One of the best stories surrounding the Calgary Flames this season has been the dominance of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk and Mark Giordano. The quintet have often been directly responsible for dragging the Flames to victory on many a night they probably didn’t deserve to win.
In a world that loves nicknames, they are surprisingly without one: this despite being the first fivesome to reach 70 points since the 2000-01 Pittsburgh Penguins’ Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka, Alex Kovalev and Robert Lang.
The Fantastic Five is the cheap and easy moniker, but my bid would be for Fab Five because let’s be honest, they are absolutely fabulous to watch. Plus, I can call them whatever I want within confines of this piece so Fab Five it is.
On or off the man advantage, with or without each other, these five skaters comprise the engine that has driven the Flames to their first 100+ point season in 13 years. But in the case of all five, through different circumstances, they were nearly never Flames.
Starting off based on seniority and chronology is the story of how the Flames nearly fumbled away Giordano. He is the outlier of the group in that he had previously been a Flame before his story took place, but he was just days away from not rejoining the team he would one day captain.
Following the completion of the 2006-07 season, Darryl Sutter was doing some classic Darryl Sutter General Managing, and decided to take a hardline with Giordano during contract talks. Giordano felt he had established himself as an everyday NHLer over the course of the prior two seasons with the team and deserved a one-way contract.
Darryl Sutter did not sympathize.
Not only did Sutter not want to offer Giordano a one-way deal, he was more than willing to let the then 23-year-old walk should he not accept the terms laid out by the organization.
And walk he did.
With no other NHL options and unwilling to toil in the AHL any longer, Giordano packed his bags and left for pre-KHL Russia in an attempt to prove his worth overseas. He played a solid season with Dynamo Moskva, and won a championship with Canada at the Spengler Cup tournament in between.
This time around, Sutter wasn’t so stingy. On July 1, 2008 the Flames signed Giordano to a three-year deal worth a shade under $900,000 annually.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Fast forward a decade and Giordano is the 19th captain in Flames history and already well on his way to being one of the most respected and admired of the group. At the tender age of 35 years old, he’s the frontrunner for the James Norris Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman and is inarguably the glue that keeps the Flames together, let alone the defence.
Gaudreau’s story takes a different pretext. The Flames always valued him as a prospect, scouting him covertly as to not tip off other teams. Flames scouts wore plainclothes when scouting him, sat apart from any other scouts and commissioned third parties to interview him after games. It was all about as James Bond as I imagine NHL amateur scouting can get.
The Flames went into the 2011 draft with two dark horses identified as possible “boom” prospects. Gaudreau was one of them and Nikita Kucherov was the other.
As Scott Cruikshank recently detailed in The Athletic, Jay Feaster allowed his staff to select one of the diminutive dynamos. Through their three top 60 picks, the Flames went about their business selecting Sven Baertschi 13th overall, Markus Granlund 52nd and Tyler Wotherspoon 55th.
Then, at pick 56, they were mildly blindsided by the Tampa Bay Lightning, who snapped Kucherov right before their eyes, earlier than Calgary projected. A short time after, word reached the Flames draft table that they were in danger of losing Gaudreau, too.
Despite the spy games, the Boston Bruins were aware of Gaudreau and his talent through a factor the Flames couldn’t neutralize: Peter Chiarelli, then general manager of the Bruins, was a part owner of the Dubuque Fighting Saints. Whether he noticed Gaudreau himself or was tipped off by a contact in the organization is unknown, but fact was the Bruins were aware of him and were prepared to select him with their fourth round pick, which luckily for Calgary succeeded their own.
Unwilling to take any risks, the Flames snagged Gaudreau with the 104th pick in the 2011 Draft and in doing so, set in motion the ushering of a new era for the organization.
Unlike Gaudreau’s lesser-known story, the tale of how Monahan nearly became one of the best centers to never play for the Flames is much more publicized.
In February of 2013, the shine of hockey being back after an extended lockout was rubbing off and then-GM Jay Feaster was desperate for his squad to qualify for the playoffs. Things were going similarly to past seasons: somewhere in between mediocre and crap. Jarome Iginla was just about on his last legs and still didn’t have a true number one center to play with (remember that whole never-ending saga?) and the clamoring to either win or tear it down was nearing a fever pitch.
Meanwhile, the Colorado Avalanche were entrenched in a contract impasse with then-21-year-old RFA center Ryan O’Reilly. Believing he was the number one pivot the Flames had coveted since they dealt Joe Nieuwendyk, Feaster signed O’Reilly to an offer sheet.
