FlamesNation Mailbag: Garbage bag day edition

Well, it’s a disappointing end to a promising season. As the Flames sombrely sort through their own physical trash, let’s join them, metaphorically.

The playoffs happened, and they went in cold. That’s pretty much it.

The funny thing about the postseason is that the best teams rarely win. That’s not a bug, but a feature. Teams play six and a half months of gruelling hockey and are then solely judged on a week or two at the end of it. That’s a system that will always reward peaks and punish valleys. Over the course of an 82-game season, teams have their high and low points, but the regular season is long enough that pretenders can’t rely on one or two streaks to keep themselves afloat for very long (remember when the Sabres were playoff-bound?).

You can throw all of that out the window in the playoffs. The Avalanche played their best hockey all year leading up to them and caught a Flames team that was limping to the finish line. One team was hot, one was not. They had four games to recover and didn’t. Oh well.

This isn’t to exonerate the Flames completely – we’ll get into their flaws later – but it’s folly to tear everything down or demand major changes because of four bad games in April. As they are constructed now, they are still a head above the majority of the NHL, and will remain that way next season. They can’t do much about getting cold at the worst possible time to do so.

And there’s no fix for that besides improving and trying again. Let’s look at Tampa Bay, whose 2018-19 regular season is one of the NHL’s all time greatest, if not the greatest. They won 62 games, the most in NHL history, and won 30 of those games by three goals or more. They also exist in the salary cap era, so cultivating this much talent and staying under $79.5M is no small feat. The Lightning were an absolute juggernaut.

And then they had one good period in the playoffs and then got run out of the building for the next 11 by a team that had to mortgage everything just so that they could get something meaningful out of two of their best ever players before they split in the offseason. Playoff hockey!

Andrei Vasilevsky, a Vezina finalist, put up a .856 SV%. Nikita Kucherov, probably the Hart winner, finished with fewer points than Erik Cernak, a guy who was playing in the AHL this year. They had three of the top 10 goal-scorers this year, all scoring over 40 goals, and they combined for two in the entire series. Their coach is likely winning the Jack Adams and was out-coached by someone who has been fired twice in the last six seasons.

What do you change for Tampa? You can tinker at the edges, but does that really move the needle? Will a third pairing defenceman really avoid them having the same fate? The answer is no. Not because an improvement cannot be made, but because you cannot predict what happens in the playoffs.

What you cannot do is dismantle the group that got you there. Trading Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point et al. is insane, and once you get rid of them the first thing you’re looking for is another one of them, which is impossible. Tampa’s problems are also Calgary’s problems, but they both have the same solutions: do what you can to make the roster better, but don’t think it involves trading away your best players.

Specific to coaches, yeah, more needed to be done. Bill Peters endeared himself to the faithful in ways that his predecessor never could by actually trying new things when everything else wasn’t working. Throughout the regular season, he brought out the blender, he shortened his bench, tried different and unconventional lines, and did what he thought might work to see what would happen.

And in the playoffs… they didn’t. They waited until their lives were on the line, and still reverted back to the usual. Colorado seemed to know what was coming and the response from the Flames was to proceed anyways. The powerplay was painfully predictable, the Avs knew exactly where the penalty kill’s weak spots were, they knew which matchups were coming, which matchups to take on, and the Flames were willing to give them exactly what they wanted.

Like everyone else on the team, Peters’ coaching was incredibly uncharacteristic. Coaches are risk averse by nature, but I don’t think Peters took even one in the postseason. Perhaps his players coming out flat didn’t help things, but his response to that mostly seemed to be paralysis. I don’t think mixing the lines up early would’ve saved the Flames, but could it really hurt to try?

Hopefully, like all things 2019 postseason, this is just a blip on the radar.

This very handy and scientific model from Hockey Graphs’ EvolvingWild says $2.5M. That sounds about right. Sam Bennett has been stuck in neutral for three years now, so a slight raise from his current $1.95M is fair. He doesn’t really have any leverage in this situation, so perhaps the Flames can push that number down a little bit.

But anything higher is a no-go. The Flames’ first priority is cap space for Matthew Tkachuk and then David Rittich. What remains can go to Bennett. He’s more of an accessory to the roster than the crucial piece the Flames thought they were getting when they drafted him, and they should pay him as such. Playoff performances are one thing, but you can’t pay up for them when he’s dragging his feet for the majority of regular season games (besides, the Flames have only won one series with Bennett, kind of putting a hole in the “you need players like Bennett to win in the playoffs” theory. You evidently need much more than that).

No, move on from Mike Smith.

You can appreciate his great postseason appearances and also recognize that he’s rapidly approaching his career expiration date, if he hasn’t already passed it. Smith came up big when he really needed to, which is great. He’s not going to do that next season. He’s still 37 and his health is still questionable: do people really want to go through that again?

However, I could see Smith coming back as a “devil we know” option should the Flames not find a goalie in the offseason. A one-year, $1M contract is probably fair value, and can easily be disposed of midseason if need be.

It’s tough to parse right now. Artyom Zagidulin is still an unknown quantity, which puts him in good company with Jon Gillies and Tyler Parsons, who are also complete unknowns at the NHL level. That’s not helpful when trying to determine who gets an NHL spot next year.

Unless the Flames know something about these goalies that we don’t, it’s a stretch to see any of them in the NHL next season. Zagidulin has had a good year as a backup in the KHL. That’s it. That doesn’t put him in line for an NHL spot right off the bat. Gillies and Parsons both struggled heavily in the AHL, so they’re also probably not in the NHL conversation. Perhaps the Flames take a leap of faith, but I can’t see that happening given how goaltending has plagued them since Kipper.

