Back in January, I wrote an article suggesting the Flames were on the very cusp of being contenders, and that a good offseason in 2017 could be enough to open that vaunted “window” of contention.
Now, being the king of timing as I am, I wrote and published said piece right after the Flames had dropped their third straight embarrassment. Sure enough, though, the PDO dip came to an end and the Flames heated right up, scorching their way to the playoffs. Unlike 2015, their playoff berth was no fluke, and the roster – which was competent enough to make the playoffs as is – is ripe for improvement.
Led by a young and still developing core and with a few tweaks here and there, the Flames will take that leap into a brave new world where expectations are based on playoff games won instead of their regular season counterparts. And with the core established and their grasp on the new system firm, the nauseous rollercoaster ride through peaks and valleys experienced this season should be ironed right out.
So, while Rasmus Dahlin, Andrei Svechnikov and Brady Tkachuk headline a delicious 2018 NHL draft class, the Flames need ensure the step they take next year is indeed in the forward direction, and not otherwise. In this three part series, I will discuss the three major focuses going in the 2017 offseason that, if properly addressed, will transform the Flames into contenders.
1. Shoring up the defence
Many would argue the Flames’ biggest need lies in goal, but I would disagree. The fact goaltending got them swept in the first round stings, but reality is the Flames didn’t receive average goaltending at any point last year. It was either above average to elite, or below average to poor. Had they been in the middle for the entire year instead of flip flopping back and forth, they would’ve likely ended up in the same spot at season’s end, and would’ve given the Ducks a real run for their money. Average goaltending is going to be abundant this offseason, so filling that void is hardly something to lose sleep over.
The defence, though, is a different story.
There will be a few quality rearguards available this offseason, but by no means will there be an abundance of such, and the Flames will be in trouble if they don’t end up with a few of them. The Flames’ goaltending Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde routine the past few years has as much to do with the defence in front of them as it does with the puck stoppers themselves. They still have yet to procure for themselves that 4D type to round out an exceptional top three in Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton and T.J. Brodie.
Kris Russell, Dennis Wideman, Deryk Engelland and Michael Stone have all taken a turn as the 4D. While the latter’s eye and results test present themselves as favorable after being acquired from the Coyotes in February, the reality is Michael Stone turned in some moldy underlying results. Like it or not, advanced stats have a heck of a good record as predictors of the future. The 2017-18 Stone is very likely to be a disaster if returned to the same role with Brodie, not to mention it’s unlikely he takes a pay cut after his second half with Calgary, and $4+ million can be better spent by the Flames.
A couple great options for the Flames are Kevin Shattenkirk and Cody Franson, the latter likely to be had for a bargain deal. Shattenkirk would vault the Flames’ D into direct competition with the Predators and Blues as the deepest in the West, and would give the Flames’ power play two legitimate quarterbacks with him and Hamilton.
Unfortunately, Shattenkirk will be highly sought after and will, in all likelihood, end up with a giant contract, handcuffing the Flames in other areas should they go down that avenue.
Alternatively, Franson won’t demand nearly the same term or dollars as Shattenkirk, and offers the Flames a possession positive, steady, puck-moving partner for Brodie. Franson appears, on the surface, as an ideal partner for him. Signing Franson at a reasonable deal would also give the Flames the flexibility to add another body for the bottom pairing, including even Stone at a reduced cap hit (though as aforementioned, he’s unlikely to take a pay cut). Retaining Stone and adding Franson would be an almost better scenario than adding just one big piece such as Shattenkirk, given the value of quality defensive depth in this day and age. Michael Del Zotto is another reasonably priced target to consider.
The Flames will also likely graduate one of their young blueline studs from Stockton, whether that be Kulak (should he go unclaimed in the expansion draft) or one of the Swedish wunderkinds Oliver Kylington or Rasmus Andersson. A Kylington-Brodie pairing intrigues me, personally, because of the skating prowess of both guys. It’s like pairing a Ferrari with a Lamborghini. Mmm.
Who should be avoided?
Whatever they do, it’s important the Flames avoid possession sinkholes like Karl Alzner and Kris Russell, whose misguided reputations around the league will make them targets for the Flames. Tying oneself to either one would be a step back, in my mind.
Those two are also perfect examples of why the defence is the most important area of focus for the Flames this offseason, because it’s a bit of a game of minesweeper. Treliving might think he’s clicking on an empty square, but it’s actually a Kris Russell starfish bomb. If only NHL GMs valued possession a little more, they could see where these bombs lay and not end up with a Troy Brouwer – whose decline was seen by possession aficionados from a mile away, yet the people who make the decisions were giddy to throw money at him. We’ve seen how ineffective Brodie can be with an anchor around his neck, and it would be tragic to devalue one of their best assets in this manner.
Crafting a bottom three defence will likely prove to be Treliving’s most difficult task this offseason given the volatile mix of players available on the free agent market. For every Franson to get excited about there’s a Russell lurking in the shadows. There’s also the trade market generated by the expansion draft to consider, with teams like Nashville and Anaheim likely to lose quality rearguards and thus presumably eager to make a deal, but the Flames won’t be alone in soliciting the services of their expendable blueliners and preference is always to trade promising talent out of conference.
Whatever ends up happening, the Flames’ defence will likely have a fresh look come October, and it’ll be absolutely crucial that the right pieces are in place there if the Flames are to take that next step into contender status in 2017-18.
Check back this time tomorrow for part two: goaltending!