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Becoming contenders: Offseason Agenda 1/3: Defence

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.

Who’s available?

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.

In summation

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!

  • #97TRAIN

    THPROP… have you seen the determination and heart that Russell has played with in these playoffs? The whole defense has played that way and if you had a couple with a heart like his it may be the Flames who are playing right now and not the ducks.

    • thprop

      He has heart no question….good Alberta boy….great in the dressing room…all of that…..but what is he?
      He doesn’t score and he doesn’t stop the other team from scoring so what is he? Just watch Russell’s game he rarely makes the defensive stop off the rush….where he excels is if someone makes the stop and there is a loose puck he retrieves it very well and skates it out of his zone well. The problem with Russell is he is a poor defender off the rush or in transition and he isn’t big/physical enough to break up the cycle. Watch how many times he gives up a shot off the rush or wingers beat him wide to the net…the fact that these aren’t going in right now speaks to Talbot not Russell.

  • Backburner

    What are everyone’s thoughts on Shattenkirk? Technically he’s worth the big contract, but is it worth to spend the money on him with Andersson/Fox coming up, or should you throw it at Oshie, an area where calgary has no RW prospects.

    • thprop

      Except with Russell it is both valuable and essential (Russell …64 GP/1G/12A) cause he doesn’t score either…..so I think to imply that Russell is the reason Edmonton is in the playoffs is not at all accurate.

      • MaxBoost

        I don’t think he was implying anything… Russell has been a solid top 4 d-man into the second round of the playoffs. And still playing important minutes. Corsi be damned. These are all facts, not implications.

        • Yes, these are facts. But the implication is that the Edmonton Oilers are in the second round of the playoffs BECAUSE they are playing Kris Russell as a top-4 defender. It’s strange we have to do this dance with Russell all the time, but here we go:

          Russell boasts the worst relative corsi ratio on the Oilers blueline in the playoffs at -5%. Don’t like corsi? How about scoring chances? Worst again at -8.30% (relative). Relative expected goals? Again, the worst on the Oilers blueline. Altogether: Russell gets outshot and out-chanced when he’s on the ice. All the time. Has for years. This is not something you want in a defender, especially a top-4 defender.

          • Stu Cazz

            Perfect. Then sign Russel as your #5 guy. Given your stats then he would not command big dollars and Flames lock him up long term. He is a heart and soul guy who is a winner and wants to be a Flame. Ditto Stone but he will never sign for less than his current contract and that eliminates him as a Flame. No way the Flames pay him 4D dollars!

    • Christian Roatis

      Hockey is a team sport and evaluating an individual based on his team’s success is a bad idea and along with small sample sizes, the root to some of the biggest UFA mistakes.

  • BendingCorners

    The Flames already have 7 defencemen- Gio, Dougie, TJ, Tyler, Brett, Oliver, Rasmus. It would be helpful to swap one the junior lefties for a right-side D and use TJ on either side as needed UT we can pair 3 veterans with 3 young talented players and still have a spare to move in or out depending on each player’s performance. A bit risky but not overly so and almost guaranteed to be better than last year’s lineup.

  • thprop

    Over on Oilersnation, Gregor is screaming Corsi is irrelevant and that Russell is fantastically underrated.

    I agree Oilers sign Russell….sign him long term with big dollars attached…….”these aren’t the droids you’re looking for” hehehehehe

  • Newbietwo

    The problem all seems to forget here is that in a market where literally every team is searching for the same thing that the likelihood of the flames getting that asset lessens unless you over pay.. hence the contracts we have been stuck with.. we won’t get shattenkirk, we won’t even get franson and most likely can’t get any of the qualified tops four d man this offseason because everyone else wants them.. so you are left with stone and Russel a maybe because flames like him or you go after someone in proven but has upside.. there that are our only options

    We have a much greater chance at fixing the goalie situation than getting the d man we want or the winger we need..

    That is why it is vital younwin your trades and you draft exceptionally well.. until we are stacked with assets to trade it makes a trade conversation useless also.. you won’t get a d man for our first rounder this year.. you won’t get a top winger either unless again in all situations we over pay and that simply put would be stupid..

    We have a great shot with a somewhat solid roster to compete in the play offs for next two or so years.. but we are truly three drafts away from having the asssets to perfectly balance your squad to exactly how you want it..

    9 more picks in the first three rounds and we have it prospect wise

    • Christian Roatis

      I don’t think you can outright say “Calgary won’t get X”. We don’t know what player’s value aside from money, and maybe playing in a rabid market on a promising team is near the top of their list? Calgary was once a destination spot before the rebuild. Player’s like playing here, like how they’re treated, etc.

      Having said that, you are right that everybody wants a Top 4D and it’s no guarantee they land one of the guys.

  • O'M

    Trade idea:

    When the expansion lists come out, ask Vegas to identify their top four D choices. Take your favourite remaining available Dman for unloading Brouwer and our first.

    Ideally, this player is almost worth a first, a nice long term piece for the organization. I don’t know some of these guys well enough but:
    Colin Miller
    T. Van Riemsdyck
    S. Johns

    If you pick right you get similar value to the first rounder and get to unload Brouwer.

    Also, cheer or jeer:
    2nd overall and Simmonds

  • Soupy19

    There is chatter in the Vancouver market that this is the ideal time for the Canucks to trade Chris Tanev. He has a no trade clause that kicks in on July 1st and they feel he is too old for their rebuild. Meaning, by the time the Canucks are ready to compete again (2-4 years) he’ll be on the wrong side of 30. I wonder what it would take to trade for him. I think he’d fit very nicely next to Brodie and he’s signed to a reasonable contract.

