The 2016-17 Calgary Flames are no more, and the 2017-18 version will undoubtedly look different.
Just how different, we don’t yet know. A lot of players will be back. At the same time, though, there are quite a number who should go. And this isn’t just about improving the roster: it’s about prospects getting the chance to become NHL regulars, too, something that was often a problem this past season.
So let’s assume, for a moment, this is a different league in which clubs are allowed to simply release players to get out of their bad contracts. Let’s take the most simplistic approach possible and ask which Flames should stay Flames, and who shouldn’t be back.
Who would you keep, and who would you cut?
Mikael Backlund: Keep. Without a question, he stays. Not only was Backlund arguably the Flames’ best player over the course of the entire season, but their centre depth falls to pieces without him. He may not have another 50-point season, but he provides so much more value than his offensive – which is still pretty good.
Sam Bennett: Keep. Bennett didn’t exactly have a great season for what his potential should be, but he’ll only be 21 to start next season. You don’t throw that away – and certainly not after a postseason performance in which he was one of his team’s top performers.
Lance Bouma: Cut. Thankfully, there’s just one year left on his contract; unfortunately, it’s still at that inflated $2.2 million cap hit, a contract he was signed to after shooting at an unsustainable rate that – surprise! – he couldn’t maintain. It’d be one thing if he was just overpaid, though; fact is, it’s hard to believe there isn’t somebody in the AHL right now who could do a better job on the ice. (Cue the calls for Garnet Hathaway, but the team can probably aim higher.)
Troy Brouwer: Cut. Year one of Brouwer was a massive failure, and already on the wrong side of 30, it’s hard to see him improving next season. Like Bouma, though, it’s not just his cap hit that’s a problem – his actual play was brutal all season, to the point that, once again, a prospect probably could have done a better job.
Alex Chiasson: Keep. Chiasson is an upcoming RFA, but he shouldn’t be too costly. And quite frankly, he works great as a fourth liner; he has grit and hustle and can score every now and then. No reason not to like him, as long as he’s being played in a role suited for him.
Micheal Ferland: Keep. Is Ferland a true top line talent? We don’t know that quite yet, but what we do know is he’s young, he’s physical, and he’s got great offensive instincts. He’s that mythical unicorn of actual functional toughness, and the Flames are better off with him in the lineup.
Michael Frolik: Keep. The perfect complement to Backlund, he’s defensively responsible and offensively driven. He’s an incredible penalty killer. He’s part of a shutdown line that can not only score, but help bring rookies into the NHL, too – as he has the past two seasons he’s been on the team, with Bennett and Tkachuk.
Johnny Gaudreau: Keep. Gaudreau is an offensive dynamo that has led the Flames in scoring the past two seasons, his one career injury be damned. He’s also on a pretty good deal for what he’s capable of, too.
Freddie Hamilton: Keep. This one could raise some eyebrows, but he’s an inoffensive candidate to be a perpetual healthy scratch – and when he does get ice time, he’s not a liability. He’s more useful than Bouma or Brouwer, at any rate. And if he so happens to be related to one of the team’s top defencemen, well, it’s not like he’s bad at hockey himself.
Curtis Lazar: Keep, kinda. In an ideal world he wouldn’t require waivers and he could be a part of the group of prospects fighting for a full-time spot, rather than basically having one handed to him because of what was traded for him and his waiver status. That said, at least he’s young and still can’t be any worse than some other guys in the lineup.
Sean Monahan: Keep. Dude scores goals, and he had a great playoff performance. It’d be madness to get rid of him in any way – especially when he’s still so young and might have more yet to offer.
Matt Stajan: Coin flip. Here’s the deal with Stajan: he’s overpaid, but he’s not exactly bad at his job. The only real reason the Flames would have to get rid of him at this stage is if he was holding a prospect back. Otherwise, his presence in the lineup is far from a bad thing.
Matthew Tkachuk: Keep. He’s one year into his career and opponents already hate him. He’s big and adds a whole new element to the Flames’ game by being a total troll and pest to play against – plus it helps that he’s already exceptional as a two-way forward.
