The Calgary Flames are aware they have a problem on defence.
Considering how Dennis Wideman is regularly playing over 20 minutes a game, you’d hope that would be the case. And, at least according to a drive-by mention on Sportsnet, they absolutely are looking to upgrade their top four.
The Flames only have three defencemen – Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie, and Dougie Hamilton – signed beyond this season, so they’re going to have to do something at the position no matter what. Complicating things, however, is the expansion draft; there’s a pretty decent chance the Flames won’t even be able to protect their new asset, lest they want to risk giving up, say, Michael Frolik.
Which is probably not going to happen.
That said, the Flames have both a short- and long-term need for a defensive upgrade. They’re a playoff bubble team; they’re not good enough to give up assets for a rental at this point in time. Whoever they target should be able to play for years down the line, and we should hope he’s on the team next season, too.
Sorting through the UFAs
Which players tend to be sold off at the deadline? Players approaching free agency teams don’t think they’ll be able to re-sign, or at least ones it wouldn’t make sense for them to.
Going into the next season without a contract means that’s one less player the Flames would have to focus on protecting, and hopefully by acquiring him they’d have the inside track on signing him once the expansion draft is over.
Kris Versteeg is still without a contract for next season, after all; he’s a player Calgary doesn’t have to worry about protecting.
So let’s look at free agent defencemen under 30 years of age who regularly play 20 minutes a game (or close to). They are:
- Dmitry Kulikov (26, Buffalo)
- Kris Russell (29, Edmonton)
- Michael Stone (26, Arizona)
- Karl Alzner (28, Washington)
- Kevin Shattenkirk (28, St. Louis)
- Michael Del Zotto (26, Philadelphia)
- Cody Franson (29, Buffalo)
- Brendan Smith (28, Detroit)
That’s about it. Let’s cross Russell off the list right now because we’ve been there, done that. Let’s also take Alzner off of the list, as Washington is one of the best teams in the NHL this season and likely won’t be selling.
The remaining defenders play on teams ranging from very much out of the playoffs (Arizona, Buffalo, Detroit) to on the bubble (Philadelpiha, St. Louis) – all teams that should at the very least be considering selling.
Via Corsica, here’s how each of the defenders are used. The X-axis is relative zone starts, the Y-axis is quality of competition based on the opponent’s ice time, and the bubbles’ colours are relative corsi. We’re correcting for some players being on bad teams.
At a glance, Franson looks like the ideal target. Not only does he have the best relative corsi, but he also isn’t sheltered in the way Shattenkirk and Smith are.
Further to that end, while Shattenkirk does lead this pack with 37 points, Franson is second with 16. He isn’t as sheltered as Shattenkirk is; he doesn’t play for a team in direct competition with the Flames for a playoff spot; and he’s not that big a name, so chances are he won’t be as expensive to acquire.
Of course, we here at FlamesNation have had our eyes on Franson for a couple of years now, since about the last time he was a free agent. His performance in Buffalo the past two seasons hasn’t given us any reason to change our minds. He’s a bit older – he’ll be 30 in August – but he’s the only particularly attractive target.
Franson is also pretty big – 6’5, 234 lbs. – and a right shot, so if Glen Gulutzan wants to remain militant on defensive handedness, Brodie can finally have a good partner. Plus with his season-long cap hit of $3.325 million – a number that’ll be much lower come deadline day – the Flames won’t have any problems fitting him into their budget, even with their current constrictions.
What about getting (and keeping) him?
Of course, this is all assuming Buffalo actually wants to sell him. Let’s just operate on the assumption that they do, in which case, well, they aren’t going to give him up for free.
So what would Franson cost? Let’s keep in mind the Flames don’t exactly have that many assets to part with themselves; the Sabres aren’t getting, say, Sam Bennett.
What Calgary does have is picks. You probably aren’t giving up a first rounder for Franson – at least, I would very much hope not – but perhaps a second or a third (which was the going rate for guys like Eric Gelinas or Justin Schultz last year), or a decent prospect (not Tyler Wotherspoon). The fit might be a little difficult to find, but if noted guy who’s good at trades Brad Treliving can do it, it should be worth it.
But then there’s the Vegas complication. He’d be a pretty good target for the Golden Knights to pick up, and then the Flames would have just spent an asset on a rental player when they’re nowhere close to actually contending. It would be a waste.
How do you get around that? Probably by dangling more assets Vegas’ way to keep them from taking him. It’d be kind of like trading for him twice.
Let’s assume the Flames find a way to make sure they’ll keep Franson. Then, he needs a new contract. One could be wary about giving a new deal to a soon-to-be 30-year-old, but Franson has not only consistently been a positive corsi rel player this decade, he’s also been relatively consistent in points production (even though that’s dropped off a bit in his years with the Sabres). There isn’t much indication he’s about to drop off of a cliff; if anything, a relatively short-term deal – say another two-year deal – shouldn’t carry too much risk with him. He also isn’t too likely to get much of a raise over his current cap hit, so he’d be very affordable.
And then the Flames have some breathing room for whenever they’re ready to trust Brett Kulak already, or even Rasmus Andersson or Oliver Kylington.
Is it worth it?
The Flames are on the playoff bubble right now, even after a horrid start and with Wideman averaging 20 minutes a game.
Knock Wideman down the rotation, have a real, legitimate top four to close out the season, and what do you think the chances are the Flames make the playoffs this year?
And then you’ve got a real top four to enter next season, with no need to make another Troy Brouwer-esque signing, and you’ve given time to your current bluechip prospects.
If the Flames really are keen on improving their defence before the expansion draft, then there really aren’t any better targets for them than Franson. After that, it all comes down to a matter of Treliving finding a way to swing it – both for the short and long term.