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What’s the defensive succession plan?

Earlier this week, we looked at the upcoming off-season decisions for the Calgary Flames in net. The big decisions they have to make are very fundamental and speak to the underlying issues at the position. The road map for the club’s blueline – next season and beyond – are much simpler.

The Flames do have some pending free agents on the back end. Unrestricted free agents include TJ Brodie, Travis Hamonic, Erik Gustafsson, Michael Stone, Derek Forbort and Rinat Valiev. Their restricted free agents are Oliver Kylington and Andrew Nielsen.

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But when you look at the players under contract – for now and for awhile – it’s easy to squint and see what the plan could be.

Signed for 2020-21 are the following players:

  • Mark Giordano, the team’s captain, oldest player, and best defenseman (and potentially their best player when you consider that he players in every game situation).
  • Noah Hanifin, a 23-year-old who plays a ton and somehow already has five NHL seasons under his belt.
  • Rasmus Andersson, a 23-year-old Swede who’s the team’s best right shot blueliner.
  • Carl-Johan Lerby, a Swedish import coming to North America after four seasons in the SHL.
  • Alexander Yelesin, a stay-at-home Russian defender who had a cup of coffee in the NHL in 2019-20 and looked rock-solid.
  • Colton Poolman, a college prospect who projects as a two-way defender with some offensive upside.
  • Johannes Kinnvall, another Swede, but this one’s an offensive whiz spending 2020-21 on loan to the SHL.
  • Connor Mackey, a hot-shot college prospect who can seemingly do it all, but still needs to prove he can do it at the NHL level.
  • Juuso Valimaki, the 2017 first rounder who made the NHL team in his first year of pro but has had bad injury luck since then.

So what’s the plan here?

First thing’s first: Giordano will turn 37 in October. He’s under contract for two more seasons. All indications are that he’ll be here for the long haul – his family moved here full-time a few years back – and he’ll likely be re-signed in 2022 for a few more seasons. But he probably won’t be a first pairing guy forever, and the interesting thing is the Flames have multiple options on the left side for guys that can replace his top pairing minutes down the line.

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Hanifin’s 23 and has already withstood the rigours of the NHL for five seasons. Valimaki will turn 22 in October and has injury troubles, but two seasons ago he looked like everything the Flames had hoped (and he might have more offensive upside than Hanifin). Mackey’s untested, but he blew away Flames brass with his performance at Phase 3 training camp. By having a few options to inherit Giordano’s top spot, the Flames have spread the risk around and made themselves less reliant on any one of them turning out. (Kylington may not be an option to replace Giordano, but he could be invaluable young depth.)

On the right side, they’re quite thin and really reliant on Andersson continuing to develop. The good news is he’s progressed by leaps and bounds over the past several seasons. Kinnvall is a “buy low” European signing, but he blew away the SHL offensively this past season. But the Flames will need to keep looking to shore up their right side depth, as their prospect base is super thin beyond them.

So this brings it back around to the pending free agents. The Flames don’t necessarily need to re-sign all of them, or even any of them. That said, taking both Brodie and Hamonic away from the right side would make them (a) extremely lean on experienced defenders and (b) probably force someone from the the left side to play their off-side, which can be problematic in defensive zone situations. If one of Brodie or Hamonic were willing to sign short-term at around $4 million, that would make cap sense, hockey sense, and give the Flames a bit of time to help fill in their right side gaps.

The Flames have a defense that’s led by a guy that’s almost 37, but he’s also a hockey unicorn who won the Norris Trophy at 35 years old. They also have a bunch of heirs apparent playing in their system, a couple of them either actively getting on-the-job training from Giordano or potentially about to be doing so. Their cupboards aren’t bursting with defensive prospects, but they have enough in the pipeline that Giordano’s aging process probably won’t cause the blueline to fall into shambles.