There’s nothing particularly majestic about Calgary. It’s not a New York or a Los Angeles; there’s no giant population or year-round warmth. It’s a nice city of a little over a million where just about everyone loves hockey, located in the midst of the Canadian prairies-turning-foothills and often subject to cold weather (and the occasional May snowstorm).
So when you’re trying to sell a free agent on Calgary, there are much stronger contenders. Sure, it’ll have an appeal to the hometown farm boys, but that isn’t everyone.
What it really comes down to is the quality of hockey.
Last season, the Flames were not a particularly great hockey team.
But… they did make it to the second round of the playoffs. And that could say a lot.
Winners and losers of mini-sweepstakes
Jakub Nakladal, Czech national team defenceman and newbie to North American ice, signed with the Flames the other day. There were two other teams rumoured to be in the running for him: the Carolina Hurricanes, a rebuilding team in a warm climate; and the Chicago Blackhawks, a now-perennial powerhouse in a big, famous city.
On the other hand, Artemi Panarin – who received interest from Calgary, as well as Toronto and Montreal – decided to sign with the Blackhawks.
You can take from it what you will, but fact is, Calgary isn’t at the level of attracting free agents like Chicago is. They won out on Nakladal, but Panarin is the younger, better player.
Still, it’s a nice feeling to win someone over when multiple teams were interested. The same thing happened with college free agent Kenney Morrison, who instantly became one of the Flames’ better defence prospects upon signing.
Most teams, no matter who or where they are, will be able to land these kind of guys, though. It’s the bigger names that can not only add to a team, but totally shift perception.
Three castaways last Canada Day
When the 2014 free agent period opened, the Flames had a relatively busy day, signing three guys:
- Mason Raymond, hometown boy who’d just had one of his best seasons when playing for the Leafs,
- Jonas Hiller, newly free agent goalie looking for a starter’s role after being pushed out by the Ducks, and,
- Deryk Engelland, who pretty much everyone can agree was (and still is) vastly overpaid.
There’s absolutely nothing special about that trio. Rather, the three came to Calgary through circumstances not many other teams would give them. Raymond only has one hometown team. There are only so many starter’s spots available in the NHL, and Calgary had one of them open for Hiller. And seriously, someone just drove a dump truck full of money up to Engelland and asked if that was good.
Of the three, only Hiller ended up making a real meaningful, positive impact for the Flames.
The big money players
So much money gets thrown around on July 1. The following were the biggest free agent signings of 2014, with each of the players involved going to a new team, and taking over $15 million along the way:
- Matt Niskanen to the Capitals
- Paul Stastny to the Blues
- Dave Bolland to the Panthers
- Brooks Orpik to the Capitals
- Matt Moulson to the Sabres
- Mike Cammalleri to the Devils
- Anton Stralman to the Lightning
- Mikhail Grabovski to the Islanders
- Benoit Pouliot to the Oilers
- Thomas Vanek to the Wild
- Ryan Miller to the Canucks
- Nikolai Kulemin to the Islanders
- Jarome Iginla to the Avalanche
- Jussi Jokinen to the Panthers
There are a variety of factors that caused each of those players to choose their new teams. In this group, money is the biggest one, as most of the teams spending weren’t playoff teams in 2013-14. That didn’t mean they couldn’t get to that level again, but to convince someone to come to a bad team – Matt Moulson, for example – is going to cost more.
Of the 14 players listed above, only one went to a division champion from the 2013-14 season: Jarome Iginla. To anyone not following analytics, the Avs looked like a new team on the rise with an incredibly bright future ahead of them. Iginla’s only real goal left is to win a Cup. With the Avs offering both a longer term deal of three years as well as a promise to build on their previous year, it was easy to see why he bit, even though it was the wrong move for someone older with championship aspirations.
In a number of ways, the Flames are this year’s Avs. That is to say: they were the team expected to do poorly, only to surprise everyone and actually end up putting together a pretty good season, even though their underlying numbers screamed it wouldn’t last.
The Avs won their division; the Flames, a playoff round. Just a little bonus of unanticipated success that could make free agents who want to win pause and wonder.
Neither team is really proven, though. So it’s still going to cost. Fortunately, the Flames can afford to meet just about anyone’s demands: they have some of the most cap space in the league, and just a few players who are going to command substantial raises (while a number of overpaid guys will be coming off the books at about the same time).
Steals and deals
Here were a few guys that didn’t necessarily get big money or term in last year’s free agency, but they ended up being incredibly valuable for their teams, and not at the expense of their cap:
- Radim Vrbata to the Canucks, $10 million over two years
- Willie Mitchell to the Panthers, $8.5 million over two years
- Christian Ehrhoff to the Penguins, $4 million over one year
- Brad Richards to the Blackhawks, $2 million over one year
Vrbata and Mitchell ended up being key, helpful players to get their respective teams either back into the playoffs, or very, very close. If the Flames can identify players of their caliber – and less so the Raymonds and Engellands – and sign them to short-term deals, they could be in very good position for the future.
The big takeaways from last season’s free agency period, however, were Ehrhoff and Richards. The two signed incredibly cheap deals to play for teams known as year in, year out Cup contenders.
It’s hard to tell if this opportunity will come for any teams again. Ehrhoff and Richards were both compliance buyouts, necessary for the Sabres and Rangers to get off their books in case of the horrific recapture penalties the teams would face under the new CBA. They simply couldn’t afford to keep them.
This left Ehrhoff and Richards both out of long-term contracts, and with a lot of money going to them no matter what. They didn’t need to sign for a lot for this season.
It isn’t a coincidence which teams they decided to go to, though. These were two players who already got their money, which only really left the desire to win. They knew that by taking cheaper deals – which they could easily afford – they were giving their new teams a better chance to do just that. There was no way in hell Richards was going to take $2 million to play for the Oilers, for example.
This is what being a strong, well-run, always-in-the-playoffs team will do for you. You’ll not only be able to attract the big fish, but you’ll be able to get them to bite on a deal that allows you to pursue even more depth.
Where are the Flames?
The Flames, at this moment, are somewhere around the Colorado-Vancouver-Florida stage. Their unexpected success this past season turned heads, and that’s going to make Calgary look like a more viable free agency option. They have the money; now, they’re offering a chance to win.
The goal is to get to the Pittsburgh-Chicago stage, where not only will you be able to attract big name free agents, but you won’t have to break the bank to acquire them. This will be an especially important stage when Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, and Sam Bennett get their inevitable raises.
You can’t get to the Pittsburgh-Chicago stage without first crossing through the Vancouver-Florida stage; that is, smart, if a little costly, deals. Just look at Marian Hossa’s contract with the Blackhawks. He joined them before they even won a Cup, and Chicago has had to pay for him. He’s been worth it, of course, but a 12-year, $63 million deal is nothing to sneeze at.
There are a few pretty good players for the Flames to go after this free agency period. To throw out a small handful of names: Justin Williams, Michael Frolik, Andrej Sekera, Mike Green, and Cody Franson would all address depth issues the Flames have, both in position and possession. They’re mostly players in their late 20s – Williams being the exception here – who, in all likelihood, will be looking for big contracts, and preferably with a team that gives them the chance to win.
The Flames can give them those big contracts.
After this season, they can add the chance to win. It may not be an accurate assessment – regression is a very real possibility, and almost a certainty if their offseason isn’t a smart one – but as long as the illusion exists, Calgary may start looking more and more appealing to important free agents sooner rather than later.