Who’s the future of the Flames?

The Flames are in something of an undesirable position. They’re a rebuilding team, but they’re one right up against the cap, and it’s projected to only get worse as we enter next season. No real success came during Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau’s entry-level contracts, their cheap years all gone to further development – but no promises of actually being competitive.

Throw in a faltering Canadian dollar, a struggling cap ceiling, management missteps that go back years, and the Flames are put in a precarious position: they need to improve, but financially, they’re going to have very little ability to do so. At least not without some mind blowing moves ahead, so you’re up, Brad Treliving.

But while we’ve talked about who needs to go in order for the Flames to try to make things work next season, let’s take a moment to talk about who needs to stay – and how much the Flames still have left to do to build a contending roster.

Forwards

Mikael Backlund, $3.575 million cap hit. This is where I caution I’m not talking about core players: just players who should unequivocally have a spot on this team as it (hopefully) shifts into contending status. And Backlund is one of those guys. He scores just over half a point per game, but his real strengths lie in his defensive prowess. 

I know the Chicago Blackhawks aren’t the pinnacle of cap management at the moment, but they are at the top of the NHL for a reason – and they just extended Marcus Kruger, their own depth defensive specialist, to a three-year, $9.25 million deal. He’s just a tad cheaper than Backlund, but still the kind of guy you win with.

Sam Bennett, $925,000 cap hit, excluding bonuses. Bennett is having a modest rookie season, but he’s only just now transitioning to a centre role, and starting to become one of the guys. He isn’t quite there yet, but it’d be naive to think he wasn’t going to get there. One never makes assumptions on prospects to reach their ceilings – but Bennett is a fair assumption to at least become a frequently contributing player.

Of course, he will, in all likelihood, get much more expensive following the 2016-17 season. But the Flames still have one cheap year of Bennett left – hopefully they can do something with it.

Michael Frolik, $4.3 million cap hit. Presently the Flames’ most expensive forward, Frolik was a much-needed free agent pickup who immediately addressed two areas: the Flames’ poor depth on the right side, and poor possession game. Like Backlund, he’s roughly over half a point per game; like Backlund, his real strengths come in his defensive prowess.

He may be a bit expensive for what his role ultimately turns out to be, but that’s one of the prices of free agency. But he’s the kind of guy who helps a team win – and though he may end up being a tad overpriced, his on-ice contributions are going to offset that, easily.

Johnny Gaudreau, $925,000 cap hit, excluding bonuses. When you’re in your second NHL season and you’re your team’s leading scorer by a fair margin, there’s no question you’re a crucial player. At every level he’s ever played, Gaudreau’s only gotten better; now he’s flirting with a point per game at the highest level of hockey, so the question is, where do we go from here?

To a far more expensive contract – but Gaudreau is literally one of the best players in the world, and those guys tend to get paid. There’s little danger of this looking bad any time soon.

Sean Monahan, $925,000 cap hit, excluding bonuses. There are some holes to Monahan’s game, but there are also some undeniable facts about him. For example: he’s 21 years old and already has 76 goals in the NHL. Scorers get paid, and Monahan is definitely a scorer.

Is he a true first line player? We can’t say for sure yet – while the signs may presently be pointing towards no, we also have to remember he’s only 21 years old. That youth and that offensive prowess makes him a big part of the team going forward, though, even if his previously lauded two-way abilities never manifest.

Five players, $10.65 million cap hit, excluding bonuses. We can probably assume the Flames’ 2016 first round pick will find himself in this grouping sooner rather than later, but for right now, the Flames are rather weak up front. 

That’s not to say they always will be, as they have quite a handful of solid potential depth players. But until potential actually materializes – or is at least stored in the form of someone like Bennett, where it’s likely to materialize – it’s not entirely useful.

