Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Flames’ deadline a realistic assessment of present team – and its potential for the future

Who expected the Flames to get this far?

Go back in time to October. You’re excited for a new season, but you also remember how the previous one ended – a team that was supposed to at least make the playoffs, that was starting to go all in, completely crumbled and made sure watching them a miserable chore – and you’re wary. And then the Flames lose their season opener in the exact same style they’d lost many games at the end of 2017-18.

But they win their home opener, at least, and are able to crawl out to a modest 5-5 record. You roll your eyes: here we go again, mediocrity on the horizon, a team that will never be able to make it over the hump. They won’t lose every game 9-1 like they just did, but the cracks are showing. Is there even a chance they make the playoffs this year?

But then the Flames start winning. And they don’t stop. And a month and a half later, they’re first in the Western Conference. And they just stay there.

When the Flames had a 5-5 record through the first 10 games of the season, did it even occur to you that the Flames could be the best team in the West? That they would go into the trade deadline in that very position – not with a comfortable lead, but a pretty modest one, all things considered, with only one team necessary to scoreboard watch?

Probably not. So why has anything changed since then?

Staying the course

The Flames did not do anything at the deadline. Their most prominent issues were probably goaltending being a question mark and the want for another high-end forward; not only did the Flames not address either issue, but all they did was trade for a depth defenceman in Oscar Fantenberg. That isn’t really much of anything.

And when you see teams around the Flames loading up – the Sharks got Gustav Nyquist, the Golden Knights got Mark Stone (!!), and the Predators and Jets made a couple of moves as well – then it’s only natural to feel disappointed. The Flames aren’t the Lightning. They aren’t so comically superior, so far ahead of the pack that they don’t have to do anything to improve. The last 20 games of the season will not be like the first 62 – not when everyone else vying for the top spot in the West just tried to make themselves better and the Flames did nothing.

To which I’ll emphasize: were the Flames ever really supposed to be the first place team in the Western Conference? Were they supposed to be this good this season?

Of course, you hope they can keep ahold of that standing. But it’s not the goal for this year. It never was. The Flames probably could have gotten Stone, at least as a rental, if they’d been willing to ship out Juuso Valimaki. That could have put them over the top for this year (a year in which “over the top” probably means “can compete with the Lightning”), but completely disrupt future plans – both in terms of Stone’s new cap hit blowing up the Flames’ salary structure, and in not having Valimaki anymore.

And if the Flames didn’t think they’d be Cup contenders this year – and why would they have? Who saw Elias Lindholm having a career year halfway through the season? Who saw all three of the Flames’ rookie defencemen ready to play in the NHL all at once? Who saw the fourth line develop into a scoring threat, who saw David Rittich being near the top of league-wide save percentage for the first few months of taking the starter’s job? – then why would they suddenly think that’s changed, that they’re further along than they are?

No precedent

Brad Treliving took over for the 2014-15 season, a year in which the Flames overachieved and made the second round of the playoffs. This was largely in part due to a bonkers shooting percentage that they were not going to be able to replicate. A lesser general manager would have stepped into that season, dusted his hands and said, “We’ve arrived.” Nope – Treliving sold at the trade deadline, even though his team was in a playoff position, and spent the offseason adding players like Dougie Hamilton and Michael Frolik because the Flames weren’t even remotely close to good enough. It’s additions like those that have allowed the Flames to be where they are today: a team that recognized where it truly was, not where a potentially misleading standings placement said they were, and stuck to a plan to develop long-term success.

Why change that now?

Presumably, if the Flames didn’t think they would be Cup contenders this year, then they would still be planning for a future season in which they are. That should not have changed, and judging by the Flames’ deadline activity, it has not. Which is exactly the right move, especially when you take into account everything they’ve already done to build this team.

The most glaring example is the Travis Hamonic trade: out went a first round pick and two seconds, which has certainly played its part in the prospect pool looking a little lacking (that and the team being relatively young because all of those prominent prospects just jumped right into the NHL). That move was not made in a vacuum: it was made with the clear intention of bettering the Flames’ defensive group. It took some time, but it has done just that, even though it’s cost them dearly in another area of building a team.

To have dealt Valimaki as part of a package for Stone would have disrupted that even further. It doesn’t fit the plan. And the plan’s gotten the Flames this far. Throwing it out for a team that’s first in the West now but by no means is guaranteed to finish in that spot – nobody remembers who was leading the standings through most of the season, you only remember who actually finished the season on top – could have been disastrous not for this season, but for next. And the season after that. And the season after that…

This is not the year the Flames have to go big or go home. The only trade that really stings is Nyquist, because he would have been a good fit at a perfectly affordable price. Everything else is very easy to understand why the Flames passed. Yeah, maybe they’re blowing it – maybe Mark Giordano won’t be a Norris-caliber defenceman next season (though they do have four options all 22 years old and younger), maybe they won’t have four forwards all scoring at or above a point-per-game pace again (speaking of which, where’d that scoring go, anyway?) – but blowing up the potential for years of future success down the line for one season is impulsive and foolhardy.

