Calgary Flames 2016-17 Season Preview: The end of lowered expectations

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. 

The Forwards

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. 

The Defense

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 Net

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.

Conclusion

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. 

  • FireScorpion

    What ever will we do without Colborne? Seriously..

    I was one of the few that were in his corner. I never minded Joe’s game but most nights you’d be hard pressed to find 5 people who would back him up. So enough with the “I am surprised Colborne wasn’t resigned” bit. 90% of the posters here never had the time of day for him.

    Not to mention the deal he got from Colorado would have been significantly less than what an arbitrator would have awarded him in Calgary. And than we’d have people furious we signed Joe for that much.

    • NHL93

      Meh.. I always wished he went to the net like David Moss. He could’ve done some serious damage with the garbage goals but to me was too much of a perimeter player.

    • piscera.infada

      I’ll agree that I find it odd that all of a sudden letting Colborne walk is “surprising”. I still maintain that was the correct move. If his “replacements” (direct, or otherwise) don’t prove to be better, then that’s on the organisation’s choice of replacements, not that letting Colborne go was the wrong move.

    • Stu Cazz

      As Brad Treliving mentioned numerous times last season….it’s one thing to score goals it’s another to score goals when the games have importance….Colborne only scored irrelevant goals for the most part particularly late in the season when the Flames were out of it!

      Good riddence!

      • Johnny Goooooooaldreau

        You say “it’s one thing to score goals it’s another to score goals when the games have importance….Colborne only scored irrelevant goals for the most part particularly late in the season when the Flames were out of it!”

        Here are Colborne’ slpits from last year:

        Pre All-Star GP 40 G 7 A 11 PTS 18 Shooting% 13.2

        Post All-Star GP 33 G 12 A 14 PTS 26 Shooting% 25.5

        Here are Mikael Backlund’s splits from last year:

        Pre All-Star GP 48 G 5 A 17 PTS 22 Shooting% 5.6

        Post All-Star GP 34 G 16 A 9 PTS 25 Shooting% 24.6

    • TurkeyLips

      It’s the nature of the game…

      Players inherently want to boost their production in order to fatten their future contracts. While I’d love to have Colborne center our fourth line, he wouldn’t be inclined to do so because it doesn’t let him shine. Good for the team, bad for the player – contractually speaking.

      The Flames org simply didn’t have room for Colborne with Stajan at the back, as his contract is nigh immovable. Colborne took the road to the promised land as he was reportedly offered top 6 minutes in Colorado. After a career season, that’s a smart thing to do.

      Nakladal was in a similar situation. We have Wideman tied up and he didn’t see us abandoning a player with a $5.5 million contract. Within the pipeline there were numerous other defencemen in the same situation as him, so he bailed. Self-interest coming from players will always partially dictate the ebb and flow of a teams roster in the off-season.

      It can be tough for the GM to balance each position accordingly, so as to minimize the hemorrhage of usable talent from the teams pool. Part of it rests on players to learn their role, a particularly hard thing to instill in youngesters on the bottom roles of the O and D corps. It’s often something that’s just more naturally suited for veterans. You can never keep em’ all.

      For the record, I think Stanley Cup winning teams always have a hungry bottom half that don’t let line setups get to their heads. With the parity in the league being what it is these days, that’s what it takes to win.

  • cberg

    Kent, Tkachuk was one of the best forwards here all pre-season, and also produced. After the draft and Development Camp some weaknesses were identified, and he addressed them in the summer. Barring a disastrous first 9 games there is no way he is getting sent down.

    The same thing about a disastrous start can be said about anyone, but what, they stay up because they’re a vet? Hypocrisy. Sending Tkachuk back to Junior isn’t going to help him nor particularly help his game. He’s in a great spot, a spot where he can be effective (and has been) and which fits his style of play, i.e. complementing a strong C.

    Personally I think there is less than a 5% chance he gets sent down, and that he IS a strong and important part of the team right now.

    • KACaribou

      I went to Penticton and saw Tkachuk first hand. He was just excellent. In the pre-season he hooked up with Brouwer and Bennett and that appeared to be our best line (because Johnny Hockey was holding out). The kid is for real. I don’t see anything stopping him. Thank you for pointing all this out. I thought for a minute I was the only person seeing this.

      • Baalzamon

        Tkachuk has surprised the heck out of me. I thought he looked better in the preseason than in Penticton (at one point he drew a five minute powerplay and nearly prevented a goal… by picking a fight. Hilarious).

        Let’s hope he continues to impress. I’d love nothing more than for Tkachuk to prove me wrong about him!

