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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

To qualify or not to qualify?

By my rudimentary count (fingers and toes), the Calgary Flames have 12 pending restricted free agents this summer and will have to decide whether or not to extend a qualifying offer in each instance. By extending an offer before the June 26 deadline, a team will retain that player’s rights regardless if it’s accepted or not. Players who are not tendered offers, on the other hand, immediately become unrestricted free agents.

While a few of Calgary’s RFA decisions are fairly easy, they’ve got more than a handful of difficult choices to make over the next two months.

Much of this conversation is framed by how the Flames went about their business last summer. Calgary had 13 pending RFAs one year ago but decided to qualify just four, which was a departure from the team’s approach in prior offseasons. The Flames have back pressure and decent depth in their system right now, which makes it very possible we see the summer of 2017 play out in a similar fashion, at least in terms of qualified players.

It’s a pretty safe assumption Calgary will extend offers to Sam Bennett, Micheal Ferland, Curtis Lazar, and Alex Chiasson, and as such, they’re not included in the coming analyses. I’ve split the remaining eight into two categories, which essentially break down to a “yes” column and a “maybe/no” column.

To qualify

Jon Gillies. Gillies just completed his first full professional regular season with the AHL’s Stockton Heat and posted decent, but not spectacular totals. Splitting time with the slightly older David Rittich (more on him later), Gillies was the clear runner-up statistically.

While Gillies didn’t have the greatest first full season in the American League, it still makes sense to qualify him and keep him within the organization. Gillies is a former third round pick, is still just 23 years old, and his ceiling remains pretty high. Additionally, he looked solid in winning his NHL debut against the L.A. Kings near the end of the season.

On the flip side, Gillies is no longer the organization’s clear top goaltending prospect. That’s mainly because the last calendar year for 2016 second round pick Tyler Parsons has Flames fans and decision makers alike extremely excited; personally, he’s the prospect I’m most excited about right now, regardless of position.

That, coupled with Gillies’ average first AHL year likely takes him out of the “guarantee” category on the qualifying front. That said, with his combination of size (6’6, 223 pounds) and agility, his impressive NCAA track record, and his status as a former draft pick, I think it makes sense for Calgary to qualify him, and I’d be surprised if they didn’t.

Brett Kulak. If I were making the decisions, this wouldn’t even be a conversation: Kulak would be qualified and signed, because I think he’s a bona fide NHL defenceman right now. Everything I’ve seen from him at the highest level leads me to believe he’s ready for a full time gig with the Flames. However, I’m not sure the team is 100% on the same page.

Kulak played just 21 games in Calgary this season and saw plenty of time in the press box while looking up at players like Dennis Wideman, Jyrki Jokipakka, and Matt Bartkowski on the depth chart. It’s my contention he’s an upgrade on all three and should have been a far more regular part of the Flames’ blueline in 2016-17. That’s not how the organization saw things, though.

Kulak’s underlying numbers certainly support my contention. His 50.6% possession rate was third on the team among d-men, behind only Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton. Obviously Kulak didn’t see the type of competition those two, or T.J. Brodie, saw, but he wasn’t sheltered either. With a 45.7% offensive zone start ratio, Kulak’s possession numbers were noticeably superior to guys with more o-zone starts (Bartkowski, Jokipakka, Wideman), and significantly better than Deryk Engelland’s with similar usage.

Kulak’s impact can further be explained by looking at his most frequent partner’s results. Below are Engelland’s outputs with the four guys he played most with this season. Again, the results with Kulak in comparison are better across the board. For context, Engelland was playing much tougher competition when paired with Brodie, and that does impact the outputs.

The Flames should absolutely qualify Kulak and he should be part of their full-time blueline mix next season. That’s my opinion, of course, but even though I’m not certain it’s fully shared by hockey ops, I still think he’s pretty close to a slam-dunk for a qualifying offer.

Garnet Hathaway. Let’s get this out of the way: the Flames went 18-7-1 with Hathaway in the lineup. Let’s also get this out of the way: that has absolutely zero bearing on where I stand on his qualifying offer. As a fourth line forward averaging 9:08 of ice time per game, Hathaway had a negligible impact on wins and and losses, and certainly nowhere near enough of one to correlate that record to his presence. In saying that, I think it mostly makes sense for Calgary to qualify Hathaway.

