Photo credit:Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Welcome to the most consequential few months for the Calgary Flames in decades
By Ryan Pike1 month ago
If you’re anything like me, you’re extremely skeptical when it comes to the importance of the calendar flipping over from one year to the next. Much of the time, the change in date is an administrative step, and a minor annoyance for those of us who will be writing the wrong year out of habit for several weeks. But most of the time, the dawn of a new calendar year is not important.
So I hope you’re ready for what could be the most crucial and consequential several months in recent Calgary Flames history, as a bunch of really important developments will be unfolding that will determine the on-ice direction of the club for the next several years.
It really feels like they’re going to retool
Before we delve into the details, friends, let’s get pedantic about the use of specific terms. To me, a “rebuild” is a “tear it down to the studs” type of endeavour where everything worth a lick is sold off and a team is basically made into a clean slate. I don’t think the Flames really have an appetite to do that, nor do I think they can logistically do that with some of the players they have locked into long-term deals.
- Whether he’s performing well or not, Jonathan Huberdeau’s deal is extremely long and extremely expensive, and sweetening a potential trade offer by adding assets would seemingly defeat the purpose of bothering with a swap in the first place. (You’d open up cap space, but hollow out your asset pool in order to do it.)
- Key pieces like Jacob Markstrom, Nazem Kadri, MacKenzie Weegar, Blake Coleman and Mikael Backlund are locked in for awhile longer and provide a nice foundation of key, reliable veterans that can play with and mentor the next crop of fresh faces. (We’re already seeing this happen with players like Connor Zary and Martin Pospisil.)
A full “tear it down” rebuild likely won’t happen. But a retool, with expiring assets strategically sold to build for the future? That seems quite possible, and could perhaps be the most likely scenario given where the Flames find themselves.
A lot of the moves former general manager Brad Treliving made during the 2022 “Summer of Brad” were doubling down on his core group. Sure, they’d be losing Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk, and an injury-addled Sean Monahan, but surely the remaining core was strong enough that they wouldn’t lose much of a step by adding Weegar, Kadri and Huberdeau to that group, right?
Nope. And swapping out bench boss Darryl Sutter – a highly-successful coach who embodied the term “tough love” for better or worse – for Ryan Huska hasn’t led to a miraculous turn-around, after a woeful 2-7-1 start that they’re still digging themselves out of. If newly-minted GM Craig Conroy wanted his team’s performance to dictate the path – and the fate of several prominent pending unrestricted free agents – their first 10 games clearly stated that it’s time for some changes. Players likely hoping to be paid like difference-makers on their next deals didn’t perform like difference-makers when the team needed them to.
According to Dom Luszczyszyn at The Athletic, the Western Conference playoff cut-line is going to be around 93 points. The Flames will need to capture 62% of their remaining points to reach that mark, which would represent a pretty big turnaround from going .500 so far this season. Barring the team going on a heck of a run down the stretch, it feels like post-season hockey won’t be in the cards for 2023-24.
The focus will likely be on setting the franchise up for the future, and maximizing the value of several key departing assets via trade.
They’ll potentially be punting on expiring assets
As of this writing, the Flames have seven pending UFAs on their active roster, plus two more on their injury reserve list. The most prominent pending UFAs are Elias Lindholm, Noah Hanifin and Chris Tanev, all of whom have been discussed as potential trade chips by our various insider colleagues. Tanev is 34, but Lindholm and Hanifin are smack-dab in their prime playing years and could land the Flames some big hauls.
In addition to those three, waiver pickup A.J. Greer has been a superb addition to the Flames’ fourth line… but he’s another pending UFA that a playoff-bound team might covet as a low-cost depth piece. And amidst seemingly half the league engaging in hand-wringing over their goaltending, the Flames have backup Dan Vladar signed to a pretty reasonable contract ($2.2 million AAV) and AHL superstar Dustin Wolf chilling down the hall waiting for a permanent roster spot.
Suffice it to say, the temptation to make a few trades seems pretty clear.
They’ll need players for next year’s team
While the 2023-24 campaign hasn’t gone great for the Flames, the reset button gets hit after 82 games are complete and the team will need to field 23 players for next year’s club. There will be spots open for some fresh faces from the farm system, but the Flames cannot trade everybody.
So we’ll need to keep an eye on the moves the Flames don’t make, and how they potentially utilize the assets they get from trades to upgrade the team for the short-term. In 2014, the Flames sold off Lee Stempniak at the trade deadline for a third-round pick, then used that pick to grab Brandon Bollig to act as NHL-level depth to help buy their prospects times to mature. (The Flames similarly signed players like Deryk Engelland and Mason Raymond to multi-year deals during the 2014 off-season.)
Picks can be used to draft players that might not be NHL-ready for several years (or ever), or used as trade chips. Both can help a team build.
They’ll need to hold onto picks to find the club’s next “face”
I’m incredibly biased because I literally wrote a book about the Flames’ history at the NHL Draft, but the best usage of draft picks is to draft players. You’re far more likely to find a franchise-changing player via the NHL Draft than via free agency or trade, and the acquisition cost is often far more palatable.
If the Flames decide to retool, they’ll be loading up with picks over the next two or three drafts. And they’ll be trying their level best to find the club’s next Gaudreau, Tkachuk or Monahan at those events.
Oh yeah… the arena!
We’ve been hearing about a new arena for the Flames since 2005, when the late Ken King made his first public mention of a desire for one. Utility and road work to consolidate the new arena block should begin early in 2024, followed soon by the revealing of conceptual renderings, detailed schematics, and then full-on, actual construction beginning shortly after the Stampede ends in July.
I adore the Saddledome. I grew up watching games at the building and have had the privilege to cover games in it for over a decade. But the ‘Dome is an outdated building surrounded by a parking moat. While criticism of the details of the deal are definitely warranted, the construction of a new arena along with all the other changes happening in the area opens up all sorts of potential for making the Stampede Park a bustling hive of activity beyond game days. (It’s up to the stakeholders to fulfill that potential, though.)
2024 could be wild
From 2003 to 2013, the Flames were built based on Darryl Sutter’s conception of what a hockey team should be. From 2014 until recently, they were a product of Brad Treliving’s vision. Now, we get to see how Conroy can reshape the Flames to succeed in the modern NHL. There could be a lot of big changes over the next several months, but these moves could open up a lot of exciting possibilities for the future of the Flames.
We’re excited to have you along for the ride with us as things unfold.
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