What now?

The Flames added one depth defenceman. That gives them more than a full slate of forwards who won’t look out of place in an NHL lineup (the worst guys are who, Curtis Lazar? Garnet Hathaway? Austin Czarnik? You’re doing pretty great if those are your worst forwards), and they’re now at 10 defencemen – seven of whom have high-end potential – to hold down the fort. Yes, other teams got better, but dang, this is still a pretty great team, too.

The Flames have a modest lead for the Pacific Division crown, which they’re going to have to aim to keep. If they can defeat a wild card team and then face whoever emerges victorious between the Sharks and Golden Knights – a battle that could cost them come the next round (last year, the Golden Knights got a pretty decent deal, waiting for the Jets and Predators to finish beating up on each other before taking down the Jets), then they very well might stay in good standing through the playoffs. The Flames have given themselves a modest lead that it’s entirely realistic they stay in first, even with their opponents’ upgrades.

And if their gambit doesn’t work, and they lose early in the playoffs, well… then they lose early in the playoffs. It happens. It could happen even if they’d traded for Stone. Look at the Sharks: they have given up a lot of assets to build a formidable team, and their starting goaltender has a season save percentage of 0.897%. Even the Sharks are at risk of having absolutely nothing to show for everything they’ve done.

It’s just that right now it’s time for the Flames to show patience. So they have. If they lose out early, then they’ll live to fight on next season as well; Treliving’s biggest moves have always come at the draft, anyway, so his big acquisition can spend the entire season with the team from the start. And if they win late, then well… they win late.

This season has been gravy. That doesn’t mean you base your entire meal out of gravy – it means you appreciate it for the additional joy it’s brought, while recognizing there’s a lot more going on.

The Flames’ play this season has set themselves up for an entertaining present. Their restraint at the deadline has probably set them up for an entertaining future, too.

  • Raffydog

    Well I guess there is always the next rebuild to look forward to. This team isn’t good enough now, and wont be getting any better in the upcoming years. The windows been closed locked, and boarded up.

  • Dunk

    BT would make a great Liberal Politician, (SPINNING INEPTITUDE) At the very least we needed to get a #1 GOALIE. Clearly we are unsure with what we have. We can’t even tell you who is the #1 because neither one has stood out. It would be a shame to find that they are both inadequate which has been the trending direction… BT has put a lot of eggs in our struggling goalies basket.
    p.s.the only thing worse then not making the playoffs is getting swept…

  • Flint

    TSN and Sportsnet panelists labelled the Flames as trade deadline “losers.” I don’t agree, but don’t totally disagree. We sent a 4th, potentially a 3rd for a guy we absolutely don’t need. We have 9 NHL capable defenders and I think Fantenberg isn’t better than 7 or 8 of them.

    So, we didn’t take advantage of any of the possible additions or rentals. Fine, we wanna keep picks. But one only has to look at Ottawa and Columbus as two examples of different perspectives on picks. Kekalainen is hedging his bet that picks aren’t players, they’re chances at players. Ottawa’s future depends on nailing those chances. One isn’t right, one isn’t wrong but what everyone will agree on is chances at the cup are slim and you want as many as you can get.

      • Flint

        OK, do you believe we were Deadline day winners?

        Here’s an excercise: Imagine prior to all the trades that happened you were asked to give Vegas odds on the Flames winning the Cup. Ok, now the same, but after the trades.

        Did our odds go up? or down?

        If they went up, we “won” opportunity. If they went down, we “lost.”

        I don’t think anyone in their right mind can say we’ve got a better chance of winning the Cup this year after the Deadline deals than before.

        • Rockmorton65

          Two points, flint.

          1. A depth D with some experience was absolutely required. If the Flames make it into the later rounds and either Kylington and/or Valimaki bend under the pressure, there

          • Rockmorton65

            was no one on LD to step in. Now there is.
            2. The other teams made moves to compete with the Flames. Top team in the west…why make a move, just because?

          • Flint

            Fair enough. Hey, I’m a big believer that you can never have too many defenseman. So, maybe I shouldn’t have said we “absolutely don’t need” … without adding “today” behind that.

            But the same is true for the position that Mangiapane, Czarnik, Jankowski and Frolik currently hold. Some of those could be filled by moving a Frolik down the lineup for example, but my bigger point remains:

            For everyone that puts such high value in draft picks (and keep in mind ours will be low picks, not high picks), for all those people I say see: Oilers, Edmonton.

