July 17 2014 08:51PM
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
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.
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.
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.