Who are the Calgary Flames? Seriously, tell me.
For all of their regular season success in recent years, that question is entirely too difficult to answer. What the Flames are at the moment, rather, is a remarkably faceless team, one that finds itself in perhaps the worst position an NHL club can: the purgatory between good enough to contend and bad enough to rebuild.
And after another first-round exit spurred by another disappearing act from their talented core, changes must be made.
Let’s tackle what those could be.
Brad Treliving will look at his blueline heading into free agency and see one of two things: a wonderful blessing or a confounding curse.
Calgary, at the moment, has just three of its nine NHL defencemen signed under contract for next season, with Mark Giordano, Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson the lone pieces set to return. Possibly walking out the door are TJ Brodie, Travis Hamonic, Michael Stone, Oliver Kylington (RFA), Derek Forbort and Erik Gustafsson, with the former two likely demanding raises from their current contracts.
The Flames can’t bring everyone back. That goes without saying. And with a flat cap on the horizon thanks to the pandemic, financial concessions must be made regardless — and that’s without even considering that this defence corps has far from earned the right to be given another kick at the can.
What Treliving has, then, is the perfect excuse to completely reshape his back end, and perhaps his entire roster by extension, without trading away a big name. Cap space is arguably the most valuable asset in the NHL today, and with $9,237,959 set to come off the books from the blueline alone, the Flames are now flush with options that can extend to any branch of its lineup.
One path forward would be to take that newly-available money and divert it to a big name free agent such as Alex Pietrangelo or Torey Krug. Both would serve as sizeable upgrades on either Brodie or Hamonic, particularly from an offensive standpoint, and give the locker room a fresh new voice with deep playoff experience that could only benefit a group so incapable of getting over the hump.
Nabbing either of those two, however, is big city dreamin’.
The better and more realistic course of action might be to divvy those dollars up amongst a group of multiple lesser-profile UFA defenders who can still bring value. Radko Gudas, for example, is unlikely to command the $3.35 million from his latest contract and could conceivably bring the physicality and play-driving prowess required for success in the modern NHL. Then there are veteran right-shot candidates such as Chris Tanev and Justin Braun who could be brought in at similarly lower-end price tags to help guide the emergence of Hanifin and Andersson, who now represent the future of the Flames blueline.
However, there is one other option: take that valuable cap space and use it to shore up the most important position in the sport. Which brings us to...
Citizens of Calgary, I have both good news and bad news.
The bad news, unfortunately, is that goaltending once again helped spell your team’s downfall for the [insert number here, it’s too high to count] consecutive season since Miikka Kiprusoff’s exit.
But you already knew this. It’s your least favourite annual tradition.
The good news, however, is that the NHL is set to embark upon what might be the most goalie-rich free agency period in recent memory. And that, my friends, could not have come at a better time.
Talbot actually performed quite admirably in his first year as a Flame, at least on paper, posting a .919 save percentage through 26 regular season games that ultimately earned him the starting nod in the playoffs. When taking expectations into account, he was exactly what the team needed. The 32-year-old even managed to bump that number up to a .924 in the 10 games he spent in the bubble, including a 35-save shutout in Game 3 that gave the Flames a short-lived series lead.
That’s great! But Talbot is also a pending UFA on the wrong side of 30 whose last run as a full-time starter came in 2017-18 with the Oilers and was highlighted by a .908 save percentage. For the Flames to pin the hopes and dreams of their crease squarely on his shoulders would be undoubtedly unwise.
And then there’s Big Save Dave, whose .907 save percentage as the defacto starter in 2019-20 is too low to earn him the job in the future and whose $2.75 million cap hit next season is too high for a conventional backup.
This is where things get funky.
Let’s say the Flames still believe in Rittich and are wary on giving up on him just yet. That’s fair. The guy has shown flashes before. At the same time, they don’t feel comfortable heading into next season with Rittich as their first option. The perfect solution, therefore, would be to bring in an established starter signed to a team-friendly deal for one season that both provides stability in the short-term and time for management to evaluate their situation for the long-term.
Does such a goaltender exist? Why, yes he does. And his name is Frederik Andersen.
Sure, the Flames could throw bags of money at one of Robin Lehner or Jakob Markstrom in the event the two actually hit the market. But both players would be spending the majority of their conceivably expensive new contracts in their 30s, a time when goaltender performance tends to decline.
Nabbing Andersen, on the other hand, allows Calgary to have the best of both worlds: capitalizing on a year of his prime without the financial commitment.
The Leafs are reportedly shopping Steady Freddy for what The Athletic’s James Mirtle deems a “useful but low-cost asset.” But Andersen is in the final year of his deal at a cap hit of just $5 million, is playing for likely the largest contract he’ll ever sign, and only costs $1 million in actual salary thanks to his performance bonus structure.
The two sides just make too much sense.
Listen, most relationships ultimately run their course. It’s just natural. Not everyone will have a Notebook-esque ending in which you pass into the great beyond cradled in each other’s arms. At a certain point, a change of scenery can be what’s best for both parties.
With that being said, it’s probably time for Johnny Gaudreau to hit the ol’ dusty trail.
No one is denying Gaudreau’s skill level. The guy is a terrifically talented hockey player who flirts with a point-per-game on his best days and happens to be locked in at a relatively cheap $6.75 million price tag until 2022-23. But Gaudreau has also made a habit of outright disappearing in the game’s biggest moments, and after yet another first-round exit, the soil just seems poisoned between the player and his team.
The question, now, turns to what the Flames could get for their dynamic star. Well, just take a look around the league. Kasperi Kapanen just fetched a package that included a first-round pick and an exciting prospect, and he’s a third-liner with one 20-goal season under his belt. For a playoff contender desperate for offence in order to finally get over the hump, Gaudreau looks pretty darn appetizing.
A team like the Nashville Predators comes to mind, along with the likes of the Coyotes, Blue Jackets, and even Stars (once they get bounced by Colorado, naturally).
Then there are the basement dwellers with draft capital to spare, hoping to get a head start on their contention window.
Would Ottawa part with one of its first-rounders or, more realistically, a member or two of its deep prospect pipeline to give Gaudreau a new Tkachuk brother to play with? What about the Canadiens, who defied the odds by steamrolling Pittsburgh and giving Philly a scare and seem only a few pieces away from making some serious noise?
If the Flames want to look to the future, trading Gaudreau for picks and prospects makes the most sense. But even if they simply want to re-tool on the fly, restocking the draft cupboard while opening up nearly $7 million in cap space gives them a plethora of options with which to give their lineup an entirely new identity.
No matter how you slice it, it’s going to be a busy offseason in Calgary. Stay tuned.
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