            The Oilers, then Panthers, then Sens? I forget have had more high picks than any other teams in the last 20 years. How many times have they even made the playoffs? Nevermind been competitive for the Cup. And that’s with top ten first rounders!

          • withachance

            Just because Edmonton cant draft doesnt mean throw picks at rentals the first year the team plays well….

            I honestly wouldnt have given up any of the packages for most of the trades yesterday, given what assets the Flames had, including the Nyquist deal. Dont forget this also gives BT ammo in the summer to make trades at the draft

          • Pancakes

            Yes, draft picks can be bombs, especially late ones but don’t you think they are still necessary? We have to replenish our supply of Anderssons, Dubes, Mangs, and JGs! No team wins Stanley without a balance of picks, trades, and free agents.

          • Flames fan since 83

            Flint said: “One isn’t right, one isn’t wrong but what everyone will agree on is chances at the cup are slim and you want as many as you can get.”
            I agree, that we want as many runs at this as possible.
            And that is why I can see the logic in not selling the future on one shot this year.
            We are built to have several shots going forward. Why blow a bunch of “assets” this year for say a “Stone” and only to have our Goalie not work out.
            I like that we keep what we got, and giver “Hell” and see how this goes.
            I’m good.
            Let’s get the party rolling tonight!

          • Rockmorton65

            I totally hear ya, Flint. I’d rather us keep the picks & use them at the draft than trade them away & pray we don’t regret it.

            Can you imagine if Columbus either misses the playoffs or lose in the first round? And Duchene walks? Disaster.

        • withachance

          “Did our odds go up? or down? If they went up, we “won” opportunity. If they went down, we “lost.””

          Thats pretty simplistic outlook on a very complex landscape in today’s NHL… they won in terms of immediate sentiments and reactions. considering organizational structure, 3 year window, asset management, and general team building for long term sustained success, who do you think won from yesterday? Teams like Tampa, Flames, NYI, Vancouver

          • Flint

            Lindholm was taken 5th, Hanafin was taken 5th, Monahan 6th, Bennett 4th, Frolik was taken 10th, Valimaki was taken 16th, Jankowski 21st, Backlund 24th,

            Gaudreau is a pick that works out less than 1% of the time (that’s scouting, yes, but it’s luck statistically). Gio was never drafted, same deal.

            That’s basically our whole team/core.

            Again, you’re counting the FEW that got in and ignoring the thousands that didn’t.

            Look, I’m not saying never draft and that picks aren’t valuable. Picks are valuable, but they are not equally valuable. NHL players, however, true NHL players are much more valuable than picks.

            Zuccarello, Nyqvist, Brassard all improved teams that were exchanged for picks that 89 times out of 100 won’t play in the NHL.

        • The Fall

          Its not a win / lose situation.

          More points to remember:
          – Three of four Division leaders did not add at the deadline.
          – Two of two Conference leaders did not add at the deadline.
          – The biggest renter in the league was outside a WC spot two days ago…
          – SJS are old and their window is closing
          – VGK lost all manageable contracts and flexibility over the past 12 months
          – WPJ are scary good when healthy
          – There are no really good goalies in the West, so its kinda anyone’s game.

        • Kevin R

          Perspective Flint! So Columbus was the real fun team for the MSM with the high end rental trade acquisitions. Hope Columbus win the Cup or at the very least a round for their fans. Come July, Panarin, Duschene, Dzingel & Bobrovsky all can walk & Columbus will be left with scattered stones to start the reconstruction.

          The Vegas getting the gem of the TDL. Big winners. Right. Well if they win a cup it will help wash down the fact McPhee will have over $82 million committed to next year cap after they add Stone’s 9.5 mill & they need to sign Karlsson, Nosek & need a back up goalie & they may want to keep Engellend. How much is the Cap going up to……? That cost to acquire Stone may have cost them not only Brannstrom, but maybe Karlsson too.

    • canadian1967

      If Panarin, and Bobrovsky, who have made it fairly clear that they want to sign somewhere else as UFA’s plus Duchene and Dzingel all move on, then what will Columbus do? If Free Agents won’t sign there, then they are absolutely Buggered.
      Better win now then. (hint: they won’t)

    • HOCKEY83

      It’s not just about keeping the future picks…It’s also about the organization believeing in the team that made them second place in the league. It’s been quite a while that this team has been in a posotion to sit back and watch all the other teams below them fighting over trading away their future for players just to try and beat the Calgary flames. It’s absolutely wonderful.

  • Cold Hard Truth

    “Of course, you hope they can keep ahold of that standing. But it’s not the goal for this year.”

    This is loser talk, Ari.

    It’s hard to win in this league and there’s no assurance the Flames will be in such a strong position next year. You need to strike while the iron’s hot.

    If the Flames get bounced in the playoffs, we may be left thinking ‘what could have been’ had Treliving added at the deadline.