Kris Versteeg: Keep. Versteeg is so versatile, he fits virtually anywhere in the lineup. He doesn’t take shifts off and he’s still got great offensive instincts. He’s a bit older, but if you need a requisite “experienced playoff guy”, you could do a whole lot worse than Versteeg.
Keeping Stajan still leaves room for some prospects, including Lazar. You don’t want them to be healthy scratches every game, but it’s not out of the question to rotate some of those bottom guys around.
Plus, that lineup isn’t set in stone. Tkachuk, or Ferland, or both could end up on Bennett’s line; Versteeg could be bumped up to play with Backlund and Frolik; or things could stay the same and either way, you’re leaving at least one spot open where a prospect – or a decent free agent or good trade acquisition – could fit in and have a genuine shot on the team.
Alas, that’s not going to be the case because, well, Bouma and Brouwer. That leaves a lot less room for opportunity. Still – the forward group already assembled isn’t half bad.
Matt Bartkowski: Cut. He’s not particularly great, and was only really acquired so the Flames would fill all their expansion draft requirements (and wouldn’t have to re-sign Jyrki Jokipakka in order to do so). As it stands, if he stays, he’s just taking a spot away from someone who would probably do a better job. Being the seventh defenceman wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, though.
T.J. Brodie: Keep. He’s signed to a sweetheart of a deal, and he’s a crucial part of the top half of the defence. He still needs a partner, but hey, having half of a second pairing is a hell of a lot better than not having one at all, and we know Brodie can be a lot better than this past year.
Deryk Engelland: Cut. I get there’s sentimental value here, but let’s be realistic: he’s 35 years old and he’s already not that good. Yeah, he’s tough; he’s also taking a spot away from someone who would probably prove to be better if they could actually get that chance.
Mark Giordano: Keep. Giordano is still maintaining a near-Norris Trophy level of play, and that was with a down year offensively. Maybe he won’t have another 50-point season, but he’s still playing at a level any team would be lucky to have him. Not to mention, it sounds like he’s maybe a good captain?
Dougie Hamilton: Keep. He’ll be 24 next season, which is still very young. He’s also a top pairing defenceman with elite offensive abilities. He’s arguably already the best defenceman on the Flames. He stays for a long, long time.
Ladislav Smid: Cut, though that goes without saying. Unfortunately, injuries kept him out the entire season, sparing the Flames’ cap in the process. He’ll finally be off the books, though, and it’s – obviously – going to stay that way.
Michael Stone: Depends. Can he be re-signed for cheap and play on the bottom pairing? Then sure, keep him. Is he going to cost more? Then it’s probably time to move on and find somebody else.
Dennis Wideman: Cut. Even without the Don Henderson drama, does he even get another contract after this season? He’s barely NHL caliber anymore, and at this point, it’s a relief to move on from him.
There are a lot more holes to fill in the defensive lineup, but that’s what happens when the bottom half of the group is basically an unmitigated nightmare. Fortunately, all the good defencemen will definitely be back, and there aren’t any Brouwer-like situations on the blue line. Also helpful: the Flames have a handful of high potential defensive prospects, some who may be ready sooner rather later.
This is the area that has the most potential for successful growth, though things could also just as easily go horribly wrong.
Brian Elliott: Depends. Yes, he had a bad first half of the season and a bad playoffs. But consider just how well he did in the lead up to the playoffs, not to mention the first game. Elliott isn’t the worst goalie ever – and if he can be retained for cheap, well, it’s something you have to think about, even if it would cost a 2018 third round pick. Besides, is it possible a totally revamped defence would help him?
Chad Johnson: Depends. Goaltending is going to be very messy this offseason, but Johnson isn’t a bad option to have as a backup. He’d probably come back relatively cheap – and if the Flames aren’t prepared to have one of their prospects backing up full time, then he could be the answer. On the other hand, Jon Gillies, David Rittich, and Tyler Parsons may start to really clog the pipeline…
Just as it was last season, goaltending this year is going to be very interesting for this team. The Flames should have plenty of options, though, between expansion draft-forced trade targets (Calvin Pickard, Antti Raanta, Marc-Andre Fleury/Matt Murray, Philipp Grubauer) and free agents (Scott Darling, Ben Bishop, Steve Mason, the two Flames). It’s wide open.