This is a pivotal time for the Calgary Flames organization in their efforts to build this team into a club that will regularly compete for the Stanley Cup. Until this season, the rebuild was headed in a direct linear trajectory for the Flames. First they headed in a downward direction once they blew the team up in the spring of 2013. They traded off Jarome Iginla and Jay Bouwmeester, and saw long time starter Miikka Kiprusoff retire. Then, as expected, the team bottomed out in 2014 and had their worst finish in franchise history. It was the first time ever that the Flames had a selection in the top five in the entry draft. Then as fast as things fell apart, they rebounded and the Flames rocketed up the standings in 2015. It culminated in a visit to the second round of the playoffs for only the second time in 25 years. Typically, the re-building process is not without random pitfalls, otherwise Edmonton would be atop the Pacific in competition with the Kings right now. Players regress, prospects fail to progress, injuries occur, and sometimes even puck luck can go against you. For everything that went right last season for the Flames, the opposite has occurred this season.
Lance Bouma scored sixteen goals a season ago and has missed almost the entire season with injury. Jiri Hudler put up a career high 76 points on the board last year and has only 22 through the Flames first 45 games. Dennis Wideman has only two goals after scoring 15 last season. He is now looking at a lengthy suspension after a collision with linesman Don Henderson in the final game before the All Star break. Josh Jooris had a dozen goals and assists in 60 games in 2014-15, and only has seven points in 29 contests this year. In addition to all of that, the Flames had one of the worst months of goaltending ever by any team in October. It was a combination of things that contributed to their poor start. Odd goals, strange bounces and average efforts by all three netminders culminated in a 3-8-1 start. Bad luck, regression and injuries have all worked together to put the Flames in a similar position in the standings that they were in back in 2014.
Now that the Flames have arrived at the All Star break, they find themselves in a precarious position in regards to their playoff aspirations. They currently trail the San Jose Sharks by 11 points and the Arizona Coyotes by 8 points for the last two playoff spots. Only 13 games remain for the Flames until the February 29th trade deadline. There is not a large amount of time for the Flames to make a change to their current situation before the clock ticks down to zero. In order for the Flames to reverse their decline, they will have to play at a high level consistently over the next month. This is something that they have not accomplished at any point this season. Even during the seven game winning streak at the beginning of December, the team lacked consistency in their efforts. If not for a couple of extraordinary comebacks and the offense rolling on all cylinders, it would not have happened. For the Flames to re-emerge as a team in the playoff hunt, they will likely need to win 10 of the 13 games between now and the deadline. Possible? Perhaps, but it will take an extraordinary turn of fate in February to play out that way.
Looking ahead to the games between now and the deadline, the Flames play only two games against teams that are in the Auston Matthews sweepstakes (Columbus and Toronto). The other eleven games are split between those that currently reside in a playoff spot and teams that are within three points of one. Four are against teams in a playoff spot, with the other seven against teams within three points of one. Teams that are that close to a playoff spot will naturally be more desperate for points than teams that are either comfortably in a playoff spot or are battling for the worst record in the NHL. It is possible that the Flames will be to make up ground, but it will not be the easiest of schedules to make the attempt.
So where does that leave this iteration of the Calgary Flames? Unfortunately, the likelihood of playoffs is more of an unrealistic hope than a likely possibility. So that leaves them in a situation where they can make some moves to take the next steps in the building process. Calgary has a lot of veteran players sprinkled through the lineup the past couple of seasons. This has eased the transition from the Iginla era to the Gaudreau era. The veterans have allowed the Flames to keep their prospects in the AHL instead of rushing them into positions that they may not have been ready for. By being patient with their prospects, they have taken a page out of the playbook of the Detroit Red Wings. Taking notes from how successful teams operate is a good idea to replicate their results. One area where the Flames have been successful is having players in the AHL at different stages of the development process. The Stockton Heat have a decent number of older prospects that could slot into the Flames NHL lineup without much difficulty if spots open up. Players like Derek Grant, Freddie Hamilton, Kenny Agostino, Emile Poirier, Drew Shore, Grant Hathaway, Jakub Nakladal, Tyler Wotherspoon, Brett Kulak, and Kevin Poulin could slot into the Flames lineup for the last month of the season if necessary. Of those players, only Poirier, Hathaway, and Kulak are on the younger side of their development curve. If the Flames move out several players at the deadline, they will have the added benefit of being able to determine if any of the older prospects can transition into full time NHL players.
The obvious players that are likely to be traded are the soon to be free agents. Jiri Hudler, David Jones, Kris Russell, Karri Ramo, and Jonas Hiller are all set to become unrestricted free agents on July 1st. Brandon Bollig, Mason Raymond, Dennis Wideman, Deryk Engelland, and Ladislav Smid all have only one year remaining on their contracts, which makes them possible trade targets as well. In total, ten players that are not likely going to be a part of the Flames future once their contracts are over. Karri Ramo might be the only one that could remain, but that depends on what happens with the rest of the free agent goalies between now and July 1st. Some of those players will be easy for the Flames to move before February 29th. Hudler, Jones and Russell will likely have multiple suitors. Hiller and Ramo could have some interest depending on the other team’s confidence in their backup. Brandon Bollig and Deryk Engelland could also draw some interest as they are quality depth players for the playoffs when the games start getting physical. We all remember Engelland’s fight with a pair of Canucks from Game 3 in Vancouver last spring. Dennis Wideman earns too much money despite being one of the better offensive defensemen in the league. Add in a likely long term suspension and it makes it difficult for the Flames to move him. Calgary would likely need to be willing to eat some of his contract to move it before the 2017 trade deadline.
