The Flames have been out of it for about a month now and with no real news to speak of, many fans minds have begun to turn to the inevitable "what if’s" that populate the time between now and the start of the new season. And, as usual, the club is facing a lot of uncertainty after a disappointing finish and no obvious or sure-fire cures for what ails them.
With all that in mind, I recently sent some questions out to Nation writers Two-Line Pass, Jean Lefebvre and Pat Steinberg to get a sense of where their speculation has led them thus far. Here are their responses.
1.) Before getting to specifics, what would you consider the Flames primary goal to be next season? Stay competitive, take a step forward or begin the re-build? Your answer will likely inform the rest of your decision making.
TLP: Ideally they will both take a step forward as far as the standings go (i.e. playoffs) and be able to ship off several unwanted pieces for literally anything they can get in return, but unfortunately I think both of those goals are going to be difficult to achieve. As to performing better as a team, yes, I think the 2010-2011 Flames will be better once all 82 are played and that this season was indeed a speed bump rather than a sign of things to come. And by "think," I clearly mean hope. There is, we can all agree, far too much dead weight on the roster and it’s unlikely to go anywhere, so while Darryl Sutter should have the goal of rebuilding the team as well as the farm, that’s far too long-term of a goal to have any hopes of achieving in any meaningful way within the next calendar year. Making the playoffs and being competitive in the division (ha ha), however, would at least keep the wolves from his door for another year until he can get out from under at least some of his cap issues.
Jean: Start to rebuild. For several seasons, the Flames had been mired in that middle ground of either being just good enough to slip into the playoffs. This past year, despite an impressive bounce-back season by Miikka Kiprusoff, they were just bad enough to barely miss the post-season. Given the age of the core and the relative shortage of ready-to-contribute prospects, there isn’t much reason to believe immediate progress is in the offing and in fact a further regression is not unreasonable. The Flames could conceivably squeeze a big year out of this group but the odds aren’t so good and a win-now attitude could result in moves that further hurt the club’s already cloudy long-term situation.
Pat: I really believe the Flames are still in a position to stay competitive, but it has to be done the right way. So I guess my answer would be a hybrid of two answers…they need to stay competitive by re-tooling a little bit. This team is handcuffed a little by having a number of longterm contracts, but I think this offseason can start building for strength down the road without dramatically sacrificing competition level. Whether it be a deal to acquire picks, or spread out salary by trading a big $ contract, I don’t believe it means Calgary will regress to the bottom of the pack. Maybe expectations would need to be tempered a little, but I think it’s possible to re-stock for the future without killing Calgary’s ability to compete in the West.
2.) The Flames have about $53M in cap space committed to next season, giving them precious little budgetary wiggle room. I think we can all agree that Steve Staios, Cory Sarich and Ales Kotalik are boat anchors and are going to be very difficult to move in a trade. If you could eliminate ONE of these contracts (via demotion or buy out) which one would it be? Why?
TLP: I’d like to offload Kotalik. Of the three, his contract is of middling expense, and he seems the least likely to produce relative to any expectations placed upon him. Sarich, while obviously the most expensive against the cap, at least serves some sort of purpose as a 4-5 defenseman even if he is grossly overpaid. Staios is clearly the most "past it" of the three, but he’s also the cheapest. So if he needs to be scratched — and he will be — it’s the least costly scratch the team can make. Plus he does seem to be genuinely well-liked and regarded as a leader in the dressing room.
Jean: Eliminate Kotalik because for all his flaws, he’s scored 20 goals as recently as two seasons ago and Calgary is thinner up front than on the back end. That leaves the choice between Staios and Sarich. In a buyout scenario, Staios is the more disposable option because he’s due just $2.2M for one season compared to $7M over two seasons for Sarich. In a clean-break situation (i.e. dump trade) Sarich would be the preferable exorcism from the payroll.
Pat: Jeez, I don’t like this question at all, because I can’t say "all three". I’ll give Sarich and Staios a pass here though, and here is my reasoning: Staios has a contract that runs out at the end of the season…was it an odd move? Yes, but his $2.7 million cap hit is gone at the conclusion of the 2010-11 season, so to eat that for one more year I guess you can stomach. Yes, the 3.3 on Sarich might be a little high, but I really liked his play the final 30 games of the season. When he’s healthy, I believe he can still be effective. That leaves Ales as the easy answer, but I just don’t know how you get around that contract. If there was an option of the three, I’d go with him.
3.) The Flames don’t have a lot of free agent decisions to make this summer with just Eric Nystrom (UFA), Chris Higgins (UFA), Craig Conroy (UFA), Brian McGrattan (UFA) and Jamal Mayers (UFA) set to be free and clear come July 1st. Being mindful of the cap crunch, which of these guys do you re-sign and which do you let walk?
