1. Tough decisions
Trade rumors around the league are now officially starting to swirl, and some minor swaps have already been made as teams that don’t think they can compete for a playoff spot sell off pieces. As the winter wears on, more teams are going have to seriously consider whether they’re going to push for a playoff spot, solidify their status as a top team with a key addition, or sell off pieces that will position them better for the future.
The trade deadline (March 2) is now only seven weeks away, and while that obviously leaves a lot of time for evaluation, the smartest organizations will be the ones that know where they stand as early as possible. In this way, they can position themselves better for the final push ahead of that deadline.
And despite that recent win streak that was just snapped by a good Islanders team, I think we can all agree that the days of the Flames being in serious playoff contention are effectively over. A poll to the right of this column bears that out, as the majority of serious respondents think the Flames are either going to barely miss the playoffs (33 percent of all voters) or drop down to a bottom-five level in the standings (another 13 percent). Only 15 percent think this team can keep competing seriously for the playoffs. Obviously that’s unscientific, but at the same time, people around here seem to finally be expecting reasonable results from this club given its makeup — with only a minimal amount of retconning about their feelings all along.
So that means the opinion around here, generally, is that the Flames would probably be better off selling their worthwhile veterans for picks, prospects, and maybe (if they’re lucky) good young roster players. Because as always: If you’re gonna miss the playoffs — or even barely make it — it’s better to finish as close to the bottom as possible to guarantee yourself the best possible pick.
But that means Calgary’s brass has some decisions to make when it comes to what they’re going to do.
2. Who to keep?
The first step is determining who the team is going to avoid putting on the market.
There are the obvious choices, of course. The majority of the team’s kids and a small handful of veterans (Brodie, Giordano, Backlund, Stajan, etc.) can be safely assumed to be not-moving in the next several weeks, simply because they provide value to the team in one way or another. That is, assuming the team can be relatively assured of those guys re-signing in Calgary.
Other guys will be kept because they have minimal trade value, such as Joe Colborne, Brandon Bollig, Deryk Engelland, Ladislav Smid, and so on. That’s not to say I think Colborne’s contributions are on a level with the two facepunchers and a guy as bad as Smid, but I think he might not fetch any sort of good price nonetheless.
A lot of these things go without saying: You happily keep guys who can provide what is basically guaranteed value for years to come, and unhappily you keep guys no one wants. Very simple. But I think the Flames have more than a few guys who fall into a grey area in the middle, where the value they provide is certainly there, but they might fetch a price worthy of giving them up, especially if you don’t know how much longer you’re going to be able to count on them.
3. Who to jettison?
So let’s talk about a few of those guys, who I would say may be worth more to Calgary in trading them away — thanks to what might be a decent return — than they are in a Flaming C for another year or two.
Jiri Hudler: I think this is the most obvious one because he’s the best player on the team and he provides the value of being signed at a relatively low cap hit (just $4 million) for both this season and next. I look at what the Penguins gave up to acquire David Perron and say that Hudler would be worth more than that to a competitive team with some cap space to spend. Already, his cap hit is down to about $2 million for the remainder of the season, meaning that he basically doesn’t cost very much in terms of cap obligations. And the fact that he’s signed for next year means this isn’t a pure rental. He’s turning in an All-Star calibre season in a lost cause campaign for Calgary. How many more of those do you think he has left in the chamber? And at the same time, you have to wonder how much patience he has to continue playing through the rebuild as it stretches into next year and beyond. The guy is already 30, and in all likelihood his next contract will be his last. He’s been more effective than I ever would have thought in Calgary, but as always there’s the risk he skips town for nothing when this deal is done.
Curtis Glencross: I know he’s beloved in Calgary and this is something I’ve discussed before, but I’m really not sure how many more miles this guy’s got left before he is of little to no value. He’s 32, plays a crash-and-bang style, and continues to score at a decent enough pace that teams might want him (even if his goalscoring is down this year because he’s not shooting as much).
(As an addendum, the point of dumping at least one wing might also be that it frees up a roster spot for one of the team’s many kids who play on either side of the ice. I wonder how much appetite there is in the organization to give some of the younger experienced AHLers a little more time at a higher level without having their way blocked by some admittedly useful veterans.)
