The Calgary Flames had their season end last week far earlier than many were hoping or expecting. So, while it’s going to be longer than they hoped, the Flames have shifted their focus to an important 2017 offseason. Calgary is a couple of moves away from being an absolute handful and those moves are there for the making this summer. With plenty to take care of, I’ve whittled it down to the top five stories to watch for over the next five months or so.
5. Expansion implications
One thing we can guarantee is the Flames will be without at least one player from their 2016-17 roster thanks to June’s Las Vegas expansion draft. There are a few interesting ways this could go and I laid out three potential outcomes a couple months ago in Micheal Ferland, Alex Chiasson, and Brett Kulak. Those three still absolutely hold up as possible expansion targets, although I’m almost convinced Calgary will protect Ferland, taking him off the table.
The more I talk to people in the organization, and the more I think about it, it’s Chiasson’s name that becomes more and more interesting. Despite notions to the contrary, Chiasson had a very productive season in relation to his $800,000 cap hit, both on the surface (12 goals, 24 points) and analytically (52.1 CF%, sixth on the team). Knowing he isn’t going to command a ton more as a pending RFA, I could absolutely see Vegas zeroing in on Chiasson as a solid, versatile bottom six option.
I spoke with Chiasson on Friday afternoon as the Flames cleaned out their lockers, and asked him about the Golden Knights possibility. “If it happens, it does, and that’s out of my control and, I’m going to be excited to go there,” Chiasson told me. “But at the same time… my main priority is to come back here and to be a part of this team.
“That’s why I said that this year, I think, is a lot different for guys on our team, but I’m sure it’s the same for a lot of the guys on different teams. You don’t have control over that, how it’s going to turn out, what they’re looking for, how they’re going to build that team, so for me, it’s just go on, but my priority number one is to play for the Calgary Flames.”
Ideally, re-signing Chiasson would make a ton of sense for the Flames, but what Vegas does is very much a fly in the ointment. Negotiating a deal with pending UFA Deryk Engelland is also a possibility, and he addressed that on Friday. Regardless of who becomes a Golden Knight on June 21, the looming expansion draft plays a big role in Calgary’s offseason plans.
4. A Kris Versteeg extension
It sure does feel like Flames fans want this one to get done, and for good reason. Versteeg was a really nice last minute addition to Calgary’s lineup after signing him to a one-year, $950,000 deal on the eve of the regular season. As we all witnessed, Versteeg gave the Flames great value as one of their more productive players period, regardless of his great price tag.
To see a player that productive have to go to training camp on a PTO is still somewhat shocking, but it worked out great for Calgary. Versteeg was a revelation on the powerplay and was a huge reason why the Flames turned things around dramatically in that category starting in November. Looking at strictly his production, bringing Versteeg back seems like a no-brainer.
It makes even more sense when you take into account Versteeg’s desire to stay with the organization. Versteeg made it crystal clear on Friday re-signing with the Flames is his top priority and talked about how this season helped him “love the game again”. While he’s definitely deserving of a significant raise from the one-year deal he was on, hearing things like that makes you think the team and player can agree on a reasonable new deal.
More than anything else, Versteeg says staying close to home is of paramount importance. When I spoke with him on Friday, he gave an encouraging answer when I asked him if he’d prioritize staying in Calgary over more lucrative offers elsewhere.
“A hundred percent,” he said. “Obviously being at home, being around my friends and family, is the most important thing to me. If it happens that’s great, obviously if it doesn’t happen, it’s a business and you move on. But 100%, being at home is my main priority.”
Yes, there are those important things like money and term to figure out, and the Flames would also need to hold off signing Versteeg until after the expansion draft to avoid exposing him to Vegas. However, everything I heard Friday made me fairly confident we’ll see Versteeg back in Calgary next season.
3. Mikael Backlund’s new deal
With interesting UFA decisions to be made on players like Versteeg and Michael Stone, and with extensions due to the likes of Ferland and Sam Bennett, it’s actually a player with a 2018 expiration date posing the biggest contract question of the summer. Mikael Backlund is eligible for a contract extension come July 1 and his next deal will have a bigger cap impact than any other deals signed this summer.
