Standing idly by was not an option for the Flames this offseason; not after they set expectations for 2017-18 and failed spectacularly to meet them. The team’s faults became increasingly apparent as the season went on, leaving the Flames with really only one choice: big changes would have to come before October.
Mere days into the official start of the 2018-19 season, the Flames appeared to have already done just that.
The prototypical lineup for the Flames through 2017-18 often looked something like this:
Only a small handful of forwards were particularly great. The good news is that they were mostly younger guys: Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Matthew Tkachuk. Otherwise, the Flames were relying on everyone to have a career year. The depth was dependent on both Micheal Ferland and Sam Bennett proving they were the real deals; they did not. When the top players inevitably cooled off – or required four surgeries, such as Monahan – there was nobody capable of stepping up. Season over.
The depth was supposed to be in the defence; it failed to live up to expectations. The top pairing did a great job, but TJ Brodie floundered throughout the year, Travis Hamonic required an extensive adjustment period to playing in the west, and Michael Stone is still making $3.5 million in a bottom pairing role while being the team’s worst regular defender for some reason.
The Flames have been struggling to find consistency at the goaltending position for years, and this past season was no different. Mike Smith started out so great the Flames saw it fit to play the then-35-year-old every single night, leaving no chance for any backup to find his footing, forcing the team to eventually turn to an untested rookie. Then the then-35-year-old playing every single night got hurt, the untested rookie couldn’t handle being a starter, neither could the other untested rookie, and the season was really over.
Sure, injuries hurt the Flames. That forward depth looks a lot better with a healthy Jaromir Jagr in place for Garnet Hathaway, and a healthy Kris Versteeg dressing 70- or 80-something times instead of just 24. But injuries hurt every team, and the Flames weren’t prepared for it.
Now, compare last year to what the Flames may have to work with this season (so far):
The Flames have focused almost exclusively on the forwards so far this offseason, and it looks like it’s paying off. Granted, we won’t know much until the puck actually drops, but both James Neal (even at his age) and Elias Lindholm are substantial upgrades on Ferland. Mark Jankowski will have to fight with Derek Ryan to get more minutes. Michael Frolik no longer has a guaranteed spot in the top six, and any justification for playing Hathaway every night is officially gone. Bennett could have Austin Czarnik – or any prospect who succeeds, really – nipping at his heels constantly. There’s more competition with a higher quality set of players, and more options when things just aren’t going right (more on that later).
In the immediate, the defence is a little worse. Noah Hanifin probably isn’t going to step in and replace Dougie Hamilton’s performance immediately; even Hamilton’s numbers in his first three years in the league beat out Hanifin’s. If Brodie is unable to return to form alongside Mark Giordano and Hanifin isn’t able to pull off a miracle of being beyond astounding right away, the Flames may have shot themselves in the foot. It’s a risk.
Goaltending is the exact same perilous adventure as it was last year, except this time around, both David Rittich and Jon Gillies have more NHL experience, which may help. On the other hand, Smith is another year older.
What’s left to do?
All that said, it’s hard to imagine the Flames are already done reshaping their roster, barring re-signing RFAs. The lineup looks better on paper, but as this past season showed us, one can never be too careful.
Is there a lot left to do at forward? Maybe the team could go after someone else, but that top six actually kind of looks like a real one now, and there’s still a chance for prospects who really impress at camp to work their way in there – though it may have to force some difficult decisions for management (i.e. waiving players who are worse, but already have a sunk cost attached to them).
The defence is still clogged. Assuming Dalton Prout is indeed the seventh defencemen, then there’s no room for prospects there at all, and the backend is likely where the Flames are most ready to plug somebody in. (What I’m getting at here is please make room for Rasmus Andersson. How can he not deserve it at this point. Please free him. And that’s assuming Juuso Valimaki doesn’t try to force his way on the team, too.)
And goaltending? Well, Bill Peters never had anything good to work with in Carolina. And goaltending is really the one position that can sink or swim an entire season singlehandedly like no other. There is a lot of cause to be anxious if the Flames don’t make any moves in net; while it could work out, is the current configuration a smart bet once again?
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