Mainly, I think Hathaway is an affordable, short-term, bottom six option for the Flames and projects to fill a similar role as Lance Bouma going forward. The big difference here is price. While Bouma’s cap hit is $2.2 million for next season, Hathaway’s qualifying offer would come in at $715,000. A discrepancy of $1.5 million for comparable results doesn’t make a ton of sense and tilts the scales in a big way towards Hathaway.

Both Hathaway and Bouma are largely replaceable players, but going forward, Hathaway makes more sense to keep in the fold. He’s younger and cheaper, and most importantly, the organization seems to like him. I think the Flames will qualify Hathaway, and, knowing the price he’ll come in at, it’s tough to be staunchly for or against that decision.

Or not?

David Rittich. Here’s where things get interesting. As laid out above, Rittich’s season was superior to his AHL counterpart Gillies. In fact, the 2016 free agent signing had solid numbers period: Rittich’s 0.924 SV% was top 10 in the American League and was only two ticks off the circuit’s second best total. All things considered, keeping Rittich in the fold makes a ton of sense, and that very well could be the outcome here. However, his situation is slightly more complicated.

Rittich will turn 25 in August and, unlike Gillies, is not a Calgary drafted and developed product. That likely wouldn’t matter in most circumstances, but right now the Flames are jammed with bodies between the pipes. Rittich is one of six organizational goalies currently, not to mention whoever is on the big team next season (ages below are to start the 2016-17 season).

Both Parsons and Schneider are eligible to turn pro next season, and it’s almost a given the former will do just that. If that’s the case, Parsons needs to get quality minutes, so hampering his development with three goalies at the AHL level makes no sense. Schneider, McDonald, and McCollum aren’t really factors at the AHL level next year, but even so, a scenario with Parsons, Gillies, and Rittich in Stockton is one to avoid. Is ECHL Adirondack an option? Yeah, maybe, but not the most desirable one, at least in my opinion.

In a lot of ways, Rittich’s fate might be determined by what Calgary does at the NHL level. If they go with a tandem of somewhat experienced goalies again, Rittich could end up being an odd man out. However, if the Flames are cool giving a younger guy backup minutes behind an established number one, there might be ample room after all.

Regardless, even if my read is off here, I think Rittich’s qualifying decision could go either way. If it’s me, I’m all for bringing him back under ideal circumstances. It remains to be seen if those circumstances will exist.

Tyler Wotherspoon. Wotherspoon finds himself in a very similar situation as Rittich, just at a different position. Once viewed as contemporaries, I think Kulak has surpassed Wotherspoon on the depth chart and potentially put a few bodies between them. To muddy things even more, Calgary’s organization blueline depth has really taken a step forward in recent years (ages below are to start the 2016-17 season).

I’ve always been a fan of Wotherspoon’s, but in saying that, he’s got a battle on his hands to stay relevant. While Fox and Hickey aren’t professional threats this season, they will be in the coming years, with the latter turning pro for the 2018-19 campaign.

Optimistically, two of Kulak, Andersson, Kylington, and Wotherspoon could make the opening day roster in October, which raises the question: where does Wotherspoon fit? This is less an indictment on Wotherspoon’s future as an NHLer, but more a product of Calgary’s depth on the backend. I still think the 2011 second round pick has third pairing chops, but I’m not sure that’ll come to fruition with the Flames.

Personally, I’d like to see Calgary qualify Wotherspoon one more time and see if he can’t push for an NHL job in training camp. But knowing how pragmatic the Flames were with QOs last summer, I’m not sure if that’s the direction they end up going.

Ryan Culkin. We’ll spend a little less time on the final three players here, starting with Culkin. The 2012 fifth round pick has had a hell of a time staying healthy the last few seasons, and there’s no question that’s hurt his development. But much like Wotherspoon, and to an even greater extent, Culkin seems lost on the organizational depth chart.

To make things more ominous for him, Culkin has spent significant time the last couple seasons in the ECHL. That doesn’t bode well for a guy who turns 24 in December and has been property of the team for five years. My guess is the Flames decide not to qualify Culkin, and I’d understand why.

