Photo credit:© Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports
A Calgary Flames retool can be successful, but their scouts will need to find stars in the draft
By Ryan Pike2 months ago
The Calgary Flames should look quite a bit different next season. Heck, given the hockey club has four prominent pending unrestricted free agents that they would likely rather not lose for nothing, they should look quite a bit different by the time the trade deadline has passed at 1 p.m. MT on Friday, March 8.
The next few months could signal a retool, but the challenge for the team will be finding game-changing star talent that can elevate the club’s standing beyond the league’s middleweights.
So let’s just establish two points quickly:
- The Flames have enough reliable, good veteran hockey players signed for awhile that going “full tank” probably isn’t a viable option – in part due to each player’s contract size and in part due to their talent levels.
- The Flames have enough depth in their farm system that they can probably fill in the gaps left by departing free agents and keep the team chugging along.
Here’s who are signed beyond next season (2024-25): forwards Jonathan Huberdeau, Nazem Kadri, Mikael Backlund and Blake Coleman, defencemen MacKenzie Weegar and Rasmus Andersson, and goaltender Jacob Markstrom. That’s the team’s de facto core. Are there any true game-breakers in that group? Probably not. But that’s seven players that are very solid, play key roles, and can play the tough minutes and allow the younger players a bit of space to breathe, learn and grow.
If nothing else, those seven players are the proverbial life raft for the Flames. They keep them from truly sinking.
Over the past few seasons, the Flames’ drafting and development efforts have started to bear fruit. Their AHL team has been among that league’s best over the past two or three seasons, and this season we’ve started to see an influx of Wranglers (and Heat) products hit the big-time and look pretty impressive at the things they’re being asked to do.
All due respect to the players in the system: they have a lot of potential future NHLers in their pipeline. Heck, they have a handful of guys that could be reliable, productive middle-six players – your Backlund or Andrew Mangiapane-level impact players. But currently, the Flames don’t seem to have anybody in the mix that could be a difference-maker along the lines of a Johnny Gaudreau or Matthew Tkachuk.
Here are the prospects that were ranked fifth or higher in our summer rankings – there was a three-way tie for fifth:
- Four forwards – Jakob Pelletier, Matt Coronato, Connor Zary and Samuel Honzek – who seem like safe bets to be reliable NHL forwards, but it seems like a stretch to expect any of them to be bonafide first-line contributors.
- Two defenders – Etienne Morin and Jeremie Poirier – who look to be decent enough two-way defenders, but their bread-and-butter will probably be on the power play.
- One goaltender – Dustin Wolf – who could be a difference-maker, but goalies are voodoo and NHL goalies can be hung out to dry by puck luck, bad defensive schemes in front of them, or combinations of the two.
There are other guys that could be good role players – Martin Pospisil, Ilya Solovyov, Cole Schwindt and Ben Jones, among others – but, again, probably not big difference-makers. The Flames’ scouting staff has consistently been hitting on their picks throughout the draft, but those hits are solid singles and doubles, not home runs.
If the Flames decide to divest themselves of their pending UFAs, odds are they’re going to accumulate more young players as well as a bunch of draft selections – potentially in the first three rounds of the next few drafts. The Flames probably won’t be so bad as to get sure-fire great players at the positions they’ll be during the draft; they’ll get more in terms of pick volume, but probably not enhanced pick quality.
The Flames have done a really good job hitting singles and doubles in the draft. And between the guys they have, the guys that are in the system, and the guys they’re likely to draft, the Flames can probably sustain themselves at more or less the same level they are now. They can maintain themselves as a team that can stick around the playoff picture, maybe make a push for a wild-card or lower divisional playoff spot, but they might not have enough high-end talent to make a push for true Stanley Cup contention.
The place you find tippity-top high-end talent is the NHL Draft. And how you get those talents, beyond the first few picks, is hitting home runs with your picks when everybody else is hitting singles and doubles. The Flames scouting team found Johnny Gaudreau in the fourth round. It can happen.
And if the Flames as currently constructed decide to retool, perhaps the only way they can build themselves into a contender is by hitting a home run (or two) at the draft.
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