For the last few years, many have considered Calgary’s group of NHL defencemen an area of strength. That remains a fair observation heading into the 2018-19 season and, thanks to some savvy drafting, the team’s organizational depth at the position is also strong. As a result, when you take ages and contracts into account, the Flames are set to have a very different looking blueline group in the very near future, and it could start as early as this season.
Calgary’s NHL personnel for the coming season is similar to last year, albeit for one significant change. The Flames essentially swapped Dougie Hamilton for Noah Hanifin in June, which gives us a decent idea of how things might look to start the season.
Mark Giordano-TJ Brodie
Noah Hanifin-Travis Hamonic
Brett Kulak-Michael Stone
That grouping isn’t set in stone by any means, which is our first indication the winds of change are blowing. I would suggest neither Kulak nor Stone are holding down solidified spots in the everyday lineup, thanks to competition further down the depth chart.
The Flames’ 2015 second round pick Rasmus Andersson enters training camp with high expectations after a strong sophomore professional season. As a right-shot defender, Andersson likely threatens Stone’s spot in the top six most immediately, and the former looked good in 10 NHL games last season. It would be disappointing if Andersson wasn’t in the mix for an opening day spot, at the very least.
Then there’s 2017 first round pick Juuso Valimaki, who is set to enter his rookie professional season. After getting an extended look a year ago, much is expected in Valimaki’s second NHL training camp, even if there isn’t high urgency to get him into NHL action. If Valimaki proves he’s ready for big league action, I’m confident the Flames will make room for him on the left side. If not, there’s zero negative to starting Valimaki in Stockton.
PROJECTING THE FUTURE
Here’s where things get interesting. Broken into left and right shots, Calgary’s organizational breakdown on the backend is charted below. Included is current age (as of Aug. 27, 2018) and their remaining contract status. Because he’s projected to move back to the right side, we’ll consider Brodie a right shot for the sake of this conversation.
|Mark Giordano||34||4 years, $6.75||TJ Brodie||28||2 years, $4.65|
|Noah Hanifin||21||RFA||Travis Hamonic||28||2 years, $3.86|
|Brett Kulak||24||1 year, $900,000||Michael Stone||28||2 years, $3.5|
|Juuso Valimaki||19||3 years, $894,166||Rasmus Andersson||21||2 years, $755,833|
|Oliver Kylington||21||2 years, $730,833||Dalton Prout||28||1 year, $800,000|
What strikes me immediately is what happens in a couple years: that’s when Brodie, Hamonic, and Stone see their current contracts expire. So, even if management doesn’t have their hand forced by Andersson or Valimaki in the next 24 months, the Flames are almost certainly set for significant change come the summer of 2020.
Taking their on-ice work out of the equation, it is unlikely Calgary would re-sign an entire trio of 30-year-old defencemen. It becomes even less probable when you factor in declining performance for all three in recent years. Even with bounce back seasons in 2018-19, it would be a surprise if any more than one of Brodie, Hamonic, or Stone stayed beyond their current contracts.
Giordano currently has the most term remaining on his deal while also sharing the team’s highest cap hit. That’s fine in the present because he’s the team’s best defenceman. As we’re all aware, though, Giordano turns 35 to start the season. He’s been freakishly defiant in the face of Father Time, but at some point Gio’s performance is going to decline.
The best case scenario for the Flames is multi-faceted. The team needs younger blueliners to develop so they have multiple bodies ready for October 2020. That would allow Stone, Brodie, and Hamonic to depart at the end of their contracts, if not earlier. The final piece of the puzzle is a slow and graceful decline for Giordano, which could give Calgary a blueline that looks something like this in a few years:
Juuso Valimaki-Noah Hanifin
Mark Giordano-Rasmus Andersson
Brett Kulak-Oliver Kylington
The projection above doesn’t allow for trades or free agency and also moves Hanifin and Kylington to the right side, which isn’t ideal. But it gives you an idea of how the Flames could fill coming vacancies from within, and do so without a great deal of difficulty.
Of course, it’s anything but a guarantee all three of Valimaki, Andersson, and Kylington develop into full-time NHLers, but that’s okay. With their contract structure, Calgary has options and could easily re-sign Hamonic or Brodie to keep the right side in good shape.
Flexibility is the key word, here. The Flames are only locked into Giordano and likely Hanifin for more than four years. They also boast three promising blueline prospects the organization projects as everyday players in the near future. Change is already underway, and depending on how those prospects perform, we might not be waiting until 2020 to see Calgary’s changing of the guard.