  • Juan Valdez

    As much as I despise the Oilers, it was sure fun seeing the Ducks getting destroyed last night. I question whether the Ducks are a good team, or just good at cheating.

  • supra steve

    Del Zotto has had personal issues, I think teams will approach him with caution. Not sure what it is with Franson, but there is something not right there as well. Tre will be aware of what the issues are, so I’m more than comfortable if he decides to pass on both these guys, or if he decides one or the other is a good fit. I also wonder if Stone may be due for a better year with the summer to continue recovering from injury, and again Tre is is good position to evaluate that potential.

    • PrairieStew

      No to Shattenkirk for sure. Keep in mind that St Louis had RH d guys in Pietrangelo and Parayko playing ahead of Shattenkirk – so while he got PP – he essentially was not playing in the top 4 in St Louis. The guy is Wideman all over again.

  • Bean-counting cowboy

    I too wouldn’t mind Franson, but it seems the Flames have had plenty of opportunity to try and get him but for some reason just… haven’t. There must be something they don’t like there.

  • everton fc

    There may be some deals to be made w/teams who can’t protect defencemen… But I say don’t overpay for Franson, or Shattenkirk. Kulak’s an NHL d-man stuck in a weird situation (Expansion Draft). He can play at least a regular 5/6. Kylington’s not ready, so I’ll move on to the other Swede, Andersson. I wonder if he can skate at the next level. Would love to find out. He and Kulak were paired up during the playoffs. Try that, in camp.

    Wotherspoon’s +31 should also get the organization’s attention in a positive sense. We have no other defenders on the farm, so a trade or free-agent. Agreed on the gamble w/Del Zotto. But he’s only 26. Brendan Smith’s another I’d look at. Maybe the Leafs part w/Polak? And I’ve posted of my wish to see Gudas here.

    We simply can’t create another Brouwer millstone here. Which is why I’m not 100% on board w/Franson, unless the price is exactly right (the right-handed shot’s nice to have, and if you had a 5/6 of Kulak and Stone….)

  • Eggs Bennett

    Christian, solid piece, as usual. I agree the future looks bright. Stay the course. I’d also add that we’ve already gotten the most important off-season contender’s box checked in re-signing BT. He will make sure the three other holes that you described are filled.

  • Just.Visiting

    I continue to be puzzled by the negative perspective by the writers towards Stone. What my eyes tell me is that we have someone who plays an intelligent game in his own zone, was seldom caught out of position, has a plan when he gets the puck in the defensive zone (versus treating it like a hand grenade), has size and functional toughness and a wicked shot. Oh, and I think he would love to stay here. I’m probably not crazy about paying $4MM, but I’m very comfortable at $3ish and seeing whether he’s with Brodie or playing the fifth role and taking on extra responsibilities on the PK. I want to see Ras and Kulak getting a serious shot at making the team in the fall, assuming Kulak is still here, and I’m curious as to whether Ras could potentially play with Brodie at some point during the year. From what I’ve seen Oliver isn’t ready and just seems really small-should we look at moving him up to forward?

    • Christian Roatis

      Like I also said, the eye and result test tells me Stone is quite good and great fit for Brodie, but he got creamed every night possession wise. I don’t quite understand how there can be such a wide discrepancy but there is, so I would tread with caution, personally.

      • BendingCorners

        possession stats are influenced by the forwards too. was he out there often with the 4th line? they got creamed. also I think TJ at having the puck than he is at getting the puck which sometimes might bring down his partner’s possession stats. TJ does best with a steadying influence as a partner and Mike provides that. 2nd or 3rd pair he would be a good supplement to the roster.

  • Puckhead

    One of the things I like about Trevling is that he doesn’t show his hand – we here on FN can dream up a myriad of moves and deals but chances are BT will throw a curve ball and catch us all off guard.

    It’s a great time to be a Flames fan and I’m anxiously awaiting to see what BT does to retool and improve the roster for next season.

    Nobody said a rebuild would be easy but the pieces are gradually falling into place and the future looks promising.

  • John Wayne's Hat

    Trade Brouwer for… “starting goalie”, “top 4 d-man”, “top 6 winger”… Idiots! Who would accept that trade? No NHL GM. Just the soccer lovin’ buddy who can’t pronounce “Stajan” that you just convinced to join your hockey pool for $150 so you can take his money while drinkin’ his beer and having a laugh. Geesh. There is hope and there is idiocy.

  • freethe flames

    The truth is the Flames have @22m to sign their own RFA’s, 2 goaltenders, and 2 defenders. Say about 7m for each of these needs that does not leave a lot of room left for some of the dreams presented here. 7m for Bennett/Ferland/Lazar/Chiasson that may be able to done. 7m for a legit 4 and legit 5 defender (Franson?/Stone?), and 7m for a starting goaltender and a back up. That does not leave any money to resign Versteeg or any other UFA forwards. The only way this happens is if the Flames take a chance on a young backup or 2 currently in the NHL to battle for the #1 goalie position and or gamble that one of Kulak/Andersson are ready to be a number 4.

  • Juan Valdez

    Spoon’s plus-minus rating was 30 during the regular season. Yes, he was not good in the one game he played paired up with Engs, but I think that all boils down to nerves getting the better of him. Forget going after high priced free agents. It’s time to give our prospects a chance to see what they can do. There’s no way Bartkowski is a better option than Spoon or Ras.

  • TheWheeze

    Well, I think the Flames are starting to take a page out of Ken Hollands book, draft well and develop. Better long term results than going after loose pieces every year.

  • McRib

    Here is an underrated fourth defender option….. Brendan Smith. He is fairly young still (only 28 years old) and is a possession stud who was greatly underused in Detroit last season prior to a trade to NYR.