Core, noun. “The central or most important part of something.”
To go further: “The part of something that is central to its existence or character. An important or unchanging group of people forming the central part of a larger body.” Thanks, Google!
It’s that last sentence there that’s most relevant to sports. In hockey, core players are particularly apparent: they’re the guys teams lock up and never let go of. Superstars changing teams is a rarity in the modern day NHL, often dealt huge contracts to keep them in the same team. And it’s usually the team they started with.
As a rebuilding team, the Flames’ core is only just now starting to form. Identifying who they are is important: these are the guys you’re going to be spending most of your money on, and the guys who will hopefully be leading you to the Cup.
Subjectivity, but within reason
The only person whose opinions really matter on the core is Brad Treliving (Bob Hartley, too; Treliving supplies him the players, and Hartley determines who gets used when and where).
That doesn’t mean we, as fans, can’t identify who we think the core is. Contractual status matters, to an extent. One would assume players with big, long contracts are core players, but that doesn’t mean all of them are. Was Dennis Wideman identified as a core player when he was first signed, and ended up being the Flames’ most expensive contract? Is Dougie Hamilton a core player now that he has that honour?
You get to decide who you think is most important to a team. The criteria can be pretty easy: Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan are very young, and score a lot of goals. They made up the bulk of the team’s offence this past season. Therefore, they must be core players. Does that mean Jiri Hudler is one, too, even if he’s about a decade older?
Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie play huge minutes for this team. Does that make them core players? So do Wideman and Kris Russell. Are they core?
Is Lance Bouma a core player because he’s a heart and soul guy? If he is, does that mean David Jones is one, too? Paul Byron?
It spirals out of control pretty quickly, and you can end up naming pretty much every player you like as a core player. That goes against the very definition above, though: “An important or unchanging group of people forming the central part of a larger body.” Your entire team can’t be core. You have to pick and choose a nucleus.
Who was most valuable to the Flames last season?
Keeping in mind the idea that a team’s core is only a select group of players, and not “well they’re on my team so I like them and if I like them that means they are a core player”, then the Flames’ MVPs over the year were the top line, and top defence pairing.
That’s about it. There were quality supporting players, sure: Russell, Mikael Backlund, the goalie tandem. But if we’re limiting ourselves to a select few, we’re going with the guys who played the biggest minutes, and put up most points. The guys who had the most tangible impacts on the Flames.
True, this excludes Wideman, but that’s where subjectivity comes in. There’s been suggestion all around to trade Wideman because he’s probably never going to have a better season, and he’s already 32 years old. Does that sound like someone who’s a core player? Remember when everyone hated him two seasons ago, but seemed just fine by him this past year (coincidentally, about the time when his shooting percentage went from 3.9% to 8.7%)? Remember, part of the core definition is to be unchanging, and that’s a pretty stark contrast of opinion to match his very different shooting percentages over just two seasons.
Monahan will be 21 to start next season; Gaudreau, 22. They’re two of the three highest scorers on the Flames, and in their early 20s. They don’t have big, long contracts, but they’re about to get them. It’d be hard to argue against them being core players.
Where then does that leave Hudler, 31? He was an integral part of the Flames’ top line, and the team’s highest scorer. He will also be a free agent after this upcoming season, and the Flames will be in a cap crunch. There’s no guarantee he comes back. It may be most prudent to trade him at the trade deadline. Is that something a rebuilding team does to a core player? (Can he even repeat his nearly point-per-game performance?)
Brodie wasn’t the highest scorer, but he’s now 25, and has been playing on the Flames’ top pairing since he was 23. Does that make him core? He scored 31 points that first year, and 41 most recently. He, too, had a Wideman-esque rise in shooting percentage, from 3.8% to 8.3%. Does he maintain his offence? Does that matter in regards to him, considering he’s seven years younger, and superior defensively? He’s already signed a five-year deal at a $4.65 million-and-change cap hit. Would that not establish him as core?
Then there’s Giordano: captain, leader, should-be-two-time-Norris-winner. What separates him from Monahan, Gaudreau, and Brodie is that he’ll be 32 years old to start the season. What separates him from Hudler and Wideman is there’s a clear emphasis in place on keeping him. While Hudler’s future with the team remains uncertain, and Wideman is probably never going to get as big a contract ever again, Giordano is in line for a followup to his own Brodie-like contract.
Who will be most valuable for the Flames next season?
Again, we can probably immediately point towards the suspects from this past season: Brodie, Gaudreau, Giordano, Hudler, and Monahan.
That’s already five on a 23-man roster, though, and there will be some new challengers this upcoming year: Sam Bennett, Michael Frolik, and Dougie Hamilton. And eight core players seems a little much.
All three players are, as of yet, unproven in the Flames’ system. Bennett had a good playoffs, but he’s also never played a full year in the NHL. Frolik has had an established career to date, but we don’t yet know how he’s going to be used, even if he’s now the most expensive forward. Hamilton is the most expensive player on this team now, but like Frolik, he has as of yet been untested in the Flames’ system.
That said, Bennett and Hamilton fit in with Gaudreau and Monahan: they’re only 19 and 22. If they fit in, then combined with Brodie, that’s a five-player core all 25 years and younger: a pretty good core age for a rebuilding team.
Hudler could be a loss; Frolik could replace him, but Frolik has yet to score a 70-point season. It’s hard to see either player as core guys right now.
But if Giordano does get that big contract extension to remain a Flame, then even though he’s much older than the rest of the group, he’s a core player. He’s one of the best defencemen in the NHL, after all, not to mention the team’s captain. How could he not be?
That leaves six guys – four established, two probables – looking like they’re the Flames’ core group. (You have six players in a starting lineup; since the Flames don’t exactly have a core goalie at the moment, it fits.)
But of course, it’s all subjective.
If the Flames are ever going to win, though, they’ll have a strong cast of supporting players – and the core guys at the helm.