With Elias Lindholm traded, it appears the Flames have finally picked a positive direction

Photo credit:Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Mike Gould
5 months ago
The days of reckoning have finally arrived in Calgary.
The first half of the 2023–24 regular season was always going to be used as a litmus test for this Calgary Flames team. With Elias Lindholm, Noah Hanifin, and Chris Tanev all set to become UFAs this summer, it was up to Craig Conroy and Co. to determine whether it was worth cashing out or pushing in more chips.
Pretty early on in the year, it became clear that Conroy wasn’t exactly holding a pair of aces. Even under the watchful eye of new head coach Ryan Huska, the Flames struggled to generate any meaningful momentum in the first 49 games and entered the All-Star Break coming off arguably their worst five-game stretch of the season.
From the beginning, it seemed like Lindholm would be the first to go. He plays a premier position and his rumoured demand of $9 million on his next contract always seemed unreasonable. Couple those factors with his underwhelming play to start the year and it looked like a matter of when, not if, Lindholm would be traded.
On Wednesday night, he was. The Flames sent Lindholm to the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for winger Andrei Kuzmenko, defence prospects Joni Jurmo and Hunter Brzustewicz, and two picks in the upcoming 2024 NHL Draft.
Kuzmenko’s presence notwithstanding, it’s an impressive package of futures that greatly bolsters Calgary’s positioning as an organization looking to substantially overhaul its roster. Critically, it also weakens a Flames team that sorely needs a high draft pick in 2024. If Lindholm’s departure means Calgary’s own selection ends up being higher, the trade will have been worth it.
But, as is too often overlooked, drafting is just as much about quantity as it is about quality. Under former GM Brad Treliving, the Flames gave away picks like they were Skittles. Dating back to 2014, the Flames have made fewer than their original allotment of seven picks in seven of the last 10 drafts. That level of deficit spending would sewer the fortunes of any club.
The Flames have tons of room to accommodate more players in their development pipeline. On Wednesday, they turned Lindholm into four more: Jurmo, Brzustewicz, and whomever they take with the two picks. Their work isn’t done, but it’s a very nice start.
There’s also potential for more if the Flames can help Kuzmenko turn things around. The Russian winger probably won’t be part of the long-term solution in Calgary, although it’ll be a bonus if he can help Jonathan Huberdeau find his game. But in the end, the best-case scenario for the Flames will be if they can flip Kuzmenko (perhaps with retention) for more futures at next year’s trade deadline.
The real prizes of this deal look to be Brzustewicz and Vancouver’s 2024 first-round pick. Those are two top-tier pieces for this Flames team going forward. Calgary now has two firsts in the upcoming draft and is also able to add Brzustewicz to an underrated group of defensive prospects that also includes Jeremie Poirier, Etienne Morin, Ilya Solovyov, and Yan Kuznetsov.
Brzustewicz, 19, is an absurdly productive OHL defenceman whose statistical profile and play style somewhat resembles those of Quinn Hughes and Adam Fox at the same age. It’ll be a coup for the Flames if Brzustewicz even turns into half of what those two players have become.
Remember, the Flames wouldn’t have gotten any of these pieces for Lindholm had they dilly-dallied along, tried in vain to make the playoffs, and let him walk at the end of the season. All of this is gravy. The Flames got out ahead of the market and snagged some of the top pieces slated to be available between now and the March 8 trade deadline.
Keeping Lindholm would have been thoroughly incompatible with the direction the Flames needed to choose. This is a team that, as currently constructed, stands an extremely small chance of winning the Stanley Cup. Even if they were to make the playoffs, they’d be an easy out for most of the Western Conference’s top contenders. The Flames clearly needed to do something different.
That’s not to say Lindholm didn’t have a terrific run with the Flames. He did. For years, he was a bona fide No. 1 centre on a Flames team that hadn’t really had one since Joe Nieuwendyk (or, depending on your tastes, Daymond Langkow). Lindholm’s line with Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk was one of the NHL’s best, and he played no small role in its success. He was a great Flame.
But the time has come for this team to chart a course toward new horizons. Even with Brzustewicz, Jurmo, and two more picks in the fold, the Flames aren’t even close to being ready to compete again. They still have Tanev and Hanifin to deal with and plenty more picks to make.
Connor Zary, Sam Honzek, Matt Coronato, Jakob Pelletier, Martin Pospisil, and Rory Kerins have all shown promise, but the Flames need way more young, talented forwards if they want to turn this ship around. Although they’re better situated on defence, guys like Zayne Parekh, Zeev Buium, Carter Yakemchuk, and Artyom Levshunov would do a lot to solidify this team’s future. They’re all projected top-15 picks in the upcoming draft.
Remember, because of the Matthew Tkachuk and Sean Monahan trades, the Flames have a significant incentive to finish among the bottom 10 teams in the league next season. If they do, they should be able to keep their own high pick while sending the Florida Panthers’ (presumably much lower) first-rounder to Montreal to complete the Monahan deal.
If the Flames don’t finish in the bottom 10 next year, however, they’ll end up sending the higher of the two first-round picks to the Canadiens. (This, of course, assumes that Florida makes the playoffs next season; their own 2025 first-round pick is lottery protected in ways far too complicated to discuss here). From a long-term standpoint, by far the optimal scenario for 2024–25 is the Flames being even worse while Florida remains in the playoff picture.
Yes, everyone around these parts knows full well by now that the Flames are looking to retool, not rebuild. But in a case as severe as the Flames’, it’s mostly a matter of semantics. The Pittsburgh Penguins retooled around Sidney Crosby and Malkin after down years in the early 2010s; the Boston Bruins did it around Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak after missing the playoffs twice in a row around the same time.
Speaking frankly, the Flames are actually just staring down the prospect of trying to rebuild very, very quickly. The idea of retooling around guys like Jonathan Huberdeau and Nazem Kadri really isn’t viable at this point, given their ages and decline in ability. The Flames’ prospective championship core doesn’t need to be rehabilitated, it needs to be created — and nearly from scratch.
They might be able to do it with top-10 picks this year and next, and maybe in 2026. They’ll need to add more picks for their remaining pending UFAs and other veterans, and maybe even by taking on the final years of other teams’ less palatable contracts. After making nine picks in the last two drafts, how much better would the Flames look in the macro sense if they made 20 (or more) in the next two?
The Flames have reached a critical inflection point. They’ve taken a major first step by getting ahead of the market with the Lindholm trade, and they have a chance to do it again with Tanev in the not-too-distant future.
It’s not going to be easy — it’ll get worse before it gets better — but as long as the Flames fully commit to playing the long game, they’ll be just fine.

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