TLP: Of that group, just Higgins for sure and maybe Nystrom and Mayers, depending upon how cheaply they can be had. Conroy just doesn’t have it any more and the only way I’d like to see him stay in Calgary is if he wouldnt mind being shuffled up to the broadcast booth. McGrattan is either made redundant by Mayers or, if the latter doesn’t re-sign, is easily replaceable if Darryl really feels like he needs someone to punch guys like Derek Boogaard and Raistis Ivanans in the face 12 times a year.
Jean: Let Higgins and McGrattan walk. Based on his short tenure with Calgary, the former has no motivation to give the Flames a hometown discount and Calgary can’t afford to pay what figures to be his market value even after a disastrous 2009-10 campaign. Meanwhile, the latter had already been phased out of the Flames’ plans by this past season’s end. The targets then are Nystrom, Mayers and Conroy. Mayers is a marginal player at this stage of his career but does just enough in the mucking and faceoff departments to earn his keep as a depth player. Besides, his presence may dissuade the Flames from going out and getting their annual one-dimensional knuckle-chucker this summer. Conroy should be obsolete by now, but one look at the Flames’ depth chart at centre tells you he really isn’t. He’s already taken one sweetheart deal to stay in Calgary and nobody should put it past him to do it again.
Pat: In my mind, there’s three tiers…yes, maybe, and no. Nystrom is the only one that falls into the yes category for me, as I think there are so many good things to like about his game. His offence is never going to wow you. Instead, it’s his compete level, work ethic and desire to win that you really admire. His production last season was hampered by a groin injury that affected him from November through February. When healthy, he was one of few that would actually drive the net with the puck. I put Higgins in the maybe category, even though I’ve heard the Head Coach really wants him back. The big if with Higgins is whether or not he can regain his offensive touch. For Conroy and Mayers, I’d say no, for two reasons…38 and 35. I liked Conroy in the faceoff dot and on the cycle, but at 38, I think maybe it’s time to go in a different direction. I was a huge fan of the jump Mayers brought each and every shift, but again, as a 35 year old UFA, I’d go a different way. McGrattan didn’t see game action from the start of February on…that one is easy to me.
4.) Perhaps the most contentious free agent decisions will be whether or not to re-sign Ian White (RFA), who after scoring 13 goals and 38 points is rumored to be in the $3-$3.5M range. Should the Flames invest that much in yet another defender? Trade his rights prior to free agency? Court a free agent offer sheet?
TLP: If at all possible, he needs to be re-upped. Needs to be. You don’t find good, young defensemen like him every day, and if he is allowed to leave, then the return for Phaneuf was Matt Stajan, and that might make me cry. If he does absolutely have to be let go, then I’d prefer it be by way of an offer sheet. I imagine the return in trade would not be worth it.
Jean: This depends on the outcome of Point 2). If another defenceman doesn’t hit the bricks, it’s hard to imagine a significant financial investment in White. On the other hand, cutting bait with White would mean one less asset on hand from the Dion Phaneuf deal. Assuming something can be done with one of the other bodies on defence, go ahead and sign him. There isn’t enough case history to rely on the offer-sheet route being a smart way to go.
Pat: White had a great season, no question. I guess this question would be more easily answered if we knew the answer to question 2, but we don’t. So, at face value, I’d say yeah, the Flames should make a push to re-sign White. The salary range seems about fair, and White did say he’d like to return. The good thing is, he’s a controllable asset, so the other two options are viable if need be.
5.) Even after dumping one of the boat anchors, the Flames may need to make a tough decision with one of their big ticket players. Jarome Iginla ($7M), Daymond Langkow (4.5M), Robyn Regehr ($4.02M) and Miikka Kiprusoff ($5.83M) are all past 30 and take up a significant portion of the Flames budget. Would you move any of these guys this summer? More than one? Why or why not? Also…what would you demand in return?
TLP: Langkow for sure. Any void created by anyone else’s being dealt would be impossible to fill even if the return was good, which it likely wouldn’t be if a team was taking on that kind of salary. Langkow will not garner much, but he also doesn’t contribute much, certainly relative to his salary. It would just be $4.5 million off the books. Anything gained in return would be a bonus.
However, I do think that the idea of trading Kiprusoff is an interesting one. His value is certainly higher than anyone else’s; after all he could have been a Vezina finalist if the ballot allowed for one extra goaltender to be listed (or, more accurately, if Marty Brodeur wasn’t living off reputation). The team would be nearly crippled for the near future but the haul could be substantial. Something to consider but I wouldn’t do it quite yet.
Jean: Listen to Flames fans (and TLP! – ed.) and read their messageboard pleas and there seems to be a considerable push to dump Langkow. Even after a down year by Langkow’s standards, it’s hard to understand the sentiment. As mentioned, the Flames aren’t exactly overflowing with centremen and, even if his scoring has dipped, Langkow still does a lot of underappreciated grunt work. Besides, Langkow’s trade value isn’t so hot right now. Same goes for Regehr. There’s an obvious emotional consideration when it comes to Iginla but the simple truth is he’s an increasingly bad bet to provide value for his $7M over the next three seasons. Is the city ready to cut the cord, though? Is Iginla even willing to let Darryl Sutter swing the axe? Based on the sell-high principle, there may never be a better time to trade Kiprusoff. The caveat there is you have to be ready to commit to Option C) of Point 1) (The Great Rebuild).
