The trade deadline is typically a pretty exciting time in the sports landscape. Playoff-bound teams are picking up reinforcements, while lottery-bound teams have new picks and prospects to look forward to.
And then there are the bubble teams, who are left with the worst question: do they buy to try to make a playoff run, or do they sell to bolster their future prospects (and, at the same time, imply throwing in the towel on the season)? Or do they simply stand pat and hope for the best?
The Flames look like a bubble team (albeit merely by benefit of how terrible the Pacific Division is), so that’s a question they will, in all likelihood, be facing come the Feb. 29, 2016 trade deadline.
But the answer is clear: they have to sell.
This is still a rebuilding team
The Flames are in year three of their rebuild. They remain a negative possession team, although their current 47.6% CF – seventh worst in the NHL – isn’t as bad as last season’s 44.5%, or even 2013-14’s 46.3%. They’re slowly but surely improving, but they are not even close to being competitive.
This is a team with a 16-16-2 record. A -22 goal differential. Of their 16 wins, seven of them have come in regulation. They have won four games by more than one goal.
This is not a good team. You can point to any number of excuses, from injuries to catastrophic goaltending to low shooting percentages, but fact is, this is not a team that can be competitive outside of its division.
If the Flames played in the Atlantic, Metropolitan, or Central, they would be seventh place in the divisions. The only reason they look like a bubble team now is because three teams from the Pacific are guaranteed a playoff spot, and they’re keeping pace with the other bottom dwellers they’re in direct competition with. They’re 23rd in overall league standings; five of the bottom 10 teams in the NHL are from the Pacific. It’s a really, really bad division.
Even though the Flames have been playing much better as the season has gone on, any dream of being competitive remains just that: a dream. Because they’re certainly not there yet.
Look at what happened last season
The Flames were in a playoff spot for most of the 2014-15 season. Even an eight-game losing streak couldn’t really knock them out of the post-season talk. Sure, they didn’t clinch until their penultimate game of the season, but they were always – always – in the conversation.
And they still sold.
Granted, the Flames didn’t have as much to sell. Curtis Glencross was an impending unrestricted free agent scoring at .53 points per game, though, and he could have (theoretically) helped the Flames en route to a playoff spot – or he could have helped them acquire assets for the future while the Flames continued to fight on without him.
He netted them a second and third round pick, both of which were crucial in the acquisitions of Dougie Hamilton and Oliver Kylington. Because the Flames traded Glencross, they had the picks they needed to make both of those trades, and they’re a much better team for it today.
The Flames made the playoffs and won a round without Glencross anyway. Their second round performance helped serve to highlight just how completely not ready they were to compete, though. While the Vancouver Canucks – a not-great team – put up an entertaining six-game battle with the Flames, the Anaheim Ducks – then an actually-good team – completely dismantled Calgary. It was fun, but they weren’t going to achieve the ultimate goal.
So which would you rather do: cling to expiring assets in the hope they help you for another short post-season run, or use them to build for the future? Would you rather a potentially marginally extended playoff run or two young defencemen with incredible upside?
Immediate gratification is great, but not productive in the team’s current state.
Better to get something than nothing
The Flames have five impending UFAs this season: Jiri Hudler, David Jones, Kris Russell, Jonas Hiller, and Karri Ramo. Six if you count Jakub Nakladal.
Now, it’s unlikely all of these guys go. That would essentially leave the Flames goalie-less. It would leave more spots open for prospects, but the Flames will still likely be in a playoff battle by the time the trade deadline hits, and simply throwing a bunch of young 20-somethings out there and telling them to go at it probably isn’t the best move for success, either in the short term in trying to make the post-season or the long term for their development.
But there’s something to be said for still trying to acquire assets for something you’re almost certainly going to lose no matter what. There may not be a market for Hiller, but Hudler is one season removed from a 76 point season, and some playoff-bound team is guaranteed to want that. There’s probably no market for Nakladal, but Russell is a defenceman playing top-four minutes on a relatively cheap contract, and any team that wants to increase its defensive depth will probably be looking at him. At this point in time, they’re better pieces than Glencross was for the Flames, and losing them would hurt the lineup more, but that’s no reason to be gun shy when it comes to a potential deal for them.
With the impending cap crunch the 2016-17 season looks to bring for the Flames – a perfect storm of bad contracts yet to expire, and Sean Monahan and especially Johnny Gaudreau about to get paid – guys like Hudler and Russell will, in all likelihood, price themselves out of the Flames’ range.
Hudler will be a 32-year-old looking for a big pay day; not only can the Flames not afford him, it wouldn’t make sense to retain him, considering the current state of the team. Russell will be 29 and looking for a greater amount than his current $2.6 million; he could still fit in the Flames’ plans, but with Dennis Wideman, Ladislav Smid, and Deryk Engelland taking up a combined roughly $11.65 million of the cap on what are pretty much untradable contracts next season, finding room for his new salary is going to be difficult (and considering Russell’s overuse – that he’s more suited for a third-pairing role – overpaying for him makes little sense; that $11.65 million is already spent on what are three third-pairing guys, and why would you add to that).
Retaining guys like Jones and Ramo may make sense, if only because there’s a decent chance they’ll come back to the Flames for a much lesser cap hit; Ramo in particular because the Flames will still need a stopgap in net, and he’s at least already familiar with the team.
But the future is the key here. If a team is willing to part with assets to acquire any of the Flames’ impending UFAs, then you pull the trigger. Sell them. Because this season isn’t going to result in the ultimate prize, but assets they acquire this season one day might.