I think Gillies gets moved out this offseason. The Flames have been patient with him, but the results still haven’t come in. Goalie development is notoriously tricky to nail down, but seven years in the system without any major steps forward is a sign to move on. Zagidulin and Parsons will probably split the AHL net.

It would be a similar package to what Vegas gave Ottawa: Juuso Valimaki and a first plus a few other bodies.

To answer this and the question below, we have to consider whether or not Mark Stone would have fixed the Flames’ problems, and the answer is an easy no. Stone is a hell of a player having a truly special season, but the Flames were built to survive without needing to add a Stone type player. One elite addition wouldn’t have fixed the brain farts, the lack of urgency, the passiveness, or the entire team getting cold. One player simply can’t do that (source: Edmonton Oilers).

There’s also the issue of his contract. Extending him would’ve been an impossibility given the cap structure. Would it be worth it to trade a potential future #1 defenceman and a first rounder for a quarter of the season and maybe an extra first round game? Again, easy no.

For James Neal, it’s a bit of aberration, a bit of the classic “he’s getting older and less good.”

Let’s start with aberration. Neal’s saving grace is that he had a career low 4.96 SH% at all situations. If he hit his average, he would double his goal production from seven to 14 (and if he played a full 82, 18). That’s not the 20-goal scorer the Flames paid for, and it’s still a career low, but it’s much better than seven. Regardless of his performances, Neal didn’t get the bounces going his way either.

Of course, hitting 14 with normal luck is a problem in itself for a player like Neal. His possession numbers rank second lowest to Garnet Hathaway for players who played at least half of the season. His WOWY data isn’t pretty either, with a lot of players doing much better away from Neal than with Neal. There’s really no saving point of data or observation that absolves Neal except for a low shooting percentage. You could argue that a decline this steep despite his generally fine career is also an aberration, but it’s more likely he’s 31 and is hitting the aging curve hard.

It isn’t entirely unfeasible that Neal has a bounce-back season in 2019-20, but don’t bet on it. Age remains undefeated.

A trade partner is hard to find, but it is possible. It seems unlikely, but teams do value weird things in players, regardless of contract. Remember that Troy Brouwer was nearly traded back to the Blues after one season in Calgary (wouldn’t waive his NTC). It’s very, very improbable, but it’s not out of the question.

The most likely teams to start calling are the ones in danger of being unable to hit the cap floor, but there aren’t many around (it’s really just Ottawa). Even if a team was so desperate, they probably don’t want to take on Neal’s contract. There’s over $20M remaining on that contract over the next four seasons, which is a lot to take in even if you need to take that cap hit on. If Calgary finds a willing partner, they probably want a lot of sweeteners and they probably want Calgary to take some salary back. It’s hard to carve out a win in that situation for Calgary.

The most likely option is to wait until Seattle enters the fold and see if they might be persuaded to take on that contract. That’s 2021, if you feel like setting a timer.

For buying out, I don’t think that’s an option. Neal’s hit would be a decent $1.917M, but it would be over the next eight years if he’s bought out this offseason. Next offseason, it would be six years. It really only gets digestible after 2021, where that contract would remain on the books for four years. I think if he’s bought out, it is that season, provided Seattle doesn’t take him.

The Flames could stand to add to their centre, right wing, and RHD stockpile. Late first drafting is all over the board, so it’s hard to accurately pin down who might be available, but here are some good options, by position:

Centre: Connor McMichael, Philip Tomasino, Ryan Suzuki

RW: Cole Caufield, Bobby Brink, Pavel Dorofeyev, Raphael Lavoie

RHD: Moritz Seider, Kaedan Korczak

If they’re drafting for best player available, Arthur Kaliyev, Jakob Pelletier, and Nils Hogstrom could be of interest.

Of those options, I think Caufield (goal-scoring machine, hit 60 this year), Brink (Martin Pospisil linemate, 35 goals in 43 games this year), and Kaliyev (102 points in 67 OHL games) are the highest value options at #26.

  • The OG

    In the last expansion draft, was there not a penalty-free buy out period? That will be the best time to rid this team of Neal. This offseason, cap will need to be made up by trading Brodie, Frolik.

    • piscera.infada

      No. You’re thinking of the two “compliance buyouts” following each of the previous CBA negotiations. It seems likely those would be offered again (following the current CBA’s expiration at the end of next season), but I’m not sure that organizations should be banking on them, or that owners would be willing to eat the kind of money they would have to on a Neal type contract.

      • canadian1967

        There will be Compliance Buyouts in the next CBA, because every team will need them and it’s good for the players as it frees up cap space for new contracts to be signed.

        • piscera.infada

          You’re probably right, but as with anything during a CBA negotiation, it’s a bargaining chip. Their existence will be dependant on how much either side is willing to give up to have them included.

      • slapshot444

        There is another scenario here. The CBA opt out clause, which either side can use, which would terminate the current CBA by Sept. 2020. That would allow for the next agreement as early as the 2020/21 season where the Flames could use a compliance buyout assuming it’s still in the agreement. Last negotiating session Bettman had the upper hand over the players but that has been somewhat negated this time by the many contracts being signed with most of the pay in the form of signing bonuses. Addionationaly the differences between the sides are far fewer so a prolonged strike or lockout in unlikely. My point being here is that a new CBA is very likely in 2020/21 and there lies the out IF Neil has a repeat season like this one.