Really, the main takeaway here is just how entirely replaceable much of the forward group is. This is why signing Lance Bouma to a $2.2 million cap hit is a bad idea; how crucial is he to the lineup? The same goes for Brandon Bollig’s $1.25 million cap hit, and especially Matt Stajan’s $3.125 million cap hit for at least two more seasons – and that’s without going into Mason Raymond’s partially buried salary. 

One could make the argument guys like Micheal Ferland or Josh Jooris could be included here, and to be sure, they’re cheap depth options – but potentially, entirely replaceable. This is only the second season for each; the nice thing is the Flames aren’t tied to them with big contracts – which is part of the reason why they can be in the conversation to begin with. They’re inoffensive potential.

Unless we’re talking absolute cream of the crop – which even Backlund and Frolik aren’t a part of – then this team has been throwing around money and term like candy, and it’s coming back to bite them. These things add up. Even with Backlund and Frolik, at least they’re relatively young and have consistent histories of being strong performers on the ice, making their own slightly bigger deals less of a risk.

Just five forwards, potentially six. Three of them are centres. The Flames’ next task? Find some wingers.

Defence

T.J. Brodie, $4.65 million cap hit. This is, in all likelihood, probably the best contract on the Flames. It was signed before the words “Brodie” and “Norris” could start popping up in the same sentence (well, unless you were really paying attention). The value Brodie has is immense: both on the ice as a number one defenceman, and off it as a laughably affordable contract.

His skating is phenomenal, his on-ice vision incredible, and he’s stealthily become one of the highest scoring defencemen per game. The only real fault to his game is he doesn’t shoot enough – but considering everything else he does on the ice for that small a cap hit, it’s a minor quibble.

Mark Giordano, $4.02 million cap hit. Giordano’s deal rivalled Brodie’s in terms of efficiency. Rivalled, as in past tense, though, because it’s about to jump up to $6.75 million – and while Giordano is a crucial part of this team right now, his cap hit could become a burden sooner rather than later.

Sports are fickle. Giordano has gone from back-to-back Norris-worthy seasons to a slight slip down the depth chart, through no fault of his own – but that slide will, presumably, keep going as he ages. And that’s where the cap hit could signal trouble. For all the talk of how useful Dennis Wideman can be on the ice, fact is, he doesn’t bring nearly as much to the table as he needs to for the amount he costs, and that’s what makes the contract – not necessarily the player – difficult to move. Giordano is a late bloomer who hopefully won’t fall down that road, but it’s a very real risk. When Stajan’s deal was signed, the cap hit wasn’t really the worst at the time, but the term…

Dougie Hamilton, $5.75 million cap hit. Hamilton is a 22-year-old defenceman with potential first pairing ability, and if not that, then at least prime scoring and power play quarterback talent. That’s rare – add in his size and his skating ability, though, and the Flames have a recipe for a strong future on defence, and a defenceman who should be able to live up to his cap hit for the duration of his contract, assuming he’s ever used properly.

The potential for improvement is always there, but even if he doesn’t reach the heights expected of him in full, it still needs to be stressed: he’s a 22-year-old who has played regular minutes in the NHL for years now. Cast your eye around the rest of the Flames’ defensive options and prospects; none of them quite have that going for them.

Three players, $14.42 million cap hit, soon to be $17.15 million. That’s half a defensive lineup right there taking up 24% of the projected $71.4 million cap. Just three players are costing the Flames nearly a quarter of their cap.

So while the Flames’ forward group is a cautionary tale of not overspending on marginal players, the defensive group is screaming it in your face. Bloated contracts have completely overloaded it while there remain better, cheaper options out there, making the potential problem of three players taking up so much cap – and one of them potentially not being worth his cap hit not too far from now – much more manageable. There are cheap rookies who have earned a shot; there are cheap veterans, the David Schlemkos of the world, who don’t cost that much but absolutely have a place in a team’s regular rotation.

