As the 2021 NHL free agency frenzy opens, expect Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving to be a very busy man. Last year, he spent day one signing a starting goaltender in Jacob Markstrom, a top-four defenceman in Chris Tanev, and an AHL defenceman in Alex Petrovic. This year, the Flames have a series of new issues that need to be addressed in free agency. Aside from having to sign a number of qualified RFAs to new contracts and hopefully signing some players to long-term deals, here is how the Flames roster looks right now:
|Left Wing||Centre||Right Wing|
|1||Johnny Gaudreau||Elias Lindholm||Matthew Tkachuk|
|2||Andrew Mangiapane||Sean Monahan|
|3||Dillon Dube (RFA)||Mikael Backlund|
|4||Milan Lucic||Glenn Gawdin (RFA)||Tyler Pitlick|
|Extra||Byron Froese||Brett Ritchie|
|Left Defence||Right Defence|
|2||Noah Hanifin||Christopher Tanev|
|3||Connor Mackey (RFA)||Juuso Valimaki (RFA)|
|Extra||Oliver Kylington (RFA)|
JULY 28 UPDATES:
The Flames have traded with the Chicago Blackhawks for Nikita Zadorov for a third-round pick (originally Toronto’s, acquired from the David Rittich trade).
The Flames haves signed UFA Blake Coleman to a six-year, $29.4 M deal.
Additional updates can be found in TWC’s Calgary Flames 2021 offseason tracker.
This leaves a number of key holes to fill for the Flames. Let’s break it down in order of importance.
Middle-six or top-six right shot wingers
This point is like beating a dead horse, but it has been eight seasons since Monahan broke into the NHL, and the Flames have yet to find a consistent right wing option for him and Gaudreau. However, with the Flames trying a new line combination of Gaudreau with Lindholm and Tkachuk, there may not be a need for a top line right winger, but rather for a second line winger.
We broke down earlier this week a number of right wing options that the Flames could explore including Joshua Ho-Sang, Blake Coleman, and Brandon Saad, but the long and the short of it is the free agency market for right-handed wingers to play in the top-six is limited. The players we discussed also are all going to be highly coveted, simply because of the limited market available. This is not good for GM Treliving, who has had this as a thorn in his side for his entire tenure with the Flames.
There are a handful of depth right wing options available on the market, and the Flames do have Brett Ritchie signed already, but anyone that the Flames brought on would like be at best a marginal step up from what was there last year in Josh Leivo and company.
There are a number of internal options that could be explored including Matthew Phillips, but trusting a rookie with one NHL game under his belt with a full season of top-six minutes seems like a poor move for a team looking to challenge for the playoffs this season.
If the Flames are truly invested in fixing this problem, they may need to explore the trade market for a right winger. The Florida Panthers acquired Sam Reinhart for a lottery-protected first-round pick and goaltending prospect Devon Levi. If the Flames can acquire a top-six right winger for a first round pick and a bluechip prospect, this is a small price to pay for success.
Regardless of how they do it, the Flames need to put finding at least one right winger at the top of their to-do list for free agency.
One top-four defenceman
While Mark Giordano was 37 years old and was making $6.75 million dollars per season, losing him is an enormous loss both on the ice and off of it. While it is hard to quantify what he brought to the locker room and to the community, his on-ice impact of being a 20-minute-per-night defenceman who played both power play and penalty kill minutes will be hard to replace.
We recently looked at defensive options that the Flames could look at to fill this hole, but it will take more than just one player. This list included names like Alex Edler, Tucker Poolman, and Jake McCabe, all of whom are expected to be available in free agency. Poolman would be an interesting name to consider, given his brother is with the Stockton Heat currently.
While any of these names would be worth a look, this is a case where the Flames will also need at least one of, but ideally both, Andersson and Valimaki to take a step forward in their production this coming season. The former had a bit of a down year last year, looking decent but not taking the step forward that many projected he would this past season. This is not cause for concern given his age and experience, but with Giordano gone, the Flames will be looking to Andresson to handle tougher minutes against other teams’ top lines.
Valimaki is an interesting case. He spent a good chunk of the year looking okay as far as rookie defencemen go, but would regularly make one error that would lead to a major chance against. That being said, he did form a very interesting connection with Johnny Gaudreau when playing on his off-wing, which allowed him to feed the winger on a cross-seam pass in front of the net, as articulated in this excellent piece from Jack Han. Valimaki will need to keep improving his game in his sophomore season, working especially on his details defensively to earn more minutes.
A backup goaltender
Coach Sutter has a tendency for riding has starting goaltender game in and game out through the season, and while that tended to work for Miikka Kiprusoff and Jonathan Quick, the risk is that if that netminder gets injured and the team does not have a strong backup option, this could sink the entire team.
The Flames have sent a qualifying offer to Tyler Parsons and have Dustin Wolf likely joining the Stockton Heat as the tandem there. However, neither is likely ready for NHL duty. The Flames could opt to re-sign one of their netminders from last season—Louis Domingue, Garret Sparks, or David Rittich—or try to find one on the open market.
Of the three, Rittich is the one that makes most sense and would be a joy to have back on the team, but it is more likely that the Flames opt for a goalie on the open market. There are 24 goaltenders who played at least 10 games last season that are hitting free agency this week, and the Flames could take a run at any of them.
Some interesting names include former Flames draft pick Laurent Brossoit, who put up a 0.919 save percentage in 14 games last season, and former Arizona Coyotes goaltender Antti Raanta, who put up a 0.905 save percentage in 12 games last season. With the sheer number of netminders available, it feels like they will come in reasonably cheap relative to right wingers.
The other name being thrown around is Aaron Dell, formerly of the New Jersey Devils. The Airdrie-born goalie had a very rough season last year behind a leaky defence on the East Coast, but could be in line for a bounce-back year. At the end of the day, the Flames’ goalie department headed by former goaltender Jason LaBarbera will be able to evaluate exactly who they think would be best.
Additional depth skaters
The Flames probably need at least one or two more forwards on their roster, firstly to push Gawdin in the centre role of the fourth line and secondly to add support to mitigate against injuries. These will likely come in reasonably cheap.
As nice as it would be, it seems unlikely that the Flames will be able to get Derek Ryan back in the lineup. He was the Flames’ best bottom-six forward last season, and likely is in line for a higher contract than the Flames may be willing to pay. If the Flames are able to retain his services, that would be a huge help both on the ice but also to help their dressing room culture.
On the back end, the Flames likely need a defenceman that they trust. As much as Kylington was lauded in his draft year, he has yet to prove himself at the NHL level. The Flames have a strong relationship with Michael Stone, and after the season he had this past year, he may be the piece the Flames bring back in a seventh defenceman role.
Finally, the Flames need to add some depth to their roster in Stockton. While they do have Connor Zary and Jakob Pelletier coming into the team (at least to start), they likely want some veteran skaters around them to help them develop into long-term NHLers in a year or two. This can be done reasonably cheaply at the AHL level, but it is just one more thing on GM Brad Treliving’s summer shopping list.
The Flames approach to free agency
At the end of the day, the Flames have a lot to do in free agency. GM Treliving typically does his best work at the NHL Draft, but struggles to sign free agents on the first day of free agency.
The next few months prior to opening night in 2021–22 are pivotal for the Flames. They’ll be reentering the Pacific Division with expectations of competing, and that starts with a strong set of moves made between now and the first puck drop. Here is hoping he performs well today and beyond in the 2021 offseason.