Kenney Morrison. Unlike Culkin, Morrison wasn’t even drafted by Calgary, which makes his situation even less ideal. A college free agent signing two years ago, at least Morrison spent all of this season with Stockton and didn’t spend any time in the ECHL. But still, do we really see him projecting to the NHL at any point down the road?

Sure, guys surprise us and there’s a chance Morrison might turn into more at some point, but the Flames can’t operate on big maybes. If Calgary wants to keep him in the organization, then by all means, sign Morrison to an AHL-only deal. But at this point, a qualifying offer doesn’t make a ton of sense.

Linden Vey. How many remembered Vey was still in the organization? I don’t say that in a derogatory sense, it’s just that after being recalled for a four-game stint in November, we never saw Vey sniff an NHL game the rest of the season. With Vey turning 26 in July, he looks to have fallen into the “replacement level” category.

Vey does have a couple things going for him, though. He put up solid numbers in Stockton (15 goals, 55 points in 61 games), and head coach Glen Gulutzan is a fan. Will that be enough to get him a qualifying offer? Maybe, but if it doesn’t, Calgary will be able to find another player like him fairly easily.

  • everton fc

    Qualify:
    Kulak (I think he didn’t play here to keep his abilities hidden from McPhee and Vegas)
    Rittich (Make him the backup, let Johnson move on).
    Hathaway (No brainer, but remember, Chiasson can also play 4th line RW and they are about the same age, yet Chiasson’s a regular NHL player who can score 10-15 goals and get you 25-30 points – maybe more is the situations are right)
    Wotherspoon (I think they let Morrison go, and probably Culkin, though I still wonder what the latter could do in a full season w/no injuries. A +31 on a team like Stockton is mighty impressive. Or so it seems. I see Kulak and Andersson in Calgary next season. And I think we sign Stone. If we re-sign Engelland for one year [Kylington needs one more year on the “A”, as the #1 d-man] then Bartkowski can be a 2-way option, if he clears waivers, which he most likely will).

    Vey doesn’t hurt as a 2-way player. But if they don’t qualify, no real pain…

    I think they let Gilles and Parsons man the nets in Stockton. Keep McDonald in the ECHL, perhaps partnered w/Schneider, though McCollum is the better goalie of the three. Let Rittich be the backup – he he falters, either bring up Gillies or Parsons. I personally think Parsons is closer to “ready” than Gillies. He’ll either prove me right, or wrong, by the end of training camp!

      • Cfan in Van

        Ya, I’d make no assumptions about Parsons, other than he has a lot of potential. Even if he looked really good in training camp, it’s still not enough to put him directly into the NHL. Patience with him.

    • T&A4Flames

      I agree with most of this except thinking Parsons is ahead of Gillies. He looks good but it’s way too early to expect him to be an NHL’r.
      Also, we signed McCollum to fill the role of expansion draft requirement. When is the draft again? After the draft could we not just cut him loose? That seems like the best scenario to make room for Rittich who has much more upside than McCollum.

  • Scary Gary

    Kulak is 100% an NHL defenseman next year, the only reason I can think of for sending him down was to ensure we didn’t draw too much attention to him prior to the expansion draft (or keep his contract value down).

    If Andersson works on his foot speed and conditioning this summer there’s no reason he can’t challenge for a roster spot as well. I’d rather have a younger guy with upside than an aging defenseman on the decline.

    • Cfan in Van

      I really want to believe they were trying to hide Kulak. I hope that’s the case, because I think he could have really helped us this year if they didn’t shove him back down to Stockton (instead of Bartkowski, another expansion move).

      • FlamesFanOtherCity

        Before they signed Bart, they needed to have Jokipakka play enough games to be exposed. Once they signed Bart and traded Kevin, they didn’t need another D-man to have the proper amount of games in two seasons. Once Bart signed, we could not really risk waiving him to bring up Kulak.

  • class1div1

    Was Hickey sending a message when he decided to finish school ? Finish your degree and go from there ,instead of being plugged in the middle of rotation in Stockton.Management has to do a better job developing and promoting there prospects……..eg Janko getting 10 min in the bigs….ridiculous.