Dennis Wideman: Yes he’s signed for two more years after this one and no he’s probably not worth the deal, but he’s also turning in his best year from a production standpoint since he came to Calgary. I don’t know how much demand there will be for him in the marketplace at this price point, of course (and I’m willing to bet it’s not a lot), but this is a guy who should at least be shopped around to see what kind of interest is out there. If you can get a decent deal for him, why not trade him?
Jonas Hiller: Sorry everyone but the same thing applies to Hiller, who’s probably trying to position himself for a hasty exit from Calgary if this year and next go to plan anyway. He’s probably never going to be this valuable again. And if you can get some kind of a return for him — certainly not in line with what Ryan Miller fetched Buffalo at the deadline last year, but maybe something — then this is certainly an option to explore. As a bonus: Trading a good goalie makes the team worse and guarantees a better draft pick. Again, I don’t think anyone is deluded into believing Hiller is the goalie of the future, and given the play of Ramo this year he might not even be the goalie of the present. If you can get value for him, you make him available.
4. There’s more to it than that
Obviously, with all that having been said, obviously there are other factors to consider. Staying cap-compliant is a big one, both this year and next year.
(However, I’d be less concerned about 2015-16 given how many RFAs are going to be due raises of some import: Backlund, Jooris, Bouma, and Byron are all guys who need deals from the big club. Likewise, Baertschi, Knight, Ferland, Reinhart, Agostino, and more people who might get serious time with at the NHL level next year are also on this list. Plus whoever they get in free agency or trade.)
Further, there’s the roles that will need to be filled if someone is shipped out. You know me, I’m all for a total tank-job, but you have to be able to field something at least resembling an NHL roster; what Buffalo is doing this year is understandable, and also completely eye-roll-inducing and shameless. The organization in general is a little thin on defensemen so shipping any one of those guys out for futures creates a problem without a good solution at present.
And obviously you don’t want to call kids up too early, because that can be detrimental to their development. There are guys who I think can play at either the NHL or AHL level without much of a difference being made — Baertschi, for instance — and thus if you can make room for him on the main roster by trading someone, well, go nuts.
Likewise, if you can at least somewhat effectively replace a guy via free agency — such as Jonas Hiller; there are always decent-ish free agent NHL goalies with a hand out asking for a contract — then the drop-off won’t be so severe that you’re approaching Sabres territory.
Something to think about, anyway.
5. A quick Jankowski update
From what I’ve seen on Twitter, it seems that people have been heartened in recent weeks by the play of Mark Jankowski down at Providence College. And why not? He has five points in his last four games (two goals, three assists) and seems to be putting a nice little run together for himself here as Providence has won five in a row, and nine of their last 10 (during which he’s 2-6-8).
But here’s what you need to know about this streak, and why I’d reign in celebrations over his resurgence a little bit: There are 59 teams in college hockey, and almost all the teams PC has played in this stretch are currently ranked in or near the bottom half of the country (No. 28 Northeastern and No. 43 Colorado College twice each, then No. 37 UNH, No. 57 Army, No. 48 UMass Amherst once each). He didn’t even dress against Army, and against the other four teams, he went 2-5-7 with 12 shots on goal. Having 12 shots on goal against those opponents really isn’t a great total, but there’s no arguing the point total, I guess.
Then, against Nos. 18 BC and 19 Colgate and 14 Vermont, all of which he played once, Jankowski was effectively invisible. He went a combined 0-1-1 with just three shots on goal. And that fits the mold of the vast majority of his college career: piling up points against also-rans to mask feckless performances against actual good clubs with talent comparable to what he’s supposed to bring. He has 20 SOG in 16 games this year. In what universe is 1.25 a night good enough for even an undrafted defenseman, let alone a first-round pick who plays center on the top line?
And again, he’s not young any more. He’s 11 months younger than Johnny Gaudreau. I expected him to take a big step forward this year and he just hasn’t done it. It’s too bad, but it shows what happen when high-risk picks don’t work out.
Someone I won’t mention said to me the other day that Flames fans won’t accept that this draft pick was an indefensible one until the kid flames out at the pro level, which he almost certainly will at this point. Maybe that’s true, but I hope people are starting to form more realistic expectations of what he’s going to provide to this organization going forward. It’s not fair to keep painting this kid as a breakout star waiting to happen; he’s a first-round pick who’s 2.5 years into a four-year college career at this point. How much longer are you going to give him?