The beginning is always the easy part.
It’s easy to sell hope at the onset of a rebuild. It’s easy to be excited about the new GM, the new coach, the new direction of a team. It’s fun to watch the organization pick blue chip prospects at the top of the draft. The hard stuff comes after.
The Brad Treliving regime is exiting the lowered expectations phase of the current rebuild. The kids are getting expensive, the core is starting to coalesce and the club is rubbing uncomfortably against the cap ceiling. Treliving was able to pick his own coaching staff this offseason and by next summer the budget will be clear of the prior regime’s last few mistakes (Dennis Wideman and Ladislav Smid).
Which means it’s time to start crawling back up the Western Conference standings rather than hoping for a top five draft pick. While it’s unrealistic to expect the Flames to instantly jump to contender status this season, the objective has to be real, substantial improvement.
In: Troy Brouwer, Alex Chiasson, Kris Versteeg, Daniel Pribyl, Linden Vey
Out: Josh Jooris, Joe Colborne, Jiri Hudler, Mason Raymond, David Jones
Treliving took a flamethrower to the Flames’ starboard side this year, trading Jiri Hudler at the deadline and walking away from Josh Jooris and Joe Colborne in free agency. In to replace those guys are Troy Brouwer, Alex Chiasson and Kris Versteeg, with wildcards but current AHLers Daniel Pribyl and Linden Vey thrown into the mix.
Despite the major surgery, it’s hard to say whether the Flames’ right wing is better or worse. Hudler had a lacklustre season and is visibly slowing down, but his 46 points last year are still better than his putative replacement’s best season in the league.
The bet on Brouwer rests on more than just offensive output, however. The decision makers are hoping Brouwer’s intangible qualities (size, playing style, experience, dressing room presence) make up for any potential offensive shortfall. We’ll also have to see if those things can stave off the decline that is probable for Brouwer over his four-year contract given his age.
Joe Colborne was surprisingly shuffled off after his career best season and Mason Raymond was unsurprisingly bought out after bottoming out. Raymond will be easy to replace, but for now we don’t know if Pribyl, Vey or Chiasson can replace (or improve on) the departed Jooris and Colborne.
There seemed to be a lot of uncertainty when it came to the Flames’ winger depth until the club signed veteran Versteeg to a cheap, one-year deal. Versteeg should be a good, cheap stand-in at the top of the rotation and pushes a lot of the question marks further down the roster where they belong.
Nevertheless, Calgary’s winger depth is probably their biggest weakness currently. Johnny Gaudreau is the lone, truly above average offensive weapon on the wing, while Versteeg, Michael Frolik and Brouwer round out the veteran depth. Almost everyone else requires a leap of faith.
The good news is Calgary is better at center with Monahan, Sam Bennett and Mikael Backlund providing a 1-2-3 punch down the middle. All eyes will be on Bennett this year, not only to see if he can prove himself as a pivot, but also take a step forward and become a consistent two-way threat. If the 20-year-old fourth overall pick can start to drive results by himself, it will help the club negotiate the season with lacklustre winger options.
Finally, Micheal Ferland could help assuage depth concerns by shaking off a season of bad bounces and becoming a legitimate, everyday NHLer. If he can stick in a shutdown role with Backlund or a scoring role with Monahan and Gaudreau, it will vastly improve new coach Glen Gulutzan’s line matching options at forward.
In: Nicklas Grossmann
Out: Kris Russell, Jakub Nakladal, Ladislav Smid (IR)
Unlike the forwards ranks, Calgary’s blueline didn’t really change much this offseason. Kris Russell was dealt at the deadline and didn’t come back as a free agent (despite some rumours to the contrary), while Jakub Nakladal decided to sign in Carolina after sitting on the sidelines most of the offseason. Ladislav Smid was shuffled to the injured reserve where he will wait out the last year of his deal.
In to replace those guys is… Nick Grossmann. The big, slow-skating Swedish defender doesn’t have much offence to speak of and his lack of mobility hinders his effectiveness against players with any kind of speed. He’s strictly a seventh defender.
The team acquired Jyki Jokkipaka in return for Kris Russell and he’ll likely slide back into the top four rotation. Dennis Wideman survived the summer as a Flame, even though he was both a trade and buyout candidate. The team also kept around Brett Kulak, who helps fill out the depth and give the Flames another, more mobile option.
Because nothing much changed this summer, Calgary’s blueline remains hilariously top-heavy. T.J. Brodie, Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton are an enviable top three, but things fall off rapidly after them. Of particular concern is the Flames’ third pairing, which will likely feature two of Wideman, Grossmann or Engelland – three defenders who aren’t fleet of foot and can’t reliably defend against anyone above a third liner. They will be consistently targeted by opposing coaches all year, especially on the road.
For fantasy players out there, keep an eye on Dougie Hamilton. He had a hard time regaining Hartley’s trust after a slow start in Calgary, but with a new coach in town he will likely get much more ice time at both even strength and the power play – which should mean a lot more points, too.
In: Brian Elliott, Chad Johnson, David Rittich
Out: Karri Ramo, Jonas Hiller, Joni Ortio
Last year at this time the Flames were entering the season with three goalies on the NHL roster. None of them proved adequate to the task, resulting in the NHL’s worst netminding.
Treliving was clearly determined to not repeat that error. Thanks to a goalie trade market awash in options (Marc-Andre Fleury, Ben Bishop, Brian Elliott, even Dallas goalies) he was able to land Elliott from St. Louis for a relative pittance. By also signing veteran backup Chad Johnson, the Flames GM turned the club’s most glaring weakness into perhaps its biggest strength in one offseason.
The goaltending change should provide a huge boost to the club’s results, potentially on the order of 20 or 30 goals saved over last year. Even if the rest of the team runs in place, the improved puck stopping should at least put the Flames back in the playoff conversation.
Aside from the goaltending, the biggest difference maker for the organization this year could be the new coaching staff. Calgary struggled at key aspects of the game under Hartley, including possession at even strength, PP conversion and PK suppression.
If Gulutzan and crew can improve at least one of these areas to a non-trivial degree, it will go a long way to moving Calgary up the Western Conference ladder. Conversely, if the new bench boss can’t figure things out (or if aspects of the club’s performance go backwards), the Flames will once against struggle to be anything more than a plucky underdog in their division.