Photo credit:© Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Why Brad Treliving’s legacy with the Calgary Flames is complicated
By Ryan Pike3 months ago
On Friday night, the Calgary Flames make their one and only appearance of the season in the centre of the hockey universe, Toronto, where they face the Maple Leafs. It’s their first trip to Toronto since the departure of longtime Flames general manager Brad Treliving, who became the GM of the Leafs at the end of May.
Treliving helmed the Flames organization for nine years and, in good ways and bad, is responsible for what the club has become. His legacy with the Flames is complicated.
When Treliving arrived in 2014, inheriting the job from Jay Feaster (after an interim period where Brian Burke was GM), the club was in a transitional phase and lacked an identity. The team had just finished fourth-from-last in the NHL. Jarome Iginla was gone. Miikka Kiprusoff was gone. The farm system wasn’t anything to write home about, and the club had a few intriguing prospects but few true blue-chippers.
In short: they had some problems.
Under Treliving, the club managed to solve a lot of their issues. A long-term extension with Mark Giordano in August 2015, Treliving’s first major contract work as GM, locked in the team’s leader and cemented the club’s identity. And while Treliving inherited several pieces of an eventual core – Giordano, TJ Brodie, Sean Monahan and Mikael Backlund were already there, and Johnny Gaudreau had just signed out of college – he did a capable job of building around that group. The team that Treliving pieced together won division championships in 2018-19 and 2021-22, though they only won two playoff rounds over nine seasons.
And while you can quibble about the development part of the drafting and development system in the cases of a few key players (like Sven Baertschi, Juuso Valimaki and Sam Bennett), the Flames did a strong job of recruiting during Treliving’s tenure. Not only was the amateur scouting apparatus beefed up, but they also utilized the European and college free agent markets more than in previous regimes. As a result, the farm system could be stocked in various ways by players of various age groups. Combined with a growing analytics department, an enhanced development staff, and the relocation of their nomadic AHL farm team to Stockton, California (and subsequently to Calgary), the Flames did a much better job of fielding a competitive AHL club and putting players in the NHL.
Under Treliving, the Flames signed 51 players to entry-level deals. 29 of them played NHL games with the Flames – a dozen of those players weren’t NHL draft picks. And that number may still rise.
Treliving wasn’t a perfect GM – spoiler: such a thing doesn’t exist. He did a good job with drafting and development, contract negotiations with restricted free agents, and he made a few really good trades. But he seemed to have a sweet tooth for players who brought physicality, to the point where he often overpaid in the trade and free agent market for that attribute. (Examples of this include, but aren’t limited to, Deryk Engelland, Troy Brouwer and Travis Hamonic.) He also made a few moves for players coming off long playoff runs that didn’t pan out, most notably the signing of James Neal.
And some of the challenges the Flames are experiencing now – both related to roster construction and the salary cap – can be traced back to a few completely reasonable gambles that Treliving made over a few off-seasons (aimed at boosting the Flames from the level of being a good team to the level of being truly elite) that didn’t quite pan out.
- The Flames couldn’t find a trade they liked during the 2019 off-season to open up enough cap space to sign Matthew Tkachuk to a long-term extension. (Coming off a monster 2018-19 campaign, they may have been some hesitation to remove a piece from such a good team, which potentially could have impacted what they felt was a “good” trade offer.) So the decision was made to sign Tkachuk to a bridge deal in an attempt to keep the band together, which led to Tkachuk becoming a restricted free agent in the summer of 2022, a year away from unrestricted free agency.
- The Flames couldn’t come to terms with Johnny Gaudreau on a contract extension in the 2021 off-season. Gaudreau was coming off his second consecutive season scoring at a respectable rate, but below a point-per-game pace, and Flames brass had a specific valuation in mind for a long-term deal. Gaudreau’s camp had a valuation of their own, based on the potential they felt he had shown in previous seasons. The two camps just couldn’t align on a long-term extension. And so Gaudreau went into the 2021-22 season as a pending unrestricted free agent and ended up leaving for Columbus during the 2022 off-season.
- After the impressive Tkachuk trade to Florida, which saw the Flames acquire Jonathan Huberdeau, MacKenzie Weegar, Cole Schwindt and a conditional first-round pick, the Flames did three big things stemming from that trade.
- They signed Jonathan Huberdeau to an eight-year contract extension weeks after the trade, before he even arrived in Calgary. This avoided an entire season worth of potential distractions with (another) star player playing out their contract. However, they went very long with a player that hadn’t played a single game for the team. (Or even had a practice with the team, for that matter.) It was for a logical purpose, but it was a risk.
- They traded the conditional first-rounder with oft-injured centre Sean Monahan to Montreal, and used the cap space they opened up to sign free agent Nazem Kadri to a seven-year deal. Again, going long with a player that had never played a game with the team, but doing so with a player that was a key piece of a team that had just won the Stanley Cup. Again, a logical gamble, but a risky one.
- They signed MacKenzie Weegar to an eight-year contract extension during the 2022 pre-season. Weegar’s deal was announced at the tail-end of pre-season, after he had already come to town, played some games and felt he liked the fit. It was a gamble based on the length of the contract and that he hadn’t played any “real” games yet, but like with Huberdeau’s extension, cutting to the chase and avoiding a potential distraction was logical.
Between 2019 and 2022, the Flames were a really good team. Each of Treliving’s gambles that we noted were likely designed to keep the team’s competitive window open, maintain some salary cap flexibility, and give them a shot at winning a Stanley Cup, and individually, in that context, they all make complete sense. Think of it like mountain climbers near the summit: they make calculated gambles designed to get them to the top of the mountain, and maybe they don’t fully examine how they’re going to get back down once they get there.
In Treliving’s case, making one of those many gambles and having it turn out poorly wouldn’t have been too horrible. Instead, right now, the Flames are dealing with multiple rolls of the dice turning out in less than stellar ways. (We have zero negative things to say about the Weegar extension, though.)
In the wake of Treliving’s departure and the challenges the Flames have faced to open 2023-24, it’s easy to pain Treliving as a villain who paralyzed the Flames with bad moves. But that’s not really the case. He helped the Flames battle their way back to league-wide relevancy and put together a club that had two of their best regular seasons ever. He also made some moves that, in retrospect, might not have been the best for the club’s long-term flexibility – even if he may have made those moves for perfectly logical reasons.
Treliving spent nine years with the Flames. In our opinion, he was largely a net positive for the team, but it’s unfair to categorize him as either the franchise’s saviour or its downfall. His legacy is more complicated than that, and still has yet to fully play out.
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