In re-signing Jon Gillies and David Rittich to one-year deals, Brad Treliving has further increased his pool of players under contract who will need to show big stuff in 2017-18.
As things stand right now, with three restricted free agents left to re-sign – Sam Bennett, Brett Kulak, and Tyler Wotherspoon – the Flames have 18 players whose contracts are set to expire by July 1, 2018. Six are unrestricted free agents, while 12 are restricted. Some may not return at all, but others – most notably, prospects – will have another year to put together a resume that shows they still deserve to be kept a member of this organization.
The upcoming UFAs the Flames will have to tend to are Mikael Backlund, Matt Stajan, Kris Versteeg, Matt Bartkowski, Eddie Lack, and Luke Gazdic. Of these, Backlund is obviously the priority – he’s the only one who’s a sure lock to get a raise, and deservedly so.
What of the rest? Stajan could return as a centre insurance policy if desired, but undoubtedly at a drastically reduced rate; this should be the final season the Flames’ fourth line centre has a cap hit north of $3 million. Depending on Versteeg’s year, he could be a candidate to come back, as well – if he puts together a similar campaign to his 2016-17 and shows no signs of slowing down, then he’d be a no-brainer.
Bartkowski was signed for expansion draft purposes, and his ceiling is about that of a sixth defenceman if he’s not back in the AHL entirely, so his could be his final season with the Flames. Gazdic is in a similar boat. The AHL needs bodies, and tough guys are likely more relevant to that league than the NHL so for that, Gazdic is a fit.
Lack is the real wild card here. If he can regain the form that saw him post a .921 save percentage over 41 games back in 2014-15, then he has to be in consideration to be brought back. On the other hand, if either of Gillies or Rittich really make a strong push, then he’s expendable, perhaps as soon as the trade deadline. Over the course of the season, he could end up proving himself as sure a bet as Backlund to re-sign – or turn into AHL fodder.
As of writing, the Flames have 12 RFAs whose deals are set to expire after this upcoming season. This number could go up, depending on what contracts Bennett, Kulak, and Wotherspoon sign. The two defenceman are probably more likely to sign shorter term deals as they continue to work to establish themselves as NHLers, though.
Players establishing themselves as NHLers – or at least with the potential to become one, and soon – will be the ultimate goal over the course of the next season for these 12:
- Freddie Hamilton
- Garnet Hathaway
- Marek Hrivik
- Mark Jankowski
- Emile Poirier
- Hunter Shinkaruk
- Austin Carroll
- Morgan Klimchuk
- Daniel Pribyl
- Hunter Smith
- Jon Gillies
- David Rittich
The group consists of 10 forwards and two goalies. We’ve already talked about the goalies in their own signing post – and like Lack, they’re kind of wild cards in their own right – so let’s focus on the forwards, six of whom have already played at least one NHL game.
Not all RFAs are created equal. Hamilton and Hathaway, for example, have proven themselves to be capable AHL players, but when it comes to the NHL, they’ll likely never be much more than fourth liners. That’s not a bad thing, though – teams need adequate depth, and someone who can actually play a regular shift will always be a better option than a dancing bear who would be lucky to get even 10 minutes in a single game. Hamilton is a capable, if unimpressive, forward who fits in the former category, while Hathaway is more of the mucking and grinding type.
Hrivik is an interesting wild card in this group. He’s put up decent numbers at the AHL level – better than Hathaway’s – but it appears he simply cannot score at the NHL level. However, in his limited NHL samples, he’s an advanced stats darling. Look at the far right of this Rangers graph put together by @ShutdownLine:
Basic look at who was involved in NYR's offense last year. Nash the most high volume shooter, Zbad, Zucc, Miller & Stepan setting up a lot. pic.twitter.com/CaBAh50uOL
— Corey Sznajder (@ShutdownLine) July 20, 2017
Keep in mind, though, that these guys probably don’t have much higher to climb, if at all. We’re talking about players with playing samples of 20-60 games already. Hrivik is the only brand new addition to the Flames who could prove to have hidden value as a fourth liner.
After them, you have players the organization has spent a couple of years investing in, and are legitimate prospects who have that one more year to really try to push for a spot, because this is when they should be starting to. Jankowski, Poirier, Shinkaruk, and Klimchuk are the higher end of this group. They have yet to boom or bust, but the clock is really ticking, starting now. Jankowski, the oldest of the group, should really be pushing Stajan for that fourth line centre spot.
Meanwhile, the Flames still have a spot on the wing open, which could be up for grabs. Shinkaruk has the most professional experience, Klimchuk the least, and Poirier falls in between; all three were first round picks from the 2013 draft, and Shinkaruk and Poirier will require waivers next season (Klimchuk’s later birthday buys him a season before he reaches that point, so even though his contract will be up in a year, there’s less pressure on him – unless his 2017-18 flops like his rookie pro season did). Poirier can probably be granted a bit more leeway, as we know he was battling alcoholism – but now there’s renewed hope for him to return to the form he exhibited during his rookie pro season. And as for Shinkaruk, he suffered from some inconsistency and injuries over the past season, but for him the clock is likely ticking the loudest.
Pribyl is on the fringe of this group: a newcomer to the Flames organization who posted just under half a point per game in 2016-17, all the while trying to adapt to North American ice and battling injury after injury after injury. Things don’t look great right now, but he’ll have an entire season to try to reverse the misfortunes from the previous year.
To round things out there’s Carroll and Smith, who don’t really have much potential to speak of. What they do have going for them is they’re right shots, so they could be in contention for an AHL deal after this upcoming season – but an NHL one probably shouldn’t be in their cards.