The Flames cleared out their lockers and went in separate directions more than a week ago, but those of us on the outside are still left with numerous questions about this team’s future. There’s no doubt the fate of Glen Gulutzan’s coaching staff is the number one off-season story to watch, but it’s not the only one, as I’ve got four more to round it out.
1. The future of the coaching staff
“We’ve got a good coach. At this time…we evaluate everything.” – GM Brad Treliving
Gulutzan’s two year tenure behind Calgary’s bench has served as one of the most divisive topics around these parts in quite some time. After a deserving playoff appearance in 2017, the Flames underachieved mightily in Gulutzan’s second season; but how much of that is on the coach? As evidenced above, Treliving wasn’t committing one way or another to wrap up the season.
“I’m certainly not a believer that you just spit people out time and time again,” Treliving said last Monday. “We are going to evaluate everything without prejudice with the goal of: how do we get better? How do we correct what we felt went wrong this year? Patience in this game and this sport sometimes isn’t a virtue. Sometimes there’s time for patience, sometimes there’s not time for patience. Sometimes you have to make changes.”
Ever since the possibility of Calgary missing the playoffs became a going concern, my gut has always felt a coaching change would be made upon that eventuality. Nothing Treliving said to close out the season makes me feel all that different, mainly because he said virtually identical things about Bob Hartley before firing him in early May 2016.
Count me as one who doesn’t think firing Gulutzan is the magic elixir. Despite my issues with player usage, I still think Gulutzan’s tenure has been more positive than negative; I refer mainly to the team’s impressive possession and penalty kill gains (more on this in a separate article later this month).
I don’t deny changes need to be made, specifically with the power play, but is gutting the entire staff the way to go as opposed to making one or two more subtle changes? And if the team opts with the former, who are possible replacements?
Bill Peters has until Friday to exercise his opt-out clause in Carolina. Alain Vigneault is a free agent but likely carries a high price tag. Would the team wait to see if other NHL coaches shake loose as the playoffs roll on? Or would they look to the American League and a rookie coach like Sheldon Keefe? For so many reasons, the future of Calgary’s coaching staff is THE story to watch this off-season.
2. Potential blueline moves
The Flames have a really good opportunity to deal from a position of strength this summer. Calgary is stacked with organizational depth on the blueline, which leads many to believe they’ll move at least one NHL defender this off-season. Count me as one of those people. Here’s a rough look at the organizational depth chart with NHL AAV’s:
|Mark Giordano ($6.75)||Dougie Hamilton ($5.75)|
|TJ Brodie ($4.65)||Travis Hamonic ($3.87)|
|Brett Kulak (RFA)||Michael Stone ($3.50)|
|Juuso Valimaki ($925K)||Rasmus Andersson ($755K)|
|Oliver Kylington ($730K)||Adam Fox (unsigned)|
So let’s literally attack this on both sides, starting on the right. From everything I’ve seen, Andersson is ready for full-time NHL work right away. As such, moving someone ahead of him makes sense, if only to make room. In one case (Stone), I think Andersson would be an upgrade. In every case he’d present significant cap savings.
Hamilton carries the most trade value, although I think moving him would be a mistake. Regardless, though, he’d likely be able to net Calgary a top six winger in return if that’s an area they’re targeting. Hamonic and Stone, on the other hand, would likely help Treliving recoup draft picks with the latter more likely to move.
On the other side, the future of Brodie is most intriguing to me. He’s struggled mightily the last two seasons and yet still carries trade value due to his contract and skill set. Brodie won’t command what he would have two summers ago, but if they wanted to move him they’d have a couple options.
Kulak looked good in an elevated role down the stretch, granted with a small sample size. What is clear, though, is Kulak is an NHL defencemen, and a valuable one at that thanks to his long term affordability. Could he handle an elevate role over a full season? Or, the Flames could explore a left shot d-man in free agency; names like Calvin De Haan and Thomas Hickey come to mind, for instance.
Then there’s the most interesting factor: Valimaki. It’s not out of the question whatsoever we see him push hard for a spot in September, especially with players like Charlie McAvoy, Zach Werenski, Aaron Ekblad, and Olli Maatta excelling in their early 20s in recent years. If Calgary believes Valimaki is ready, moving Brodie really becomes a viable possibility.
