This has been a very difficult season for the Calgary Flames, that came into the season hoping to challenge for the North Division crown, but instead languish outside of the playoff picture. Although still not mathematically eliminated, sitting just two points back of the fourth place Montreal Canadiens, the Habs have five games in hand, and each of those games could pull them further and further ahead of the Flames. The Flames would need to win about 80 percent of their remaining games in order to make the playoffs. Impossible? No, but very difficult.
Is this upsetting to everyone around the team? Yes, absolutely. This was a team that, on paper, should be doing better than they are. They looked, in theory, to be a better team than last season, having acquired a starting netminder, top four defenceman, and a Stanley Cup Winning coach, yet somehow just cannot find a way to put the puck in the back of the net. It has been incredibly frustrating to watch.
However, the Flames have made it abundantly clear that their project is far from over. When the team brought Darryl Sutter on as their Head Coach and signed him to a three year contract, the expectation was that there was unfinished business here. That the team was going to use their next handful of seasons to make a run for the Cup, and finally give Sutter the ring the refs denied him and the Flames of in 2004. This year has been disappointing, no doubt, but the time is now for the Flames to start tooling to make the playoffs next season.
Where does the team stand?
The Flames, in theory, have a lot of the pieces needed for a playoff run under contract for one more season, while removing a chunk of dead(ish) weight off at the end of this season. Starting from the back, the Flames have Jacob Markstrom already locked up under contract long term, and will need to only acquire a backup netminder to replace David Rittich, who will likely be looking for more work at the end of the season. Rittich’s contract was $2.75 million per season, and the Flames will likely spend less on their backup netminder next season given the flat cap.
On the blueline, the Flames have all of their top four defencemen under contract already, needing only to re-sign Juuso Valimaki, Oliver Kylington (assuming he is not claimed by the Seattle Kraken) plus one more. Nikita Nesterov may be an option for the Flames as well, as his one year contract comes to an end in the off-season. They may be able to promote Connor Mackey, who will be due for a similar contract to his current ELC. All three will be reasonable increases, with the flat cap likely keeping Valimaki’s contract a bridge deal.
Up front, the Flames have Derek Ryan‘s contract coming off the books, which saves a cool $3.125 million per season. They also have Josh Leivo, Brett Ritchie, and Joakim Nordstrom who are unlikely to return, and if they do, won’t merit much of an increase if any at all. The only players the Flames need to sign are Dillon Dube and Sam Bennett, the latter will likely be exposed to the Kraken in the off-season. Like Valimaki and Andrew Mangiapane, Dube will likely see a reasonable bridge contract in the off-season. The Flames have almost the entirety of their top six all signed for next season and for generally reasonable cap hits.
On top of all of this, they also have the Michael Stone contract and buyout coming off the books this year. That gives them an additional $1.167 million to play with from the buyout alone. With the contract this number goes up to almost $1.8 million. With the flat cap, having extra money goes a very long way to adding depth to the roster in the off-season
Whether you think this roster is competitive or not, the Flames have their key pieces under contract, which means they are not looking to replace big pieces of their organization and they have the ability to move these players. Because of Brad Treliving’s work a few seasons ago, the only player earning over $6.75 million is Matthew Tkachuk. With where top-line salaries are in the league, the Flames have done some incredibly shrewd negotiating to keep their cap hits very team-friendly. Should the team want to move a player like Johnny Gaudreau, they can do so with some ease and use his cap hit as a reason to ask for more in the off-season.
This is remarkably good news. The Flames have little that they have to do in the off-season, and have leverage in re-signing the big parts of their roster for next season. There is likely a lot that they want to do, but with the cap situation the way that it is, trading will be tough, and the biggest obstacle will be making the cap hits work. The Flames will have approximately $15.8 million at the end of the season, and this should give them some flexibility going into the off-season.
Why not burn it down?
The biggest reason the Flames need to push for a playoff run next season is on the business side. This season, and the return to play last season were incredibly expensive for teams. Without fans in the stands, one of their biggest revenue sources was eliminated, while their expenses continued to pile up. The Flames’ organization has also made an investment in bringing on a new coach with experience winning the Cup, and will be looking to make a return.
The Flames’ ownership is primarily involved in oil and gas, and with how that sector has done over the past five years, they will be looking for a rebound next season. As mentioned by Elliotte Friedman on 31 Thoughts the Podcast, teams make up a good chunk of their revenues in the playoffs as the increase in ticket sales and general buzz around the organization increases in the post-season.
Next season (assuming all goes well with the pandemic) will be the first season with fans back in the stands, and the team will be doing everything that it can to try and re-coup some of the losses from the past season and a half. Making the playoffs is the easiest way to do this, and with the team not needing much in the way of re-signings, this may be a prime opportunity to make that push.
What does this look like?
If the Flames are going to make a run for next season, the push needs to start now. The primary thing that they need to do is to commit to a small tanking this season, and a re-tool on the fly. This needs to start from the top, and work through the organization. Without buy-in from the players for a real push for next season, this simply will not work.
From a management side, the Flames need to make the most of their expiring assets. GM Brad Treliving needs to put his thumbs to the numbers and start calling around to find trading partners interested in the services of Rittich, Ryan, Ritchie, and if possible, Leivo, Nordstrom, and Nikita Nesterov.
The first three have apparently garnered some attention. We have written about the Flames’ need to trade Rittich at the deadline, as the return is likely greatest. Ryan will likely net a similar (but smaller) haul to Eric Staal, as he has a far less impressive legacy than the future Hall of Famer. The final four names have less pull, but even a draft pick or two could go a long way to helping the team in the future.
This also presents an opportunity for the Flames to see what they have in their younger players. Glenn Gawdin and Matthew Phillips have been knocking on the door all season long, and the Flames should likely give one or both a longer look at the NHL level. Phillips is also a right shot right winger, something that the Flames have been sorely lacking of late.
They also have Louis Domingue and Artyom Zagidulin on NHL contracts that they could use behind Markstrom. There is also Garret Sparks on an AHL deal, who could get a look at the NHL level again, but would need an NHL contract to make that happen. Are the Flames better this season with these players in the lineup, likely not, but if the plan is to make the playoffs next season and the Flames could get a strong return for their expiring players, this would be a great move.
What this move also does is pushes the Flames down the NHL standings and into the lottery hunt. Should their struggles continue and a small sell-off incur, they could be looking at a top ten pick in this year’s draft. The Flames have had three picks in this range in the last decade, and all three, Monahan, Tkachuk and Bennett, made an immediate impact on their arrival in the NHL. While a handful of the top ten are defencemen, there are a number of right handed right wingers who could fit right into the Flames’ lineup in a year or two.
There is no time like the present
If only things had been different. If only one of Leivo, Simon, or Bennett could have been the answer on the right side of Gaudreau and Monahan. If only the Flames could have found a way to hand it to the last place Ottawa Senators. If only they could have found a way to drive offense and create chances on net. If only the puck would find its way past any of the number of goaltenders that have stymied the Flames’ scorers. And the list goes on and on.
The fact of the matter is that the odds that the Flames make the playoffs grow slimmer by the day, with Micah Blake McCurdy and HockeyViz having the Flames with just a 24% chance of making the post-season. But with how this roster is constructed and the lack of revenue that the team has had this season, making the playoffs next season should be priority number one for GM Brad Treliving and Co. The hunt to have the Calgary Flames etched in the Stanley Cup for 2021-22 starts now, and it is up to the team to commit to re-tooling on the fly for the benefit of the whole organization.