The 2020-21 season begins on Thursday night for the Calgary Flames and there has been a bunch written in various places about the stakes of the season. With apologies for putting the punchline first, here goes: this isn’t a make or break season for the Flames. The team will not be blown up if they don’t have massive success.
But after several years of tinkering and waiting for the club to take the next step, this may be the last hurrah for some of the team’s longer-tenured individuals. After numerous moves to improve the team around them, after this season the only thing left to change may be a quartet of their core players.
In sports as in life, bad things happen in a hurry and good things can take a long time to happen. It didn’t take Darryl Sutter terribly long to accumulate bad contracts and to decimate the team’s prospect base and farm system by trading away oodles of draft picks during his time – seemingly every Sutter trade included a second or third round pick. His last draft in Calgary in 2010 was without a first or second rounder, and the gem of the draft was fifth rounder Micheal Ferland.
Jay Feaster took over in late 2010 and his job, to paraphrase former Flames president of hockey operations Brian Burke, was to shovel out the barn by ridding the team of some of its more toxic assets. Feaster spent a couple years trying to keep the Flames competitive, but he made some strategic tweaks to the team’s drafting and farm system while he was in the big chair. He was removed as GM in late 2013 as the team went head-long into their rebuild, but he had made some decent headway in setting the table for his successors.
Brad Treliving became GM of the Flames in April 2014. Aside from a 2014 NHL Draft that produced Sam Bennett and nothing else of note, his staff has done an effective job of filling the prospect cupboards and avoiding trading draft picks for sheer amusement or curiosity. A drafting and development guy from his time with cash-strapped Arizona, Treliving wants to give his scouts chances to find players.
Also from his time in cash-strapped Arizona, Treliving is like that kid in your elementary school lunch room with the ability to start with a pudding cup and end up trading up to get pizza Lunchables. His moves aren’t always winners – hey there, Curtis Lazar – but you can usually understand the intent behind the moves.
A brand new NHL GM, Treliving came in and wasn’t the type to make sweeping, broad changes right away. When he was interim GM after Feaster’s firing, Burke explained that his analysis of his staff went like this: he thought about what would happen if he fired everyone the next day. The staffers that he thought would be hired elsewhere right away he wanted to keep, because there was obviously value there. That’s seemingly the philosophy that Treliving’s kept in regards to his players: he doesn’t jettison everyone at once, but he makes tweaks here and there after seeing what works.
Nearly seven years after Treliving arrived in Calgary, there are four players remaining from the reserve list that he inherited: Mark Giordano, Mikael Backlund, Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. Giordano and Backlund are holdovers from Sutter’s time as GM, while Gaudreau and Monahan were Feaster acquisitions. During the last half-decade, the entirety of the franchise has changed around them, but that core four has stayed intact.
Under Sutter, the mandate from ownership was to try to win a Stanley Cup. He came agonizingly close in 2004, but then hockey fundamentally changed from a management side with the introduction of the salary cap and Sutter couldn’t keep up. Feaster initially had the same mandate, but the team’s depth was barren and they didn’t have the horses for a playoff run. Treliving’s built the team intelligently – not perfectly, but intelligently – and the team has made strides towards their goal.
But under Treliving, there’s been a churn of head coaches: the “three bears” approach has seen the team have coaches that were too mean or too nice to get the most out of their players, with the hope being that Geoff Ward will be a “just right” fit. There’s been a churn of key defensemen, with Dougie Hamilton, Travis Hamonic and TJ Brodie departing, with Chris Tanev the latest arrival. There’s been a churn of key forwards, with Jiri Hudler, Troy Brouwer and James Neal departing.
Since Treliving has been GM, the club has played six full seasons. They’ve made the post-season four times. Ignoring the qualification round last summer, they’ve won eight games in the Stanley Cup playoffs in six seasons – and four of them were in an extremely favourable first round match-up against Vancouver in 2015. The lack of playoff success for Treliving’s group has led to calls from fans and media to make big changes. To his credit, Treliving has been busy in virtually every off-season – the exception being the 2019 off-season, as the flat salary cap and Matthew Tkachuk’s contract negotiation disrupted his ability to make other moves.
By this off-season, there weren’t many big changes left for Treliving to make that he hasn’t already tried. The moves that he hadn’t made yet? Hire a big name coach, get a big name goalie, or move a big name player from the remaining core group. Spending oodles of cash on a coach has never been the Flames’ style, and Treliving seems to really believe in his core four and is loathe to break them up. So he signed Jacob Markstrom, a recent Vezina Trophy contender who immediately becomes the best goaltender the Flames have had since Miikka Kiprusoff. Beyond Markstrom, Treliving made depth tweaks with the additions of Nikita Nesterov, Josh Leivo, Joakim Nordstrom and Dominik Simon, providing Ward with a forward group deeper than anything the Flames have had in years.
But he’s running out of cards to play if the Flames can’t perform when it matters most. What more can Treliving to do tweak the team without moving on from one (or more) pieces of the core group that he inherited?
The Flames won’t need to blow things up after this season. Heck, they might not need to blow it up for awhile. They’ve drafted well. Rasmus Andersson is going to be a star. Matthew Tkachuk already is a star, and it seems inevitable that when his contract is up following the 2021-22 season they’ll lock him down for a lengthy deal. Andrew Mangiapane and Dillon Dube are trending well, too. The Flames aren’t where they were in 2010, blindly flailing towards the playoffs without the resources to succeed (or even get there).
But six seasons into his tenure, Treliving has a solitary playoff round victory to show for his group’s efforts. The Flames are a pretty good hockey club and they seem set up to remain pretty good for awhile based on the moves that have been made thus far. But if the existing group can’t take strides this season and break through to the next level, they’re in danger of remaining in this “pretty good” purgatory.
If they can’t do it on their own, after all the help their GM has given them and the tweaks he’s made, Treliving might have to make one of the moves that he’s managed to avoid making to this point (and it probably won’t involve coaching).
This is not a make it or break it season for the Flames. They’ll be fine. If they want to keep the group together, though, it may be a make it or break it season for Giordano, Backlund, Gaudreau and Monahan.