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.
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.
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.
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.