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Photo Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Free agency takeaways: The Flames got better at forward

The beginning of free agency is just a snapshot of an off-season, but the Flames were definitely busy on Wednesday. While it’s too early to draw any definitive conclusions on Calgary’s summer, one thing is already abundantly clear: they’re a better group at forward than the last time we saw them. The rest of the team is more uncertain for now, but it’s hard to argue they haven’t taken some big steps up front.

By signing Blake Coleman on Wednesday, the Flames are adding as sure a bet at forward as they have since Michael Frolik’s five-year deal in 2015. Like Frolik, everything Coleman has done the last few seasons points to an effective, play-driving winger with the ability to fit with any style or system. The team is looking at their big ticket signing the same way.

“He’s one of the most complete two-way players in the game,” general manager Brad Treliving told me on Wednesday. “That line (in Tampa), if you look at him over the last couple of years, and we can all number lines and say first, second and third. The minutes that they played and the role they played, it’s really a number two line.

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“They get heavy match-ups, start in the defensive zone a lot, and still they drive a lot of play and create a lot of offence. To go along with that, he’s in my mind one of the better penalty killers…in the league. He touches all parts of the game.”

Treliving isn’t wrong. Regardless of where he’s played, Coleman’s results have been steady and consistent. It would be easy to devalue Coleman’s recent results due to playing on an elite Tampa team, but a slightly deeper look pours cold water on that theory. Coleman is a two-time 20-goal scorer in New Jersey and his even strength outputs charted below show a very clear trend. Courtesy Natural Stat Trick.

Season Team GP CF% HDCF% OZS%
2017-18 New Jersey 79 49.4 58.8 34.9
2018-19 New Jersey 78 48.7 49.6 39.0
2019-20 New Jersey 57 49.6 52.1 44.0
2020-21 Tampa Bay 55 55.7 57.9 48.8

Whether on a Cup contender or a mediocre Devils team, Coleman’s on-ice results have been the same: he drives play. Coleman has significantly outperformed his zone start in every one of his full NHL seasons, and has done so against top opposition. Coleman is a clear upgrade on any of the players Calgary cycled through their top nine last year, which included Brett Ritchie, Dominik Simon, and Josh Leivo… and it’s really not close.

Yes, signing a player who turns 30 in November to a six-year deal is risky, especially in the final years. Personally, I’m less worried about the Coleman contract compared to where I was when the Flames signed James Neal or Troy Brouwer. His underlyings are better and there’s less mileage on the body. And, if we’re looking solely at immediate returns, a $4.9 million cap hit is quite palatable.

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“The challenge is acquiring the player and at what cost are you prepared to do that,” Treliving said. “We all want to get the good player, but you know…we like to have the good player and not pay him and not give him any term. Well that’s just not reality. We feel there’s risk with every contract, but if you look at Blake…he’s 29, will be turning 30. This isn’t a guy who’s approaching 1,000 games in the NHL or played for ten years. He’s just played five full seasons in the NHL.”

Coleman wasn’t Calgary’s only forward add on Wednesday. In fact, if you count Monday’s acquisition of Tyler Pitlick from Seattle, the Flames have added a pair of NHL forwards this week. Calgary also signed veteran Trevor Lewis to a one-year, $800,000 contract in free agency, reuniting him with head coach Darryl Sutter. Of course, those two won a pair of Stanley Cups during Sutter’s tenure in Los Angeles.

Pitlick and Lewis are similar. Neither will move the needle offensively but both are strong at the other end of the ice. After trying low-cost options like Leivo, Simon, and Joakim Nordstrom last season, the Flames have opted to add veterans with proven track records this time around. In a defensive role, both Lewis and Pitlick are upgrades on many of Calgary’s fourth line options from last year.

Now, it’s fair to ask: what do these additions mean for the Flames and their ability and/or desire to go younger next season? I’m curious about that, too, although I think Glenn Gawdin and Adam Ruzicka are still in the mix for Calgary’s fourth centre spot. While Lewis has played plenty down the middle before, he has been used on the wing far more often in recent seasons, including last year in Winnipeg. Who these signings might squeeze is Matthew Phillips, who is really the only organizational option on the wing pushing for NHL time.

Elsewhere is a different story, or at least an incomplete one. With Mark Giordano’s departure to Seattle, the Flames are a whole lot thinner on the back, even after acquiring Nikita Zadorov from Chicago on Wednesday. While Zadorov is a capable NHL blueliner and has evolved into a solid defensive specialist, he’s not replacing Giordano’s minutes full stop. Calgary is going to need steps forward from Noah Hanifin and Juuso Valimaki combined with Zadorov’s addition to help bridge the gap on the left side.

Finally, the Dan Vladar addition in net is intriguing but uncertain. Treliving says the promising Czech product is ready to take the next step to being an NHL backup next season, so you’re likely looking at Jacob Markstrom’s backup come October. Vladar has just five NHL starts to his name, but his AHL numbers are impressive; he led the league in save percentage in 2019-20. Vladar is anything but a sure thing, but at $750,000 for next season, it’s an interesting bet to make.

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Big questions absolutely remain on defence and behind Markstrom in net. Up front is a different story, however, even before potential foundation shaking moves are (maybe) made. Even if they don’t move out a core piece, or even if they don’t get Jack Eichel, the Flames look deeper and better at forward 24 hours into 2021 free agency.