This season, the Flames are a top team in the NHL. They have some of the league’s top scorers, they have one of the best records, and they have some of the best underlying numbers. This continues to beg the question, though: are the Flames a true Stanley Cup contender? And if they are, is this the year to go all in?
The Flames’ rebuild probably officially kicked off when they drafted Sean Monahan with the sixth overall pick back in 2013. It was their highest draft pick in years, and they got a pretty good player out of it.
Now in his sixth season in the NHL, Monahan has lived up to his promise, particularly as the Flames have added an increasingly talented cast of characters around him: Johnny Gaudreau. Matthew Tkachuk. Elias Lindholm. Travis Hamonic. Noah Hanifin. Players like Mark Giordano, Mikael Backlund, and TJ Brodie were already there, but the Flames have gone from a scrappy team with a handful of good players to a relatively young group loaded with talent. There have been some bumps along the way, but it’s pretty much exactly how a rebuild is supposed to play out.
The next big item for the Flames, then, will be the NHL’s trade deadline on Feb. 25. It could be what makes or breaks their playoff hopes. Because, as good as the Flames are, they could still be better: they need a backup goaltender they can count on; depth defencemen ready to provide more than talented, but green, rookies can; and another top six forward and/or more reliable depth scoring. Adding one or two of those positions would probably give them another leg up on the rest of the Cup hopefuls; adding to all three positions could make them unstoppable.
Unfortunately, in order to get quality, the Flames are going to have to give up quality. It’s probably safe to say those aforementioned nine players, plus David Rittich, are safe and won’t be traded; anyone else could potentially be up for grabs, but they wouldn’t yield as good of a return. That means, in order to upgrade their roster, the Flames will probably have to give up something else of value: be it one of Rasmus Anderson, Oliver Kylington, or Juuso Valimaki; high draft picks; or perhaps both.
The problem with doing that: after trading a number of picks in order to build this team, the Flames’ cupboards are pretty much bare. There’s hope for Dillon Dube and Andrew Mangiapane, and maybe Matthew Phillips is pretty awesome, too. There’s the three rookie defencemen, who all look to have graduated to the NHL (or at least will have officially by next season, in all likelihood). And then there’s, uh… well… nobody, really? Not any time soon, at least.
That’s all well and good for the present, because most of the Flames’ best players are still relatively young, but things could spiral out of control within just a couple of seasons if there are no additional replacements from within. (As good as the Flames have been this season, we’re starting to see it a bit already: there’s a forward spot open in the NHL because nobody has outright grabbed it yet.) It would likely be in the Flames’ best interests to retain at least some of their picks and prospects.
Besides: even if this year continues to shape up to look like a year in which the Flames will contend, that doesn’t mean it’ll be the only one. Next season could be the year, too. Or the season after. Giordano has continued to defy age (and even if he doesn’t, four of the Flames’ top seven defencemen of present are 22 and younger, so defencemen’s ages may not be the biggest concern), and Gaudreau will still be signed to a laughably low $6.75 million cap hit for another three seasons after this one. This is a team that has the potential to be good for a while longer yet, and it isn’t as though the 2018-19 season is Cup or bust.
At the same time, it’s really tough to win a Cup, so if the chance to do just that presents itself, wouldn’t the Flames have to go for it? There’s no guarantee they have four forwards scoring well over a point-per-game in any other season. Combine them with another top six forward, and this team could be lethal.
So what would you do? Is it the right time for the Flames to go all in and spend big, or should they play it a little more conservative, see how this year goes (probably with at least a minor upgrade here or there), and keep regrouping for the next few seasons instead, all without completely selling their longer-term future?
What are the expectations for the Flames this season – and can they match them, with or without going big?