In the early stages of the 2019 offseason, the Flames’ roster looks to be mostly intact. A number of important players are already signed for a few years yet, but there are still a couple who will require new deals as restricted free agents. And while there’s one in particular who could dictate the future of the team’s cap, there are others whose contracts could matter a fair bit, as well.
Matthew Tkachuk is the guy – and not necessarily of just the Flames’ restricted free agent class, but of the entire team. That’s not to say he’s their most valuable player now – Mark Giordano and Johnny Gaudreau would like a word – but ever since he entered the league, he’s put up points at a respectable clip (nearly back-to-back 50-point seasons to open his career, and then 77 in 80 games in his first contract year), all the while being asked to play some of the toughest minutes on the team in a defensive capacity. When the Flames drafted him at sixth overall in 2016, they probably thought they were getting a great player; I’m not sure it was apparent he was going to be so good right from the beginning in just about every facet of the game, though.
And that leads to the one problem when it comes to Tkachuk: how much he’s going to cost to retain. In all likelihood, the Flames can say goodbye to their internal cap hit of $6.75 million that Giordano set and Gaudreau conceded to. With the cap expected to go up to $83 million, the team just won’t have an excuse to not give Tkachuk his fair share, which will include a higher number. Gaudreau’s contract, when signed, took up 9.25% of the Flames’ cap; that same percentage with an $83 million cap hit would see Tkachuk clock in at about $7.678 million.
Evolving Wild’s model has Tkachuk getting a six-year deal with an annual average value of about $7.889 million per, so it’s not too far off at all. Considering how Brad Treliving has overall done well when it’s come to keeping the cap hits of homegrown players down, it’s hard to see Tkachuk getting too high of a deal – but that doesn’t count for other restricted free agents potentially setting the market this offseason. And remember that Tkachuk is likely near the top of the restricted free agent class, as well – he’s going to command a pretty penny no matter what.
Sam Bennett (arbitration eligible)
Sam Bennett, meanwhile, is much less certain. Taken at fourth overall in 2014, he became the highest draft pick in the Flames’ franchise history, but just hasn’t been able to rise up to those expectations. He’s had flashes in individual games, but he’s also never scored more than 36 points in a season – and that was in his rookie year. In the three seasons since, he hasn’t even been able to hit the 30-point mark again.
What Bennett has done, though, is carve out a third line role that’s occasionally seen him elevated to Mikael Backlund’s line, where the two have been a fit (though Backlund tends to work well with most players, and Michael Frolik was ultimately better alongside him than Bennett could manage to be on a consistent basis). He’s also appeared to be a playoff performer, frequently elevating his game in each of the Flames’ three playoff appearances, and in the past two – during which the Flames only won one out of nine games – looking like one of their best forwards, if not the best one. That can only count for so much, though; that’s comparing 20 games to 312.
Bennett brings a physical presence and third line-level play, which is definitely valuable, but not fourth overall pick valuable. Throwing out those past expectations, though – there’s nothing to be done with them anymore – it makes sense for the Flames to keep him in their fold. Evolving Wild projects him to be re-signed to a three-year deal at $2.723 million per, which would give him a slight raise from his expiring $1.95 million cap hit – but seems about fair, considering how by this point, we’re talking about a bottom six player who probably just won’t be a top six regular.
Possibly too good for the AHL and not good enough for the NHL, Andrew Mangiapane has perhaps managed to finally flip that notion on its head late in the third season of his professional career. Hitting over a point-per-game as an AHLer by his second year, it took him until February of this year to score his first NHL goal. Since then, though, he scored 12 points in 31 games: not exactly world-beating, but a pretty good start for a sixth round draft pick only just now establishing himself as someone who can probably play a regular shift in the highest level league.
It sure seems like Mangiapane has earned a full-time spot in the Flames’ forward lineup now, though he’ll still have to fight to keep it: the Flames still shouldn’t get burned by a small, recent sample size. His future looks bright, but he still has a lot to prove; even then, it’s not yet clear if he’ll play more in a top or bottom six role on the regular.
Evolving Wild’s model has him signing a two-year deal at a $937,869 cap hit, giving him a raise from his $705,000 annual average value entry-level contract. That might be more team-friendly to the Flames than beneficial for the player, but it at least seems like a good starting point for contract negotiations. And if Mangiapane can prove he’s deserving of a larger deal during his next contract, then the Flames will be all the better off for it.