Pat: Would I move one of those guys? Yes. Can you? Different question. If there was the potential to move out a player like Regehr or Langkow and not bring back significant dollars in return (ala, draft picks), I’d be for it. I don’t think it’s totally out of the question, either, as there are teams who could use a veteran down the middle or on the blueline. If Calgary was able to free up some salary via that avenue, it might open things up a little more to sign the aforementioned White.
6.) It’s a fairly average UFA crop this season. The best forwards available (Marleau, Kovalchuk, Plekanec) will be pretty expensive and probably beyond the Flames reach. Considering your other moves, is there anyone else you would target up front? Are there any defenders worth considering?
TLP: Honestly, no one in the Flames’ price range interests me all that much. The focus should be more on getting White signed than pursuing any other free agents. But if the White negotiation falls through, I am particularly enamored of Rangers RFA d-man Dan Girardi, who would obviously require an offer sheet but would come cheaper than White and is really pretty good.
Jean: The Flames aren’t or shouldn’t be in the market for defencemen, especially if they sign White. The Class "A" free-agent forwards are out of their price range. Reasonable second-level targets would be guys like Matthew Lombardi, Vinny Prospal, Matt Cullen and Alex Tanguay. There’s a lot of baggage with some of those guys, however.
Pat: The term thin is an accurate one, especially when it comes to who the Flames would be able to go after. First off, I think there’s a very strong chance both Marleau and Plekanec remain with their current teams. But even if that wasn’t the case, the only one who would make sense would be Plekanec at 26 years of age. But his play this postseason may very well price him out of Calgary’s range. I just don’t know if high-priced UFA’s make sense for the Flames this offseason, with most of them being in the 32-37 age range. That doesn’t mean they won’t try and make a splash though, because I believe they will.
7.) What’s to be done with the Flames back-up situation? The kids have struggled on the farm this year and having Kipper fully entrenched as the starter makes it difficult to sign a capable NHL veteran (emphasis on capable).
TLP: Two words, and I’m dead serious: Vesa Toskala. If he can be got for anything like what the hockey fan community at large perceives his value to be, then I wouldn’t hate 10 games of what he gave the Flames this season. Please stop laughing. (That’s not me you hear laughing. It’s Maple Leaf fans. – ed)
Jean: The netminding vicious circle continues. In the summer, there’s a reluctance to commit any funds to backup goaltending because the need is greater elsewhere. In February, when Kiprusoff is buckling under the weight of a heavy workload, the angst about an unreliable backup shoots way up and pointed questions are asked about why the area wasn’t properly addressed in the previous off-season. Seeing as how none of the kids are ready, the veteran rote is the way to go. There always seems to be an abundance of Ty Conklins, Alex Aulds, Johan Hedbergs and Jocelyn Thibaults out there (this year they’re called Antero Niittymaki, Brent Johnson, Andrew Raycroft and Curtis Sanford, among other names) and acquiring one would hardly break the bank.
Pat: You can find a capable backup in the $1 million range. From the past two seasons, is anyone going to be adverse to the Flames spending a little more at that position? There are UFA goalies out there…Budaj, Hedberg, Ellis etc. There are RFA goalies out there too, in Harding, Pavelec, Schneider. If you could wrangle a way to get someone signed at 1.2, I’d be all for it.
8.) Matt Pelech will turn 23 years old in September and has 3 AHL seasons under his belt. Do you pencil him in on the Flames starting roster?
TLP: I do. He doesn’t have much left to prove at the AHL level and if nothing else he can fill the role of the Adam Pardys of the world for fairly short money. What else will he do in Abbotsford?
Jean: No. There’s no obvious room for him and besides, Pelech is a "young" 23 from the standpoint that injuries have retarded his normal development.
Pat: Yes. Under my "maseter plan" the Flames would move out one of their current top 6 without a player coming back in return, preferably to free up some dollars and add a draft pick. Calgary would re-sign Ian White, and Matt Pelech would be promoted to the top 7. From what I’ve read, he was strong before an injury knocked him out this season, and Jim Playfair has been high on him for years now.
9.) The Flames have a dearth of quality prospects and high draft picks. Would you try to re-stock the cupboard this summer? If so, how?
TLP: Of course I would, who wouldn’t? But that "how" part is the question, isn’t it? Ideally Sutter can work some magic via trade before the draft but… Haha I couldn’t even finish. The only way to restock the cupboard is to totally tank this season and next and next and next. Load up on high picks that way or not at all. But that tack will likely cost Sutter his job as the growing tide of negative public sentiment washes away both he and likely everyone else.