Free agency in the NHL is just one day away, officially kicking off July 28, 2021. If history is any indication, Brad Treliving and the Calgary Flames are going to make a splash. Last year it was Chris Tanev and Jacob Markstrom. Before that it was players like James Neal and Troy Brouwer.
This year, the team has a few obvious gaps in the roster that need to be filled. As they have for years, they will look for a top-six right wing. But, in a new wrinkle this offseason, they must also attempt to replace the massive hole left on the back end with the departure of captain Mark Giordano.
While it would be impossible to every truly replace Giordano and his impact on and off the ice, the team will have to at least try if they intend to improve next season and return to the playoffs. It would be a big risk to go into next season without bringing in an experienced left defenseman.
There’s a lot of promise in this lineup with young players like Hanifin, Valimaki, Andersson, Kylington, and Mackey all being fairly young. But for a contending team, this lineup just won’t cut it. The team will likely look to add a veteran on the left side to bolster the group. Any of the following targets could be part of the Flames’ plans this offseason.
Everything points to Alexander Edler signing with the Flames. Not that it’s been reported, he just fits the bill well as a Swede and a soon-to-be former Canuck. Not only that, he is still a fairly effective player at 35, although not what he once was. His once potent offensive game seemed to fizzle in 2021, but his defensive performance was still strong.
At his age, an offensive bounce-back seems unlikely. Hoping his defensive abilities can hold out another year is one thing, but a player of his reputation will be expecting term on a deal. Whatever team makes this bet needs to be sure they can shelter him as necessary in the coming years if his performance declines.
Evolving-Hockey projects his next deal at 3 years, $3.87 million per year. That’s a big bet on an aging player, should their prediction be accurate (as they usually are). Edler is a decent option to act as a stopgap on the left side until a long term solution presents itself, but the reward may not be worth the risk of the contract.
On top of that, he’s one of the younger options out there at 27, and he put up 14 points in 48 games with the New Jersey Devils last season. But the positives run thin after that. Per NaturalStatTrick, he had a corsi for of 47.5% and held 46.2% of the expected goals share this year. Not exactly inspiring numbers.
Considering his underwhelming possession and expected goals numbers, it’s unlikely he will take a big step forward at 27. Combined with his rugged style of play and good reputation around the league, Murray seems like a prime candidate to get overpaid by a team like Calgary. If they do sign him that’s not to say he’ll be terrible, just not one of the best value options hitting the market.
Last season was 56 games right? Not for Jani Hakanpää! The Finnish defenseman was traded from Anaheim to Carolina, and ended up playing 42 games for Anaheim and 15 for Carolina, for a total of 57 games. It was an eventful season for the 29-year-old rookie.
In his ice time, he proved to be a typical thirds pairing defenseman. Good defensively, but not so offensively or on special teams. He is also a right shot, so he doesn’t address the team’s more pressing need on the left. Perhaps if the team wants an upgrade on the third pair on the right in addition to attempting to replace Giordano on the left, as they probably should be, they could be interested in Hakanpää.
Although his underlying numbers aren’t exactly stellar, he can provide steady defense on the third pair, and has another trait general managers love. He’s very very big. Not only is he listed at 218 pounds, he stands at an impressive 6’5″. Something tells me he and Sutter would get along well.
Tucker Poolman, a regular on the Jets blueline the past two seasons, is also hitting free agency. His play is pretty unremarkable. He struggles offensively, but is not bad in his own end. Over the last two seasons, he has been middle of the pack among Jets defensemen in terms of possession, goals share, and expected goals share.
While nothing about that jumps out at you, he is not likely to command much more than league minimum salary. At that price point, he could be a good value pickup for depth. It’s also worth mentioning he is a right shot. Rather than being a target for the more pressing need on the left side, If the Flames finally decide they want to move on from Michael Stone, or just have another option down the right side, Poolman would be a solid and inexpensive option.
As a depth guy, Poolman could be a useful add. But at 28 years old, it’s not likely he turns into much more than that. While it wouldn’t hurt to add depth on both sides of the back end, the left side is still the more pressing need.
Jake McCabe isn’t exactly flashy, but he, like most players listed, has Darryl Sutter hockey written all over him. He’s big, he’s physical, and he plays with a defense-first mentality. He won’t put a ton of points, but he can be trusted to play big minutes defensively.
Coming off a contract that paid him $2.85 million per season, McCabe is unlikely to be in for a raise after missing the majority of the 2021 season with a serious injury. He tore his ACL, MCL, and meniscus, an injury with a recovery time of six to eight months. Injuries like his can have long-lasting, if not permanent, impacts on performance.
If they don’t affect McCabe long term however, a team like the Flames that needs to bolster the left side could end up with a steal. The risk that he doesn’t recover to the same form as he once was will lower his value on the open market, but that’s not a sure thing. In the event of a full recovery, it could be a prime opportunity to sign a good player at below regular market value.
A good indicator of just how much his injury may have lowered his value is his contract projection on evolving-hockey. His most likely contract is listed at one year, and just over one million dollars. For a player with these defensive impacts (visual from Micah Blake McCurdy of hockeyviz.com), one million dollars is an absolute bargain.
One thing Ryan Suter has more than anyone else on this list is undeniable name value. He has had a long and impressive career so far, and is hitting the free agent market after a surprising buy out by the Wild. Because there are rumours he has already narrowed down his choices to one of Dallas or the New York Islanders, I won’t go into too much detail, but, as Michael Russo notes, he is still mulling so he may still explore other options.
Wherever he ends up he is sure to be a strong contributor still. Even at his age of 36, he has been a solid top-four player for the Wild. His buyout was entirely the result of salary cap constraints, and not due to poor performance. Because of this, he will be one of the more expensive contracts awarded come free agency.
For the Flames, this might make signing him very difficult. He is likely to earn a salary north of four million dollars a year, and they have limited cap space to fill several holes in the roster. If the team is serious about being in “win-now” mode, it would be a big add. If they would rather spend their money elsewhere, they need a plan to upgrade the defense with someone less expensive.
MIke Reilly is an interesting case of a player arguably undervalued by the market. His underlying numbers paint a picture of a legitimate top-four defenseman, but for some reason it’s been difficult for him to build up a reputation around the league.
This presents an opportunity for teams. Regardless of physicality, Reilly is an excellent player. He put up 27 points, all assists, over 55 games played last year. It wasn’t a matter of being carried by his Boston teammates either. He had an impressive 19 assists in 40 games with the Senators before the deadline. His offensive game is very strong.
On the other side of the puck he’s no liability either. In Boston, he led the team in expected goals share among defenseman, and in Ottawa he ranked second in the same category. He was also best among Bruins defensemen in expected goals against per 60 and fourth in the same category in Ottawa.
All signs point to Reilly being a legitimate, and undervalued, top-four defender. If the Bruins let him slip to free agency, the Flames should absolutely take a run at signing him.
Planning for next season
With the loss of Giordano, the Flames defense is without its longtime leader and most valuable player. Players like him don’t appear every day, and replacing him won’t be possible in this free agency. But to be a threat in the playoffs the team has to add something on the backend to at least try to fill that void.
Having not accomplished that through a trade, at least yet, free agency looks like the most likely option. Last year, free agency add Chris Tanev immediately stepped in and became one of the team’s top players. That may not be possible to pull off again next season, but the options on this list are the best of the available—and affordable—options.
The other option, if nothing materializes through free agency or on the trade front, is to go forward giving a bigger role to some of the young guns in the system. While this carries some risk for a team trying to compete in the playoffs, it’s still a possibility.
Whichever route the team goes, we should have a a better idea of it within the next few days as free agency opens.