We wrap up the Becoming Contenders series with what I see as the third and final pressing item on the Flames’ offseason agenda: the bottom six.
Every contender has a quality offensive engine. The Monahan line got a ton of offensive zone starts – and though they started slow usually created a number of quality scoring chances per game. Overall, they were the team’s best offensive line. Check.
Every contending team has a great shutdown line. 3M was monstrous for most the season, shoving the puck down their opposition’s best line’s throat on a nightly basis, and finishing shifts which began in the defensive zone at the opposite end of the rink with regularity. Check.
Every contending team also has a quality bottom six, and that’s where two ‘checks’ are missing for the Flames. The Versteeg-Bennett-Chiasson line was reasonable down the stretch and had a good playoffs, but for the most part, the bottom six was a nightmare for the Flames this past season.
3. Fixing the bottom six
Versteeg, Bennett, Chiasson, Bouma, Stajan and Brouwer made up the Flames’ bottom six for the majority of the second half when things were going well, and all finished the year with poor underlying numbers. The fourth line consisting of the latter three guys mentioned also make an appalling amount of money for how bad they were, so something needs to give there.
@CRoatis 'The 10MM 4th Line' – I trademarked this shit months ago.
— Ryan Pinder (@SNRyanPinder) May 9, 2017
Well played, Pinder.
Bouma and Brouwer especially are the two I would identify as needing replacement. Bouma can take the Bollig treatment next year in Stockton until his contract runs out at season’s end, while Brouwer is a more complicated fix. Maybe Vegas takes him, but like… why? Why would they do that to themselves? Both Gulutzan and Treliving spoke complimentary of Brouwer after the season so I do doubt he goes anywhere but Vegas.
Apparently Brouwer is good in the room, which is a qualification you hear a lot and drives me up walls. If Brouwer’s value to your hockey team is “good in the room” then sign him to your hockey ops as a Dressing Room Morale Influencer (I got the corporate lingo down) and stop pissing away $4.5 million of valuable salary cap space on a player who makes literally everyone he plays with much worse than they are otherwise.
Assuming Stajan and Brouwer remain on the team and Bouma does not, that still leaves three open spots (two on Bennett’s line, one on the fourth line) on the bottom six to fill, and there’s a number of avenues the Flames can go down if they wish to properly fill that void.
The Flames have a number of options “in-house” that could effectively fill bottom six roles.
Sam Bennett and Curtis Lazar need new deals but immediately come to mind as fixtures moving forward. Bennett especially really came around as a third line centre near the end of the year and into the playoffs.
Kris Versteeg is a UFA but expressed interest in returning to the team, and was very good this past season – showing some great chemistry with Bennett late in the year and into the playoffs – on a sub-million dollar deal. He’ll demand a bit of a raise, but given his modest 15-goal, 37-point output, it won’t be a massive one. Two years at $2.5 million a pop, if I were to guesstimate.
Alex Chiasson was the third member of the trio with Vertseeg and Bennett, and is an RFA this summer. He too was on a sub-million dollar deal and will want a raise, but likely one less than Versteeg. Chiasson is best suited as a fourth liner in my eyes, and along with Stajan and Brouwer could form a functional fourth line, with enough skill to not be useless and enough size to quench Burke’s thirst.
Freddie Hamilton is also an example a functional fourth liner, with enough speed and skill to keep his head above water for eight or so minutes a night. He was very well suited as the 13th forward this year, I thought, and is signed through next year.
Then there are the kids in Stockton. Jankowski, Hathaway, Mangiapane, Shinkaruk and Klimchuk all come to mind as bottom 6 possibilities come next training camp. Shinkaruk especially is in a spot that really feels “do or die”. This log jam of kids on the bud of making the big leagues is another source of frustration for the contracts the Flames have signed to their bottom 6. Having a fourth line free to try the kids out on is a luxury the Flames don’t seem to have.
Names like T.J. Oshie and Martin Hanzal will dominate free agency talk leading up to July 1, but it’s the smaller names the Flames could look at to fill bottom 6 roles.
Sam Gagner had a renaissance season in Columbus, putting up 18 goals and 52 points with a 54% ES CF. Those aesthetic numbers are what will likely drive his price beyond what the Flames are willing to pay. If he can be had on a deal shorter than four years at less than $3 million, I would certainly be interested.
If the Flames are okay with taking on an older type that can still drive play, Justin Williams is going on 36 but remains a very effective scorer, and might be a nice compliment to a Bennett-Versteeg pairing. Williams is also a very effective 5 on 5 scorer, potting 20 of his 27 goals at evens this year, so he won’t rely on consistent power play time to be a contributor.
In a similar vein, Patrick Marleau may move on from the Sharks and at 37 years old, still managed 29 goals and pushed possession forward in a reduced role. He would be more of an add on the power play though, as 26 of his 49 points came on the man advantage.
The Flames have had multiple opportunities to add P.A. Parenteau in the past, so I won’t waste my breath on him, though he also qualifies as a nice bottom six add for the Flames and would form a formidable trio with Bennett and Versteeg, one would think.
As is true every year, there are a few dangerous landmines lurking in the weeds, and with an exceptionally weak free agent class, Nick Bonino figures to be one of those mines. His 44.7% CF on a monster Penguins team is abysmal, and his stock has been elevated by superior linemates such as Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel. Bonino is also a centre, and would derail Bennett’s development down the middle by taking away his minutes. He’s also likely to demand Brouwer dough, and he’s about to turn 30. Best to just stay away.
Brian Boyle is another one to stay away from, if only because you won’t get the bang for your buck with him. He’s a great bottom six forward and penalty killer, and pushes the play up ice, but he doesn’t score much. Boyle had just 27 points last year, and will likely be demanding somewhere in the neighbourhood of $3-4 million with term, and will be highly sought after to boot.
Free agency is usually chock full of old overpays waiting to happen, and I wouldn’t be terribly choked if the Flames avoided it this year altogether.
Then there’s the topic of trading for another forward.
A quick look at the expansion draft rules would reveal that many a team will be left at risk of losing a quality top nine player to Vegas and get nothing in return. Given this climate, the trade market will be ripe for action. The Flames no longer have any spots on their protected list for another player though, so it is unlikely they trade for someone’s unprotected asset before the draft.
After it, however, the Flames could be active. The idea of making a deal with Vegas to “select a player then trade him” has been bandied about, and the Flames could, in theory, negotiate that style of deal with George McPhee. Having said that, the Golden Knights want to be competitive off the hop, and any worthwhile player they select in the expansion draft, they’ll likely keep. If the Flames like a player the Knights do not, however, then this isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
The Flames could also push all their chips to the middle and make a play for Matt Duchene or Gabriel Landeskog, solidifying their forward core in a big way. However, given their lack of draft picks and need of prospect replenishment, especially at forward, I don’t really foresee this as being a possibility.
The Calgary Flames are steps away from being contenders. Those steps aren’t straightforward, they aren’t easy and there’s a myriad of traps scattered along the path, but the reality is they’re close.
Brad Treliving’s competent three years in Calgary gives hope that he can avoid most of those traps (he’ll undoubtedly make another dumb free agent signing because NHL GMs just can’t seem to help themselves), but for the most part I expect him to navigate a pivotal offseason well and, come October, this Calgary Flames team will be of a quality unseen in the last decade.
Rebuilds, if executed properly, are said to be five-year processes. You tear it down in Year 1 and you enter your window of contention in Year 5. Well friends, the 2017-18 season will be Year 5 of the Calgary Flames’ rebuild (they only needed one, take that Edmonton!), and it looks like they’re right on schedule.