  • oilersuck

    Parsons needs to be in Stockton next year. That means they need to open a spot. Rittich might be ready for a backup role but Gillies probably isn’t. As much as I had high hopes for Gillies you might need to trade him to open his spot for Parsons. I wonder if he is enough to get Vegas to take Brouwer.

    • Jumping Jack Flash

      It is a little early to give up on one of our top prospects after 1 full year in the AHL. He needs to polish his game but he has a high ceiling. Having said that, I think Rittich will take the reins as the starter on the playoffs. The biggest difference that I see is that Rittich can completely shut teams down while Gillies seems to lose his focus at times. I would like to see them given a chance to battle it out to be the Flames back up. As for, Parsons, I have seen a few of his WJC and LK games and he faced a ton of high danger shots on his Junior team similiar to Fuhr in his day. He is not a big goalie by today’s standards but exceptionally athletic….seems like a bright future. I can’t think of any keeper that ca e from the CHL to the NHL in recent times.

      • oilersuck

        I don’t think trading Gillies is giving up on him, you could probably get a good return. You need to invest in goalie development with AHL starts. So I’d view it as investing in Parsons not necessarily giving up on Gillies. I think the worst case scenario for 2017-18 is Rittich, Gillies and Parsons sharing starts in Stockton.

        • Jumping Jack Flash

          True but the last thing you want is to have Gillies come back and bite you every time you play him. I think 1 year is a little premature to trade him. A new goalie coach might be all he needs. He let a soft one in his NHL debut but he looked like he could be an NHL quality keeper, albeit a small sample size. I would like to see Rittich moved before Gillies.

    • T&A4Flames

      So a couple years ago we were all so high on Gillies but now after one year people are ready to move on from him because we now have a new shinier toy in Parsons? So what if in another couple years Parsons has only a good ( not great) season like Gillies? We move on from him as well? Seems like a dumb plan. You need to give goalies time.

      • oilersuck

        If there were jobs for all the goalies that allowed them to get starts and develop at the same time I’d support keeping everyone. Its my view that splitting starts in the AHL is not the way to develop goalies. Since you only have 1 spot for a #1 goalie in the AHL, the shiniest toy gets that spot. How would you develop a #1 NHL goalie for the flames?

  • cjc

    I don’t think benching Kulak was a way of hiding him from Vegas and McPhee. Gulutzan makes lineup decisions and he was the one benching Kulak when Kulak was on the roster. Really don’t want to lose this kid, so let’s hamper his development by not playing him in the AHL or NHL? Makes no sense. Rather, I think we can look to Gulutzan’s puzzling usage decisions.

    That said, Kulak has only been okay. It’s not clear that he is the next Brodie. Three assists in 21 games. Given the talent pushing behind him (Kylington, Andersson, Hickey, Fox and even Wotherspoon), I can’t see Treliving being too worried about losing Kulak to Las Vegas. Hell, he may even throw him in to get McPhee to bite on Brouwer. I wouldn’t be opposed to that.

    • Jumping Jack Flash

      Agreed. I liked him a lot at the start but then he really seemed to hit a rough patch. The coaches have to comity to these prospects, give him 15 games then assess what you have. I think Ras is the most NHL ready but I thought that last training camp as well. He has work to do but he seems the most poised.

  • class1div1

    I wonder how management can evaluate players in Stockton, There is no continuity in there schedule. They play 1 game and practice for the next 4 days ,play another and 4 days practice.How those players stay focused is a feat in itself.

  • BlueMoonNigel

    Should Vey finishing a close second in scoring to Janko in anyway make me think less of Janko’s much-ballyhooed rookie season or more of Vey? Hard to do the latter as Vey couldn’t even cut it as a fourth liner on Calgary’s overpriced and underwhelming fourth line.

    • Jumping Jack Flash

      You have to think that Janko surpassed even the loftiest of expectations. You can tell when the interview Huska that what impresses him the most is that he is leading the team offensively but he seems to rise to the occasion when he is asked to do more.

      After being shutout in the first game by SJ despite out chancing the, he took it upon his shoulders and went end to end and scored in the first 2 minutes of the second game….to send the team on its way to believing.

      For any player to do that is impressive for a rookie to put the team on his shoulders is even more impressive. All you have to do is look how some polished rookies like Tkachuk and Marner dropped a level in the playoffs.