      • Parallex

        Yeah, but it’s easy to look good when the games don’t matter. I think it’s fair to be skeptical of Tkachuk sticking until after getting a good look in during meaningful games.

        That being said I figure he will stick (I just wouldn’t bet the farm on it). PRobably get 35 points or so roughly what Monahan and Bennett got their first seasons.

        • KACaribou

          I essentially agree, but this kid has a ridiculous amount of confidence and that may carry him a long way. His confidence seems on a different plain than Monahan or Bennett’s in their first years.

          • Sobueno

            I was a bit sceptical at first, but after seeing Tkachuk live in Penticton I’d be surprised to see him sent back down. That kid was such a force, regardless of his constant parade to the penalty box. He looked pretty damn good in pre-season too.

            That combo with Bennett seems to be in the long term plans, so why not get the chemistry going now I say. Tkachuk hasn’t looked in over his head at all either, so unless he gets destroyed over the next 9 games I’d think he’s trending to stay on the team for sure.

  • Cam Notlaw

    The Flames should allow less goals. The Flames should not dip in the production of goals. The young forward core should continue to grow. They should have three lines that can score. They should have three defencemen who can play 25 minutes a game.

    The expectation should be to be playing in May.

    GFG

  • Backburner

    I’m hoping Wideman will have a strong season so we will be able to trade him at the deadline, and get something for him.

    I think the obvious weaknesses on this roster are still the lack of a first line RW, and one more capable top four D.

    Hopefully those will be correct next year when a good 10 million of bad contracts come off the cap.

    Flames will be in great shape next year.

    • redwhiteblack

      we do have next year to look forward to. This year is really about seeing the young guys improve. The roster spots and $ available next year should be used to build around the great forward and defensive core we have.

      If we add one more top winger and a top 4 D, we should have a stellar team.

      Hopefully 2 or 3 of the top prospects can make strides to be added next year.

  • al rain

    I agree that this is the end of lowered expectations, but we’d do well to remember that we’re not contending so we shouldn’t get too uptight about some roster spots.

    Wideman, Grossman, Engelland, Chiasson, Versteeg and Jokipakka are placeholders. Beyond that, I’m not picturing Stajan, Bouma, F. Hamilton being in town when it’s our turn to lift the Cup.

    And then we have some good potential on the farm to step up in the next few years, including Tkachuk, Shinkaruk, Mangiapane, Pribyl, Jankowski as forwards, Kulak, Kylington, Andersson, Hickey on defense and Gilles and Parsons in net. Plus those occasional surprise players. Who and how soon and how good is unknown and depends on the players themselves. But there’s good stuff there and we’ll add to that list somewhat as well in the next couple years.

    Personally, I think Treliving has (with a couple of exceptions) knocked it out of the park since he’s arrived. I trust he’ll keep taking the long view and keep players improving in the proper leagues and rolls. I trust he’ll make the hard decisions and keep increasing the options for all positions. It’s easy to get caught up in what’s happening this year, who’s a waste of ice time, but it’s not really that important.

    The window is starting to open and presently it looks like 2022 (Gaudreau’s contract) is when that will change. We’re on the way up. How I see it.

  • Derzie

    We need to ignore the pre-season and training camp to feel good about the season start. On paper, things changed for the better but we looked really bad in generating chances and in systems (PK, PP, new swarm). The backup was wildly inconsistent as well. Let’s hope pre-season is forgotten really quickly.

  • KACaribou

    Looking at who’s out and who’s in alone makes you wonder if the changes will make that “non-trivial” difference.

    That’s why I think the inclusion of Tkachuk is important. If he is a difference-maker as a rookie, which is possible, he will be a “non-trivial” addition. Brouwer and the ascension of Bennett could give us a real second scoring line.

    That would mean our third line, which is already “non-trivial,” could become more dominant against weaker competition.

    Our fourth line seems to remain: “Quite trivial”, but that could be fine in any case.

    Flames have virtually the same defensive group, no matter how they get mixed up and they have to play a stronger, more “non-trivial” defensive game or our new goalies’ GAA and S% will balloon in a “non-trivial” way.

    Every team looks great before the drop of the first puck though. Let’s play hockey!

  • Deef

    Its the coaching that scares me the most at this point. Bottom pairing D shouldn’t be so bad since we can hopefully limit their minutes to plugger lines and special teams. And don’t forget Kulak!

  • supra steve

    Nit picking, but if you’re including Kris Russell in the D-men “OUT”, then you should be including Kevin in the D-men “IN”.

    And I’m in agreement with some others, Tkachuk is in Calgary to stay.