It’s important to note here that Feaster was a practicing lawyer. He completed law school and had been a member of the bar once upon a time. You’d think a lawyer would be familiar with the concept of due diligence (ensuring a deal is sound before entering it) but it slipped Feaster and his management team’s mind in this instance.
Soon after the news of the Flames signing O’Reilly broke, so did the news that O’Reilly had actually played in KHL games after the beginning of the NHL season, and as a result, in order to return to the NHL for the 2013 season, would have to pass through waivers.
Joe Sacco and the Avalanche ended up matching the Flames’ offer sheet for O’Reilly reasonably quickly, but had they not, the Flames would’ve lost O’Reilly on waivers and still had to pay Colorado the compensation for the signing.
The compensation would’ve been a first round pick and a third round pick. The Flames’ first round pick in 2013 ended up being sixth overall, with which they selected Monahan. Amazingly enough, Feaster was still around to make said selection.
The story of how Tkachuk nearly ended up elsewhere in the NHL is similar to that of Monahan’s in that it involves the draft selection that was used to secure him. Also like Monahan, it involves a move that never came to fruition.
At the completion of the 2015-16 season, disappointment was rife in the Flames organization. Expectations coming into the season were sky high following a second round playoff berth the previous spring and acquisitions of Michael Frolik and Dougie Hamilton to strengthen what the organization believed to be a playoff team.
Amidst falling flat on their face that season, the Flames expedited then-first line RW Jiri Hudler to the Florida Panthers after he was unable to replicate his career high season from the prior campaign. His trade left a hole beside Gaudreau and Monahan and entering the offseason, aside from finding a new coach to replace the freshly fired Bob Hartley, a number one RW was on the top of Brad Treliving’s wish list.
The draft lottery came and went with a classic result: the Flames falling outside the top five picks and earning the sixth overall selection. That put them outside the wheelhouse for right winger Jesse Puljujarvi. Fresh off an impressive World Junior Championship and full season in the Liiga, Finland’s top professional hockey league, Puljujarvi was unanimously rated as the third best prospect for the 2016 NHL Draft behind Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine by draft pundits the world over. He was big, fast and could score. Not only that, but he was considered a well rounded forward to boot: the perfect compliment to Gaudreau and Monahan.
On the draft floor, the Flames nearly completed a three-team trade that would’ve seen them jump up to the third overall selection and select the big Finn. The trade has been mused about by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman in the past, and while details aren’t eminently clear, the gist of it is as follows: the Flames would’ve moved to the third overall pick, Columbus to the fourth pick from three, and Edmonton to the sixth overall selection from four. The deal fell apart when Edmonton got wind that Columbus would take Pierre-Luc Dubois with their pick at three regardless, and Peter Chiarelli decided to keep Puljujarvi for himself.
Good thing he did, because Tkachuk, selected by Calgary at sixth overall, may very well be their next captain.
Finally, the newest member of the Fab Five, Lindholm, was brought to Calgary in an initially skeptic trade with the Carolina Hurricanes on day two of the 2018 NHL Draft.
The former fifth overall pick from the 2013 Draft, one ahead of Monahan, has smashed all expectations and singlehandedly turned the deal acquiring him into one of Treliving’s most successful. He, too, nearly wasn’t a Flame.
The Flames had been looking to deal Dougie Hamilton before the beginning of the 2018-19 season and were involved in multiple discussions at the draft surrounding just that. One of the conversations was with the St. Louis Blues, and according to Friedman, a “massive” deal between the two organizations nearly reached the finish line. In fact, Flames head coach Bill Peters was quoted saying he thought Hamilton was going somewhere else other than Carolina when he went to bed the night following the first round. The good money is on “somewhere else” being St. Louis, Missouri.
The potential return from the Blues is unclear, but it’s fair to assume Colton Parayko, who too was being shopped at the draft, would’ve been coming the other way. Instead, the Flames pulled the trigger with Carolina and finally found the Gaudreau/Monahan duo’s missing piece.
While it’s easy to argue that most every player on any team could’ve ended up playing elsewhere under different circumstances, it’s still staggering to see how close the Flames were to not having any of the core that has facilitated one of the best regular seasons in franchise history. Some of it would’ve been by their own doing (Giordano, Monahan), others by the simple nature of trades in the NHL (Tkachuk, Lindholm). They got help along the way from Chiarelli and Sacco, and benefited from good scouting by both amateur and pro staffs.
The biggest takeaway from all this, however, is just how razor thin the margin of error is, and how much luck plays into it when building an NHL team. The Flames are the second best team in the NHL today, on the backs of their Fab Five, but very well could’ve been the second worst, without even a single one of them.