Conclusion

The Flames still have no goalies to speak of, so that leaves us with a grand total of eight players that should be on the team of the future. Eight out of a 23-man roster, nine if you count how likely it is the 2016 first round pick joins that group. Currently, they occupy roughly 35% of the Flames’ overall cap hit, but considering three impending extensions, the amount those eight players take up is about to go up considerably – in all likelihood, to over 50% of the Flames’ cap, and that’s without considering Bennett’s own impending raise.

And this is still a team right at the bottom of the league. Sure, they’re expected to grow and get better, but that’s a lot of money tied up in not even half a roster: one with major question marks still left in the forward group, which is inadequate, and in net, which is a disaster.

The one silver lining? This time a year ago, it was the Flames’ defence that needed the most addressing. Now, it has a solid foundation in place, and games over the past month or so have shown us it can handle itself just fine with cheap depth options – of which the Flames have plenty – playing behind the three front-loaded guys. So that looks to be one area solved, or at least by the time the cumbersome contracts there expire – and hoping Giordano becomes one of them much, much later, or preferably, not at all.

  • BurningSensation

    This team is built correctly down the middle (excepting the goaltender), with two key pieces (Brodie, Hamilton) on the blue, and three Cs.

    Shinkaruk was a cheap (very) way of adding a possible scoring winger. This year’s draft (Puljujarvi, Laine, Tkachuk, Nylander) gives us an opportunity to draft another (though I will be happy as heck if we get Mathews or Chychrun, as they fit the ‘down the middle’ paradigm).

    All of which is a way of saying that the Flames rebuild seems to be right on track.

    The arrival of Gillie’s as a legit NHL starter will be the last necessary piece for the rebuild to be complete.

  • Hubcap1

    I suspect that if you place the Flames cap situation, regarding their ‘core’ players and the % of cap they will likely take up, in perspective with many if not most other teams you will find they are not unique.

    • Greg

      That would make for a good article… An analysis of each team’s “core” and the percentage of the cap they consume. And maybe broken down into good/bad/ugly categories to compare what makes for a winning cap structure. Would be interesting to see if the flames is shaping up like a perennial contender or a perennial lottery team (I assume it’s the former, but might be a good reality check if it turns out to be more like the latter).

  • brodiegio4life

    this team is 3 pieces away from being a contender… top 6 winger (2016 draft) a #4 dman (andersson,kevin,nak, kylington?) and a goalie (ortio, gillies, mcdonald?) The core they have in place is very solid and the big 5 sam,Johnny,mony,Brodie, and dougie are all around the same age. They are well on their way to making deep playoff runs

    • BurningSensation

      Not sure I agree with you about the need for another top 4 Dman. Having three high end guys is typically sufficient (see: LA, Chicago, etc.)

      That said, I think we undoubtedly have another top 4 Dman hiding in the group you mentioned. (IMO it’s Andersson)

      A high end right winger (a young Hossa would be perfect) and a top end goaltender. And we’re good to go.

      • Matty Franchise Jr

        I would say a better than average goalie, another top 6 winger or 2, and fill in the rest of the line up with good/young/cheap guys and that’s where you want to be.

  • Greg

    Ari, good point that last year’s most glaring issue (defence) was mostly addressed (via Hamilton, draft, and some belated blossoming of farm players). They also made a nice dent in the second biggest issue they had with possession rates (via Frolik).

    If BT can do something similar this year with the goaltending, while also making dents in the bad contracts (Raymond buyout?) and forward depth (another top 5 pick), then by end of next year, hopefully we can stop talking about glaring issues and start talking about the tweaks needed to get into cup contention.

  • Baalzamon

    I found Kruger’s extension hilarious as soon as it was announced, because there are people who complain about Backlund’s contract, but no one said a thing about Kruger’s. Kruger isn’t anywhere near as good as Backlund.

    They play the same role. Backlund is just a lot better at it.

    If Kruger makes team Sweden ahead of Backlund… it would be like Ryan Murray (and Seth Jones, and Morgan Rielly) making team NA over Hamilton.

