of $6 million a year. John Tavares signed for less at a slightly lower cap hit and Steven Stamkos signed for one heck of a lot more for a shorter term. All those players (aside from Eberle) were 1st overall picks playing for bad teams, coming off their 1st contracts, and hadn't yet proven they could single-handedly drag a defunct franchise into the playoffs.

Based on the financial landscape today, those contracts look like terrific bargains and of those three franchises the Oilers sit in the best position for at least the next five years.

Hall has finished in the top ten in scoring the last few seasons, Nugent-Hopkins is an outstanding two-way talent with elite playmaking ability and Jordan Eberle has a 14% sh% over his career and has averaged a +4.55 CFrel playing for a team that bleeds chances like a hemophiliac stigmata.

They've all proven themselves worthy of those contracts.

Where is the incentive to improve? Derived from their stellar character? I won't disparage but look at the comments and record.

You really need to support this statement. What comments? Where? This is kind of a drive-by.

Trajectory and extrapolation: I hate to say this but the Flames are headed downwards and have gotten significantly worse this off-season. What algorithm are you using to extrapolate them turning things around this year? Will Bennett play the season and post 60 points to replace Cammalleri? Will Monahan replicate his sh% from last season? Will Gaudreau make up Stempniak's lost offense?

The Oilers have improved their roster in virtually every category deemed lacking at one point last year save their C depth by adding Fayne and Nikitin on D, Fasth and Scrivens in net, and Pouliot and Purcell on the wings as possession players with size.

History would suggest that any money bet on the Oilers drafting in the top five is reasonable to pay out, but at least the data suggests that an improvement is in the cards.

I believe CGY has crafted a more thorough and intelligent path for development, insulation and learning/improving - in a way that lessens pressure on the kids.

What path is that? Gaudreau is already listed on the Flames' NHL roster http://flames.nhl.com/club/roster.htm as is Arnold, Van Brabant and Wolf. What intelligence is there in signing Engelland to a three-year deal? Who on earth is he going to shelter amongst the D-corps and to what effect? And if his role is to provide "shelter" of another kind, then I think we can safely put aside assertions of intelligence and craft amongst Flames management.

Looking over the Flames roster this season there is virtually no shelter anywhere save for Backlund, Brodie and Giordano. Stajan is going to be fed to the bloody wolves on a nightly basis and on the road Hartley won't be able to get his matchups and teams are going to key in on Monahan.

Raymond, Backlund and Hudler might be the best bet this season for an actual NHL line and while I respect Hudler and would kill to have Backlund as an Oiler, frankly that isn't a first line on 28 other teams in the league.

Even going line-by-line, the item that many Flames fans held as one advantage over the Oilers these past few seasons, bottom six depth, is eroded.

The Flames have one significant thing in their favour in Brodie and Giordano, but there is so little by way of talent coming to support those two that I expect this advantage to be short-lived.

You have stated your opinion, and I respect that. I disagree and have put forth my reasons as objectively as possible.

I look forward to the season in order to test our assertions.

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#53 smith
July 22 2014, 10:33AM
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@RexLibris

I actually feel you are probably right about the oilers being better this coming year, but I do feel there is quite a love affair with inadequate forwards. The oilers have been one of the worst offensive teams the last 5 years. Why? Because there forwards are not good enough.

Yes the flames lack good players, but they do have three players who can shelter the youth. Who do the oilers have to shelter youth? Boyd Gordon? He is a fourth line centre!

This has been a recurring problem with the oilers. No high end possession players thus putting their youth (who have a lot of talent) in no win situations. The oilers are counting on RNH sheltering the German kid. How is that a good situation? I believe that the oiler forwards would be a lot better by this point if they could have slowly been put in tougher situations rather than put out in hard minutes right away.

Last year the oilers had virtually no injuries to top 6 players (Gagner does not count as is more of a negative in the line up than a positive). What happens this year if 1 or more of the top young oiler players get hurt? Bottom 5 in draft again!

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#54 RexLibris
July 22 2014, 09:46PM
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@smith

Absolutely.

One quibble, losing Gagner meant they didn't (or at least felt they didn't) have a 2nd line C.

The only place they can afford an injury in the top six is the RW, and even that is contingent on Yakupov rebounding.

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#55 SydScout
July 22 2014, 10:30PM
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@RexLibris

"What intelligence is there in signing Engelland to a three-year deal? Who on earth is he going to shelter amongst the D-corps and to what effect? And if his role is to provide "shelter" of another kind, then I think we can safely put aside assertions of intelligence and craft amongst Flames management"

May have a misguided view of what Flames brass are trying to do, but becoming systematically worse via contracts, that have a negative impact on the team's performance for the next year or two, will allow one possible two more top flight draft picks to enter the system. It's broadly commented here that free agency is a very difficult route to accumulating these players.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but Deryk's contract is tanking without tying the team to him long term.

Btw, if this is the chosen path of team management, the kids should play significant portions of the next season in the AHL, for both culture reasons (don't get used to losing) as well as keeping the team near the cellar.

And that contract gets them to the cap floor I think

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