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For Stanley Cup contenders and NHL cellar dwellers, the league’s annual trade deadline features few complex decisions. Potential champions add to their rosters. Bad teams collect futures, sending away players on expiring deals and older veterans without long-term utility.
Teams like the Calgary Flames have it tougher. Sixty games into the season it isn’t clear whether they’ll be good enough or lucky enough to make the playoffs. They have only the narrowest of leads on the Los Angeles Kings and Winnipeg Jets for the West’s final playoff berth.
On Monday, general manager Brad Treliving signaled that the possibility of the postseason was worth some risk, bringing in defenceman Michael Stone at the relatively cheap price of a third-round pick. Included was a conditional fifth-rounder in the event he signs an extension with the Flames.
The Flames can afford to take a few risks, and should be willing to make modest outlays to address areas of real need. At the same time, they should shop their own assets and avoid expensive additions. It’s difficult to prepare for the playoffs and simultaneously safeguard the future, but such is the plight of any rebuilding team.
The Stone trade was the sort of deal that fits the optimal trade deadline strategy for Calgary, though Stone himself certainly wasn’t the ideal target.
Stone was available for cheap because has some serious flaws as an NHL player. He has a history of mediocre performances alongside superior partners. He had knee surgery last summer and his performance this season represents a low point in his career. Still, there is logic behind the team’s thinking.
Calgary’s top need entering the deadline period was for a No. 4 defenceman. The team’s top pairing has been excellent and the third pairing can be sheltered, but with T.J. Brodie on the ice at 5-on-5 the Flames have been outscored 46-26. Brodie’s a good player in the prime of his career, so mediocre partners Dennis Wideman and Deryk Engelland get much of the blame for that.
Stone is an uncertain upgrade, but he’s also trended up for the last month. For most of the year, he has been Arizona’s worst defenceman by the shot metrics. Since mid-January, however, the Coyotes have done a marginally better job controlling the shot clock with him on the ice instead of the bench.
Finally, Calgary doesn’t have to worry about expansion draft ramifications with this addition. Treliving offered a hypothetical scenario to the team’s website earlier this month in which a team with three good defencemen suddenly had to change its expansion plan after adding a fourth. It’s a scenario which just happened to fit the Flames. Even if Stone plays well the rest of the way and earns a new contract, Calgary isn’t likely to protect him.
One additional benefit of the deal is that in conjunction with the signing of Matt Bartkowski, Calgary should be able to move out its own defencemen on expiring contracts.
Wideman is paid too much and near the end of his NHL career, but still conceivably has value as a power-play specialist. The Flames are set in that area and can retain salary to make a deal work. As a Plan B or C closer to the deadline, Wideman might attract some interest.
Engelland is a different matter. Physical depth defencemen like Engelland always seem to have value at the deadline, and the Flames don’t have a good reason to hang on to a 34-year-old third-pairing guy. There should be a trade to be made there.
Other free agents include winger Kris Versteeg and goalies Chad Johnson and Brian Elliott. Versteeg has been a good fit on multiple lines and adds secondary scoring; it’s hard to see trading him as a worthwhile endeavor given the likely return.
In net, Calgary needs one of Johnson or Elliott unless it acquires a ‘tender from elsewhere. Johnson has been the better goalie on the year but is in a slump, while Elliott finally seems to be turning a corner. The returns on backup goalies are rarely good and unless that changes the Flames may as well keep both. It also makes sense to hold off on shopping for a replacement starter until summer, when expansion should drive the price down.
An acquisition that would make sense is a complementary forward.
Ideally, Calgary would bring in a centre, but typically players at that position fetch a premium at the deadline. It doesn’t make sense to pay a premium, so that leaves some combination of Matt Stajan, Sam Bennett and Freddie Hamilton in bottom-six roles.
A better idea is going after a cheap winger. Teddy Purcell of the Los Angeles Kings is an example of the kind of player who might be able to help without costing much. Although he was sent down to the AHL early this season, he’s averaged a point-per-game in the minors and has a decent track record of being a complementary scorer at the NHL level.
Waivers are another resource that should be tapped. Looking at Stone, it’s hard to see why the Flames would prefer him to someone like Zach Redmond, who cleared waivers earlier this year despite good numbers with the Canadiens. Calgary has room to add a contract or two and doesn’t have the depth to turn its nose up at freebies.
Hunting for bargains and a mix of buying and selling isn’t an exciting deadline approach, but the Flames have little choice. The team doesn’t have an overly deep prospect pool and needs to keep an eye on the future. At the same time, it should be possible to improve the roster without sacrificing those other objectives, and that should be Calgary’s goal.