‘Shaking up the core’ isn’t as cut and dried as it sounds

Another first round exit. Another disappointing playoff performance from some of Calgary’s highest profile and highest paid players. Another off-season of calls for the Flames to make significant changes to their. That’s where we find ourselves right now, and those clamouring for a shakeup are perfectly justified.

I agree: Calgary needs to seriously look at moving at least one of their established core pieces this summ…um fall. At the same time, the Flames need to be smart and measured about how they approach decisions of this nature, as making a move for the sake of it is a surefire way to lose a trade. But that has to be balanced with the knowledge this team needs to do something, and something significant.

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The dangers

A panic move. This isn’t meant as a shot at the Oilers, but isn’t the “shake things up” narrative exactly what we were hearing out of that market in the summer of 2016? Sure, circumstances were different (playoff disappointment vs. lack of playoff appearances), but it sure felt like sending Taylor Hall to New Jersey was a product of “something had to be done” thinking. The same applies four years later in Calgary.

The Flames can’t simply trade Johnny Gaudreau because the core has to be changed. That’s how you end up trading a top-flight winger for a number four defenceman. I can guarantee you general manager Brad Treliving has plenty of garbage offers for good players on the table right now. Yep, those would definitely change things, but they will also almost certainly make the team worse.

Fortunately, Treliving doesn’t seem to be the type of manager to respond irrationally to another disappointing early exit. At least he did when I spoke with him early last week.

“We have to step back and say, you know: I think our team is at a certain point now, so how do we take that next step? I know people are upset, and no one is more upset than we are. But all of a sudden, throwing a body overboard just to satisfy an emotion isn’t how you make your team better. That’s how you make your team worse.”

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Poor value. Look, everyone knows Calgary isn’t happy with how this core group has performed in recent postseason appearances. As such, the team isn’t dealing from a position of strength as it stands right now. When every other GM knows Treliving is looking to make moves, how good are those offers going to be?

Additionally, players like Gaudreau and Sean Monahan haven’t done the Flames a ton of favours with their most recent performances. The rest of the NHL knows these guys haven’t answered the bell, which means getting a significant bidding war going likely isn’t going to happen. That’s not to say a good trade is impossible. It’ll just take more grinding and increased patience.

Flat cap. Another complicating matter for Calgary, and any other team looking to upgrade, is a flat salary cap. For the first time since teams became shackled by a hard cap, we won’t see an increase in the upper limit. The 2019-20 salary cap was $81.5 million, which is exactly what it’ll be for 2020-2021. No one knows exactly how that will affect this off-season, but it surely won’t be a negligible one.

The reality

Just because making a significant move might have more pitfalls this off-season than others, the Flames still need to meaningfully try to make one happen. As much as it’s true to say Calgary was 12 seconds away from a 3-1 series lead on Dallas, the fact is that didn’t happen. Yes, the margins are slim and they were more competitive against the Stars than they were against Colorado in 2019. That doesn’t change the fact this core hasn’t been able to get over.

It would be different if the likes of Gaudreau, Monahan, and Mark Giordano were the driving forces in a series where the Flames left everything on the table and were simply beaten by the better team. Dallas was the better team, but with how pedestrian those three players were in particular, it’s hard to convince me that effort was as good as it gets.

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The core everyone was so excited about five years ago hasn’t gotten the job done. At the same time, a new group of players to build around has emerged in recent seasons. There’s nothing wrong with admitting it hasn’t worked and pivoting to a slightly different path. That’s the approach Treliving and company should be taking this fall.

“Now you have to look through a clear lens and say: okay, how do we make our team better,” Treliving said. “Not how do we react to an emotion, not how do we do something that makes everybody feel a little bit better. In times like that you can take a hell of a step backwards in your organization. We have to look at all facets as we do every year and if there’s change that we think is going to help propel us forward, then certainly we’ll look at it.”

And while the Flames aren’t dealing from a position of strength, it’s not like they’d be attempting to deal absolute duds. Gaudreau’s 99-point 2018-19 season is still fresh and I’m convinced fair value exists in a trade that would shake things up while also moving Calgary forward.

The same is true for Monahan, who scores 20 goals a season in his sleep. Calgary won’t be getting a “number one centre” type of return, because that’s not what he is. But you can’t tell me a team thin down the middle wouldn’t be interested in acquiring Monahan. He scores, he wins face-offs, and he’s on a cost-certain contract for three more seasons.

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All this is to say the Flames really can accomplish two things this off-season: shake their core up and get better as a result. Yes, they need to avoid doing just the former at all costs, which will be tougher this off-season than most others. But challenging or not, I truly believe it needs to happen. Your move Mr. Treliving.