Brad Treliving is probably one heck of a poker player.
When you watch a media availability with the Calgary Flames’ general manager before a big event, such as the trade deadline or the NHL Draft, he’s incredibly tough to read or squeeze information out of. He speaks in generalities and often it’s only much later that the significance of his actions and intentions take hold.
At the 2017 NHL Draft weekend, Treliving seemingly dropped the poker face and sent some clear signals to the hockey world with the acquisition of defenseman Travis Hamonic: the Flames feel they’re ready to contend right now.
The Flames had a rough start last year, beginning their first season under new coach Glen Gulutzan with the worst four weeks from any team in the NHL. The reasons for their stumble out of the starting blocks have been fairly well documented around these parts:
- Mikael Backlund and Sean Monahan had truncated training camps due to injuries.
- Johnny Gaudreau had a truncated training camp due to his contract negotiations.
- The whole team had to adjust to Glen Gulutzan’s new system.
- Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson had to adjust to a new set of defensemen, who in turn were trying to learn Gulutzan’s system on the fly.
- Training camp was spent testing out a bunch of tryout players rather than trying to develop chemistry or learn systems.
After their dreadful start, things started to click for the Flames. They finally got goaltending. Pucks started to go into the net for them. A few lineup adjustments from Gulutzan – who seemed to use the first month to figure his team out – put together the vaunted 3M Line and the impressive Giordano/Hamilton pairing. With all these things starting to fall into place, the Flames went 40-23-3 the rest of the season. Ignoring their awful first month, they were eighth in the NHL in points.
Why do they think they can contend?
Once the Flames got going this past season, they were actually a pretty fun hockey team to watch. And unlike the 2014-15 “Find A Way Flames,” the team actually seemed to win in sustainable ways – they were the best team in the NHL at protecting third period leads, for example, and got scoring from throughout the lineup.
During their 66-game final stretch, and particularly during their late-season surge to clinch a playoff spot, several positives emerged which likely led fans and management alike to believe they were witnessing the “real” Flames:
- After slow starts, Monahan and Gaudreau found their strides (particularly with Micheal Ferland on their right side).
- The 3M Line emerged as arguably the NHL’s most consistent and effective 200-foot presence.
- Giordano and Hamilton were dynamite.
- Elliott set a Flames record for consecutive wins.
- The special teams units rebounded from their league-worst starts.
The Flames made the playoffs comfortably and out-played Anaheim by most possession metrics en route to being swept in a series most media observers agreed was much closer than the scoreboard. After seeing Nashville, the team that finished behind Calgary go to the Stanley Cup Final, it’s probable that Flames management shook their heads and exclaimed “If only we had better goaltending and more depth, that could’ve been us!” Indeed, their goaltending and scoring had both gone ice cold at precisely the wrong time.
What messages are they sending?
Treliving went out before the expansion draft and obtained an experienced starting goaltender in Mike Smith without losing anybody off his NHL roster. He went out and rounded out his club’s defense by acquiring Hamonic, again without losing anybody off his NHL roster. Tacitly, the message being sent to his team is, “Here, I got you some help to push you over the top.” There’s no teardown on the horizon, and leveraging futures to shore things up sends the message that he believes what his club is doing is working and they’re close to making some noise. To Hamonic and Smith, the message is, “You’re here to bring us over the top.” To the newcomers and the established core, it’s implicitly positive messaging.
When speaking to the media, Treliving has stopped short of saying his team’s window is open or they’re “going for it.” When speaking to the media on Saturday in Chicago after the draft, he focused on explaining how deep his team is and why he felt he could spend futures:
“Top four D, obviously goaltending we feel we’ve solidified that position, we’ve got young kids coming there. You look at our top four defense and then your reserve list, we think that top four defense can match up. You look down the center of our ice: Monahan, Backlund, Bennett, Stajan, Lazar, there’s depth there. You got Jankowski coming. We feel we’ve got some players on the wings in Gaudreau, Tkachuk, Frolik, Ferland. We pushed our players to raise the bar and push it this summer and felt we had to do our part, too.”
Privately, in conversations with prospects, it seems that the club is being a little bit less restrained in their optimism based on what’s been relayed to the media recently.
— Wes Gilbertson (@WesGilbertson) June 28, 2017
When speaking with media at the draft about what he knew about the Flames, sixth round pick D’Artagnan Joly recounted what he was told by the club: “They’re looking to win a Cup in the next couple years.”
On the verge?
Under Treliving’s leadership, the Flames haven’t been a team to toot their own horn or make grand public pronouncements. In his final full season in Calgary, Jay Feaster guaranteed a playoff spot and that didn’t turn out too well. But the actions that the hockey operations department has made over the past several weeks reads, from the outside, like Treliving pushing his chips to the center of the table and deciding to let his hand play out – for better or for worse.
It’s impossible to say if the approach will work necessarily, and there’s a lot of offseason left to get through before hockey even starts again, but the optimism is a stark chance of pace from the doom and gloom that pervaded as recently as four years ago.