    Wait, that already happened? Okay, nevermind.

  • I bawked and bawked at the Stajan deal on twitter for months after. The Feastie signed it. I said then that the deal along with others he signed and then Brad after were gonna cause problems for us right when we needed the room they worked so hard to make. I got laughed at by many saying “oh stajan is a solid protection for Monahan and Bennett, etc” Well I love it when I’m right.

    Unfotunately no one predicted that the Flames would be stuck with Engellend, Raymond, and Smid at roughly 10.5 million through to 2017.

    IF they can move some of that money out. With Jiri & Jones gone, and Hillers contract expiring there should be plenty of room to resign Gaudreau and Monahan, and find a decent enough goalie with a little left over for bennett. It just means you’re gonna rely on depth guys like your Agostino’s Arnolds from the farm to fill out the roster.

    • Baalzamon

      My preference would actually be for Matthews to play RW. Between him, Bennett, and Monahan, he’s the only one who’s actually spent any significant time at that position.

      Also, the kid’s a major league scorer. He has great touch and a heck of a shot.

      What almost certainly would happen, though, is that Bennett would be moved to the wing.

  • KH44

    The only issue here is a lack of forward depth in the core. 3 top 6, 2 top nine! If the expansion draft is 7 forwards and 3 defencemen, the Flames biggest issue is who are the other 2 forwards after Gaudreau, Bennett, Monahan, Backlund and Frolik. And that is assumming Bennett is even someone that needs to be protected (He will have completed 2 full seasons, will the few games in 2014/2015 count?)They could protect 2 of Colbourne(ugh), Shinkaruk, Poirier, Klimchuk, or 3 if Bennett doesn’t count.

    If Wideman isn’t bought out, he could complicate things, as his no move clause may have to be protected, even though he expires a week after the expansion draft, according to Friedman…that exposes one of Gio, Brodie or Hamilton…

        • Baalzamon

          If Wideman’s NMC means he has to be protected, then the Flames ABSOLUTELY WILL protect 4 D and 4 forwards.

          They aren’t losing one of Giordano, Brodie, or Hamilton to an expansion draft. No way.

          • Greatsave

            If the draft was today? Sure, you protect Gio, Brodie, and Hamilton.

            But who knows what shape Gio is in next year or two years from now? And who knows what sort of cap situation we find ourselves in then? And who knows how the NHLPA and the NHL get the NMC/NTC issues sorted?

            Bottom line: You protect Brodie and Hamilton *before* Gio.

  • KiLLKiND

    In my opinion the biggest hole we have going forward is a top RW. I am not going to bet on us coming in the top 3 of the lottery. Therefore our best bet is getting Okposo somehow…

    We will most likely have to buy out Wideman and trade some salary potentially Colborne to the Islanders for his rights to get this done. Honestly the best thing for us to do is shed some cap to get this done, I’m not sure who the Islanders would want for his rights it wouldn’t be a lot but if locking down Okposo is the outcome it could be worth it. This would be done after the draft, cause you never know what’s gonna happen at the draft or who is going to fall.

  • Craik

    another very Ari thing to say (regarding Michael Frolik) – “… and though he may end up being a tad overpriced, his on-ice contributions are going to offset that, easily.”

    To me, if someone’s on-ice contributions “easily” offset his cap hit then he is NOT overpriced.

  • Craik

    If Bouma didn’t get hurt so much I’d keep him at his relatively low $2.2M cap hit … anyone else who builds the same level of consistency on the ice is going to cost the same amount

    And nobody (nobody) else has shown consistency this year including (especially) Ferland and Jooris. I thought Ferland might come in and take over Bouma’s roll but after watching him this year I think it’s going to be a while before he does it.

  • Thunder1

    “Is he a true first line player? We can’t say for sure yet – while the signs may presently be pointing towards no, we also have to remember he’s only 21 years old”

    Why the Monahan hate, Ari?