Alan Quine (arbitration eligible)
Twenty-six years old, Alan Quine doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the forwards on this list: he didn’t come up through the Flames’ system, instead signing with the team as an unrestricted free agent after the Islanders didn’t give him a qualifying offer. Joining on a cheap, one-year, $700,000 deal, Quine was tasked with manning the farm team and occasionally helping at the NHL level when necessary, and he did a good job at both: he scored 52 points in 41 games for the Heat as their leading scorer, and averaged 9:30 in ice time for the Flames when they needed him in the 13 games they called upon him for.
Quine did score three goals with the Flames, albeit off of a drastic 27.3 shooting percentage that’s not at all likely to be replicated, so he isn’t about to move up the NHL lineup any time soon. But he was great value for the team for what they needed him for, and it’s easy to see him coming back, if only for stability and the knowledge that he can help as an extra body without breaking the bank.
Evolving Wild projects him to get a slight raise on a one-year deal worth $764,373, which would be his richest cap hit to date.
David Rittich (arbitration eligible)
After Tkachuk, David Rittich is probably the most important RFA the Flames will have to deal with – and the one with the most questions surrounding him. The Flames still have yet to find a long-term goaltending solution, but Rittich might just be the guy. He took over the starting position in mid-November and was lights out, at least until a very rough February saw his numbers drop – but the revelation that he was injured on Dec. 31 works in his favour, suggesting that, if healthy, he really can be a high quality starter.
Rittich in 2018: .935 ES SV%
Rittich in 2019: .910 ES SV% https://t.co/oZJDvGvDQz
— Ryan Pike (@RyanNPike) April 22, 2019
As things stand right now, Rittich is the only guy the Flames can really hedge their netminding bets on. Smith is a 37-year-old unrestricted free agent coming off of a poor season. The Flames have had pretty bad luck on the free agent market, and there aren’t exactly any slam dunks there who could come in at a cap hit the team would be able to manage. (Anders Nilsson may be the best bet.) Trades are unpredictable, so we’ll leave that avenue alone. But from the outsider’s perspective, it really looks like it’s Rittich and… Rittich.
That said, Rittich doesn’t have all the leverage in the world: he’s only played 67 NHL games, and just one season as a full-time NHLer. Does it look possible he could be something more? Absolutely. But there isn’t much beyond a couple of months of play that suggests he will be that guy.
Evolving Wild’s model doesn’t cover goalies, but it’s pretty much a guarantee he’ll get a raise from his current $800,000 cap hit. Expect seven figures, for sure – and if the Flames are able to have him come in at a number starting with a three, combined with a backup making under $2 million, then they could be fine cap-wise when it comes to goaltending.
On the ice will be a different story, but that’s the position they’ve put themselves in after repeatedly trying to hedge their bets with goalies already over 30 years old: hoping this undrafted Czech kid can take his promising start to the 2018-19 season and keep it up for a few years yet. Rittich should get the deal to prove he can do just that.
RFAs in the AHL
There are a couple of other players the Flames will have to negotiate with: they hold their rights, though they haven’t exactly done much at the NHL level, and may never will.
- Curtis Lazar: The only player on this list who has spent substantial time in the NHL – likely due to Ottawa rushing him after they selected him in the first round of the 2013 draft – Lazar could be brought back, but he doesn’t seem like a strong candidate to get a regular NHL shift with this team once again. He was one of the Heat’s top scorers, so there still might be something there, but his chance of being a regular contributor for the Flames seems fast fading.
- Spencer Foo: A college free agent, Foo didn’t take any steps forward in his second professional season. Already 24 years old, that could be it for him.
- Kerby Rychel: Another first round pick from the 2013 draft, Rychel had a decent year in the AHL, but like Lazar doesn’t look destined for the NHL – at least not with the Flames.
- Brett Pollock: Now 23 years old, he scored 12 points in 53 games for the Heat this season. It’s difficult to see him back.
- Ryan Lomberg: Lomberg may not be an NHL-caliber player, but you can’t deny his heart. He’s kind of like Garnet Hathaway, in the sense that as an undrafted player, he eventually played his way into an NHL deal with the Flames. He scored 29 points in 58 games for the Heat, and only played four games for the Flames this past season, but if he does a great job with the farm team, why not keep giving him that particular chance?
- Josh Healey: Signed out of college, he hasn’t done much in his two full seasons with the Heat.
- Rinat Valiev: A newer acquisition as far as Flames players go, he scored 21 points in 57 games for the Heat. Considering how the Flames don’t have much in the way of defensive prospects – not since their top crop of guys have all pretty much graduated – he’s probably worth keeping around.
- Mason McDonald: He posted a .917 save percentage in the ECHL this season, which has his been his best effort since the Flames drafted him, but seeing as how he can’t seem to get any traction in the AHL, one has to wonder if he has much of a future in the Flames’ system.