Will the Flames trade all ten players away? Absolutely not. With the Flames current rank in the standings, they do stand as one of the few teams that will likely become a seller. They also have a few useful players that playoff teams covet, more so than any other seller. The most important asset for the Flames to acquire at the deadline is draft picks. They have only made 11 selections in the past two drafts, three fewer than the default. It is not a large problem for the Flames at the moment, but they will have difficulties soon with not having enough replacement players coming up to replace other players that graduate or move on. Going into full seller mode will allow them to reinforce their depleted prospect pool. Another issue has arisen with those 11 players selected in 2014 and 2015. Four of them have already graduated into professional hockey; Sam Bennett in the NHL with Hunter Smith, Austin Carroll, and Oliver Kylington all with Stockton in the AHL. For the Flames, only Mark Jankowski, Rasmus Andersson, Mason McDonald, Brandon Hickey remain as noteworthy prospects outside of professional leagues. The reason why this is important has to do with future contracts. Once quality depth players become unaffordable in the NHL, the Flames will need replacements on entry level contracts. It was the same problem Chicago faced when they were forced to move Niemi, Bolland, Brouwer, Ladd and Byfuglien, then Sharp and Saad in their attempts to remain a contender. That is why it is necessary that they add more picks to further flesh out the organizational depth. Another benefit of having extra picks is that it creates options at the draft. After moving Glencross and Baertschi a year ago, the Flames had six selections in the top 90 last draft. Having those excess draft picks allowed them to negotiate for and acquire Dougie Hamilton.
One of the main concerns with trading off too many veterans at once is that it may disrupt the team moving forward. That is a valid concern if the leadership is not subsequently replaced. The Flames management previously has shown the ability to identify and attack problems facing the club. They were able to address perceived corsi issues this past offseason with the acquisition of Dougie Hamilton and Michael Frolik, both are high quality players in that metric. It is likely that the leadership lost would be replaced with targeted free agent signings or future trades before the start of next season. It would be a temporary problem that can be easily fixed before next season.
With the Flames struggling as much as they have, there is one consolation prize. The Flames are in a good position to acquire a top 10 draft pick in the 2016 draft. While it is never the ideal situation to be selecting in the first half of the draft, it is an opportunity for the Flames to add another player to their core group. Calgary currently has six core players that will be the backbone of the Flames lineup for a long time; TJ Brodie, Dougie Hamilton, Mark Giordano, Sean Monahan, Sam Bennett, and Johnny Gaudreau. Adding another player to that list could be the tonic that helps push the Flames over the top when they begin to enter contender mode. Currently, the top ten players in my opinion are Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujarvi, Pierre Luc Dubois, Jakob Chychrun, Matthew Tkachuk, Mikhail Sergachev (spelt Sergachyov as well), Alex Nylander, Olli Juolevi, and Michael McLeod. Of those in the top ten, there are three right wingers and three defensemen. Those are the two positions that the Flames need to address. Another positive aspect with those players is they are taller than 6′-1″, except Nylander. Unless the Flames are selecting first overall, it is likely they will be able to address an area of need while not drafting only for position. My own prediction for June is the Flames will draft a right wing with their first round pick. This is due to the lack of talent in that position that will be available in the second and third rounds.
The Calgary Flames as a whole are on the right path despite the results from the first half of the season. Johnny Gaudreau is ninth overall in the NHL scoring, Sam Bennett is sixth in rookie scoring, and TJ Brodie is emerging as one of the premier defensemen in the entire league. Patience is the most important thing for both the management and the fans. Teams like the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks were not built in only a couple of seasons. The Kings did not make the playoffs from 2003 until 2010. They were on the upswing before having a terrible season in 2008 that resulted in their acquisition of Drew Doughty. They won the cup in 2012 and 2014. Chicago also stopped making the playoffs in 2003. They picked third overall in both 2004 and 2006, which resulted in Cam Barker and Jonathan Toews. With the emergence of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook along with several other later round picks like Byfuglien, Brouwer, Bolland and others, the Hawks too were on their way up and finished as the fifth worst team in 2007. Luck was on their side and they won the lottery and moved up to draft Patrick Kane. That finished off the building of their dynasty and they won the cup in 2010, 2013 and 2015. The difference between the Flames and those two teams is depth in the top half of their lineup. Calgary has a lot of quality players that will fit on their third and fourth lines, both currently and with players coming through the organization. They only have three legitimate top six forwards at the moment and they are all under the age of 22. They could add another one in the draft, but that will still leave them with two positions to fill. By trading off several veteran players, it will allow the Flames to reallocate their cap hits. This will allow them to spend money on a legitimate top end forward talent, which should be the main priority this offseason. They could also use acquired draft picks to add someone in the same manner that they acquired Hamilton last year.
The Flames are in a position to be successful for a long time. A series of moves will have to occur between now and then to capitalize on the talent in the organization. The most difficult thing for everyone will be the wait as it all unfolds. It is an exciting time to be a Flames fan.
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