    Toews has 24 goals, 24 assists and 48 points this year. He’s plus 16 on a far superior team and has a 15.3% shooting percentage. When he was 21 he had 34 goals and 35 assists with a plus 12 and 17.4% shooting percentage through 82 games.

    Monahan is 23 and 28 for 51 points as a 21 year-old through 65 games. He’s a minus 2 on a team with no goalie, let alone Stanley Cup caliber net minder. His shooting percentage is 13.8.

    In what hockey league do you figure he might not be a “true first line player”?

    • Derzie

      Because of Corsi love. See Backlund, Michael at the top of the list. It gets incredibly silly how much that gets valued here. More than goals and assists and almost more than wins.

      • Greatsave

        Setting all stats aside for the moment, I think one of Ari’s concerns is that Gaudreau seems to be driving Monahan’s productions, and we don’t have a clear idea right now what Monahan truly is without Gaudreau.

        We know what Toews is without Kane; he’s still a true 1C. Can Monahan take on the 1C role without Gaudreau?

        There’s a range of what a true 1C is around the league too. There’s guys like Toews, Kopitar, Pavelski, and Bergeron who drive possession while putting up 60-70 points, and there’s guys like Crosby, Malkin, Stamkos, Tavares, and Seguin who regularly put up 35+ goals and/or 80+ points, and then guys like Backstrom, Getzlaf, Giroux, Thornton, and Sedin who put up 60+ assists with or without their favourite trigger-man. Question is: Do you see Monahan under one of those categories?

          • Greatsave

            I believe the idea that a 30-team league automatically/necessarily means there are 30 true #1 centers in the league isn’t necessarily true, therefore there’s really no need for there to be 30 centers ahead of Monahan in order to justify the claim that “Monahan isn’t a true 1C”. Just because someone plays center on the top line for a team doesn’t make him a true 1C, right? See: Kadri, Little. And just because a team has multiple 1Cs that someone has to play second line or on the wing, doesn’t make them *not* true 1Cs, right? See: Malkin, Pavelski.

            But I’ll bite. Here’s a list of guys I’d consider equal to or better than Monahan:

            • Datsyuk
            • Plekanec
            • Spezza
            • Backes
            • Jeff Carter
            • Krejci
            • Paul Stastny
            • Couture
            • Duchene
            • Ryan O’Reilly
            • Tyler Johnson
            • Johansen
            • Kuznetsov
            • MacKinnon
            • McDavid

            Not that I’d consider these 15 to all be equal to the first 14 named previously, but that they are at least on par with Monahan as he has been in his three NHL seasons.

            Here are a few bonus ones based on point-production over the past 2-3 seasons:

            • Bryan Little
            • Mikko Koivu
            • Eric Staal
            • Ribeiro
            • Brassard
            • Stepan
            • Nugent-Hopkins
            • Barkov

            Obviously some of these players are getting old and declining (e.g. Koivu, Staal), while others are still young and improving (e.g. Barkov, MacKinnon). Just understand my point: there’s not much about Monahan that makes him stand out from this bunch into the upper echelon of “true 1Cs”. He has the potential to become one, sure, but there’s little that would make me prefer him over someone else of a similar age, like MacKinnon, Barkov, Kuznetsov, or Johansen, and only the issue of age and decline would make me take him over the likes of Datsyuk, Plekanec, or Ribeiro.

      • FlamesFan1489

        So much this. How Backlund comes first on the list of forwards over Johnny is beyond me, let alone Monny and Bennett. Those are your top 3 players, Backlund and Frolik are (good) complementary players but not your first choice based off Corsi.

        • Greatsave

          Uh, guys? Pretty sure the lists were ordered alphabetically by last names. Chill. Talk about reading too much of your own bias into things.

          Try not to take this comment too negatively either. I mean no offence. Just, seriously.