I took an early look at a Backlund extension a couple months ago and I still believe we’re talking about a long term (five to six years) deal carrying a cap hit somewhere between $5 and $6 million annually. Backlund was Calgary’s best centre this season, drove one of the NHL’s best lines with Michael Frolik and Matthew Tkachuk, and made a solid case to be a Selke Trophy finalist. I don’t think there can be much debate about the importance of locking Backlund up long term, even for the most ardent of detractors.
While the Flames technically have all the way until July 1 of 2018 to figure out what Backlund’s extension is going to look like, why wait? Backlund’s underlying numbers have been superb for the last five seasons and he’s been the team’s best two-way centre in each of those campaigns. All evidence would suggest he’s due for another campaign, so it’s not like taking a “wait and see” approach makes sense for Calgary.
I can’t see Backlund’s value, nor asking price, going down dramatically if they were to wait into next season to get a deal done. By signing him to an extension this summer, the Flames can appease an important piece of the puzzle while also getting a good gauge on their long term cap framework now without uncertainties going forward. There’s no guarantee Calgary signs Backlund to an extension this summer, but it sure would make sense for them to do just that.
2. Goaltending (again)
The 2017 offseason is going to be deja vu from one year prior knowing the questions the Flames need to answer about their goaltending going forward. With Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson on expiring contracts, and with uncertainty and doubt surrounding their viability as long term solutions, goaltending is likely going to be Calgary’s biggest on-ice topic this summer.
The conversation surrounding a new deal for Elliott was a positive one in early April, due mostly to his stellar run starting in February and lasting until the end of the regular season. Unfortunately, though, Elliott’s game fell off a cliff in the playoffs and culminated with him being pulled fewer than six minutes in to the team’s final game of the season.
A multi-year Johnson extension was a viable topic in December, but his 0.884 save percentage in his final 18 appearances from Dec. 14 on changed that dramatically. I believe Johnson is a suitable option as a backup, and to a lesser extent in a tandem situation. Unfortunately, though, I don’t think the local product is going to get the job done as a number one goalie next season, at least not on a team that’ll have lofty postseason expectations.
Plain and simple, neither Johnson nor Elliott inspire huge number one confidence among Flames fans right now. It’s my belief that Calgary needs to explore other options from Ben Bishop in free agency, to Mike Smith or Marc-Andre Fleury via trade, to names that don’t come to mind immediately, before bringing back either one of their goalies this season. That applies especially to Elliott, as he’ll be looking for a decent contract in free agency.
Calgary had the NHL’s worst goaltending during the 2015-16 season with the trio of Karri Ramo, Jonas Hiller, and Joni Ortio (0.896 SV%). This season, the tandem of Elliott and Johnson saw them improve to 21st at 0.908, but it was still very hit and miss with a huge drop-off come the postseason. As a result, goaltending is anything but set heading into next season. Stop me if you’ve heard that before.
1. Brad Treliving’s future
All of the above is fine and dandy, but will the general manager the last three years even be the one having the final say on Calgary’s key offseason details? Brad Treliving does not have a contract for next season and there’s no word on if and when he’ll sign a new deal. Until that gets rectified, one way or another, this offseason takes on a very strange feel.
I don’t understand why Treliving doesn’t have a contract for next season already. While he hasn’t done a perfect job as the team’s GM, he has put the team on what I believe is a largely positive path and deserves a few more seasons to see that through, at the very least. To have Treliving go through this season with no long term security is peculiar and hopefully doesn’t drive a wedge between him and the team.
Treliving’s name has been speculatively thrown around, both on and off the record, in connection to an open job in Buffalo and other jobs that may or may not be opening up. The fact is, if he doesn’t get a new deal with the Flames, Treliving is going to draw interest elsewhere; in fact, he’s likely using that as leverage in contract negotiations as we speak.
It just makes sense for Calgary to re-up Treliving. He’s put together a good chunk of the team we just saw get back to the postseason and, in my opinion anyway, has done more good for the organization than bad. Regardless, though, Treliving’s future is an immediate and pressing storyline, and also the offseason’s biggest.