3. Matthew Tkachuk’s contract extension
Tkachuk is eligible for a contract extension starting July 1st, and as we talked about earlier this season, there’s no reason to delay. In just two seasons, Tkachuk has established himself as one of the NHL’s top wingers, regardless of age or experience. He needs to get paid, and he’s only going to better his case if the Flames let negotiations drag into next season.
|144||56.6 (5th)||89 (T-1st)|
Tkachuk’s two-year aggregate totals are impressive. On top of being a top five player in both possession and penalties drawn, Tkachuk has also been a top offensive performer for Calgary; he’s top three on the team in points and assists per 60 minutes since entering the league. It’s tough to argue he’s not one of the two or three most important players on the team, both now and in the future.
Tkachuk took huge steps forward in year two and it stands to reason that trend will continue in his third NHL season. From a Flames perspective, it makes the most sense to sign Tkachuk this summer for as long as possible. Sure, it’s never that simple, but it doesn’t change the fact it would be the ideal scenario.
Because Tkachuk will carry one of the highest cap numbers on the team, getting his deal done ASAP allows Calgary to get a much better idea of their salary framework going forward. There’s really no reason to wait.
4. Addressing goaltending long-term
Mike Smith is 36 years old and missed significant time with an injury for a third straight season. Smith also struggled mightily upon his return from injury. Neither David Rittich nor Jon Gillies could carry the mail successfully in Smith’s absence. Tyler Parsons struggled in his first year as a professional. These are the facts that lead to an important conclusion: the Flames still don’t have a long-term answer in net.
“That’s something we’re going to have to discuss over the summer,” Treliving told me when I asked on Monday. “What’s our plan moving forward?”.
It’s truly a million dollar question for Calgary, and has anything but an easy answer.
“Obviously Mike has got a year left and as we saw this year, (he) can be a top goaltender in this league. Beyond that, we’ve got some young goaltenders. Now…two of them obviously, David and Jon, got some NHL experience this year. I think that’s still an area that somebody’s got to separate themselves.”
Knowing all the factors involved, the Flames have a few options. They could stand pat and start the season with a tandem of Smith and, presumably, Rittich. Calgary could also look at acquiring a more experienced option to understudy for Smith. Or they could bring in a goaltender with a chance to be a number one when Smith’s contract expires.
Sure, trying to pick off one of Philipp Grubauer or Braden Holtby from Washington sounds like a great idea, but it’s no sure thing. The most realistic option seems to be standing pat with Smith as the number one, which would also buy time for Rittich, Gillies, or Parsons to separate themselves.
“I’m really encouraged about the ability level of all of our young goaltenders,” said Treliving. “Now it’s, okay, who’s coming? What’s the timeline for each? Let’s wait and see is sort of where I’m at.”
5. Pending UFAs
The guy pictured above is the guy who’s future with the team I’m most interested in, at least on the unrestricted free agent front. Sure, Matt Stajan’s contract and role didn’t mesh up the last few years, but what if he were on a one year deal at less than a million?
Knowing how he performed this season, having Stajan as a fourth line option for another year doesn’t sound awful to me. His even strength metrics above, courtesy Natural Stat Trick, paint a picture of an effective fourth centre.
Yes, the team acquired Nick Shore at the deadline, and he might fill that role next season, but Stajan as a 13th forward has upside, if that role interests him. For his part, Stajan seemed pretty pragmatic about his future last Monday.
“In a perfect world, I’ll be back here,” Stajan said. “I’m a realist, I understand how the game works, I’ve been very lucky to be here as long as I’ve been; I’ve enjoyed every second of it. I’d love to be back, but I know that there’s always changes. I’m 34, I get that decisions are going to be made and I’m a UFA, so I’ll sit down with my family, we’ll see what kind of options we have, and make a decision as a family. I do intend to play hockey somewhere next year, so that’s my plan.”
The only other pending UFA that merits much discussion is Kris Versteeg, at least when looking at players who spent significant time in the NHL this season. Tanner Glass, Chris Stewart, and Matt Bartkowski all seem like foregone conclusions.