Each year, the NHL divides itself ahead of the trade deadline. The split is never officially announced, but it is always clear on deadline day. Some teams become buyers—looking to bolster their roster for the playoffs—while others sell—looking to instead improve their shot at a high-end draft pick.
For years, the Flames have been somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between buyers and sellers, often making small moves to improve the team throughout the year, but rarely making a splash as a team that goes all-in either way. Apparently pleased to remain mediocre indefinitely, the Flames have failed to complete deals for an array of stars over the years.
With the team in the best position to make an impact in the playoffs since the 2018–19 season, let’s learn from the mistakes of the past. In that season, the Flames were reportedly unwilling to trade the team’s high-end prospect Juuso Valimaki to seal a deal for Mark Stone with the Ottawa Senators. Ultimately, they lost in the first round to the Colorado Avalanche after finishing first place in the Western Conference.
This year, with the Flames sitting in sixth in the West by points percentage, it’s important to recognize that just like 2019, success isn’t guaranteed and the roster isn’t perfect. Buying at the deadline is a must, but not the small additions like those from years past. It’s time to push all the chips in.
Even strength score-and-venue-adjusted data from Evolving-Hockey.com shows that the results we’re seeing aren’t just the result of lucky shooting or the excellence of Jacob Markstrom. Their possession and chance creation numbers are the best in the division, even if their points percentage is only second best.
This is good news for Calgary as it gives them confidence in being buyers. But it’s not just the lessons from 2019’s playoff failure, or even the team’s strong underlying numbers this year, that make it certain that it’s the right year to go all-in. A number of factors have aligned to make this the perfect season for the Flames to try for a deep run.
Kylington presents an opportunity
One of the most talked about stories of the Flames’ season so far has been Oliver Kylington. Once a highly touted prospect, his career path had been underwhelming coming into the season. There was even talk that his time with the Flames might be done altogether after the 2021 season.
Instead, Kylington has been excellent in the Flames top-four, playing alongside Chris Tanev against the NHL’s best each night. The emergence of an unexpected high calibre defenceman has been one of the keys to the Flames’ success, and must be taken advantage of.
The player card above from Evolving-Hockey shows just how effective Kylington has been. Touted for his offence and skating as a prospect, he has developed into an extremely effective player defensively as well.
At a league-minimum cap hit of $750K, Kylington is playing like a multi-million dollar player. Rarely does a team successfully fill such an important defensive role with such an inexpensive player, and the cap savings it entails are vital to success in the salary cap era.
While the Flames are near the salary cap regardless, so is every competitive team. The flexibility provided by Kylington’s contract will make it easier to add to the roster for the Flames than for many others looking to upgrade before the deadline.
It may be just a small competitive advantage, but those advantages don’t come along all the time, and should be capitalized on. It’s not every year a team gets a surprise, league-minimum salary, top-four caliber defenseman to boost its chances. And this will definitely be the last time Kylington is paid so little in his career.
Expiring deals, expiring opportunity?
Unfortunately, Kylington’s only on that sweetheart deal till the end end of the season. Similarly, superstar Johnny Gaudreau is in line for an extension, as well as captain candidate Matthew Tkachuk. So too is Andrew Mangiapane, who is currently tied for the team lead with 18 goals.
Most of this isn’t news if you’ve been following the Flames, as these storylines naturally surround the team. But in the context of whether or not the team should go for it this year, these expiring deals add an interesting element.
In an ideal world, all of these fan-favourites stay with the team. It’s even possible to keep them all under the salary cap moving forward, but no one can’t predict the future, and resigning players is not an exact science. This could be a turning point offseason for the Flames, which means this could be one of the last runs with this current core group.
What better reason is needed to make it an all-in season than that? Brad Treliving has led the team for eight years with limited success. That team has largely been based around Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk. With the core he assembled poised to finally be successful, there’s no better time for Treliving to finally go all-in improving the roster.
Key pieces are aging
Even taking out the harsh realities of the salary cap and the team’s expiring contracts, the age of some of the team’s key pieces is concerning. Three of the team’s key pieces are Chris Tanev (32), Jacob Markstrom (32 on January 31st) and Mikael Backlund (32).
Although Markstrom and Tanev show no signs of slowing down, once players reach their mid-thirties, it’s inevitable they begin to lose a step. Tanev is the team’s most reliable shutdown defenceman and key to the penalty kill. Markstrom is an elite goalie capable of stealing games.
When those two players can no longer cut it, the Flames will be in a dire situation, with their contracts running well into the 2020s. In Backlund’s case, his output is already decreasing, pointing to the beginning of his decline. Better to take advantage this season, while they are still performing at their best.
But perhaps even more importantly than the players aging on the ice, there’s also head coach Darryl Sutter. The team is clearly energized by the leadership of their coach. Sutter returned to Calgary with the sole goal of winning the cup, and with four key players likely taking raises before the final year on the contract he signed when taking over, this is the year to do it.
Sutter will be nearly 65 at the end of his current contract and could be looking to retire. One thing that has become clear since he took over for Geoff Ward is just how much of an impact a coach can have on a roster. There’s no telling if Sutter’s replacement, when that time comes, will be able to get as much out of this group.
The message sent by hiring Sutter was simple: “the Flames are in win-now mode.” Part of that message came from this reality that Sutter might only be able to lead for a few seasons. It’s time for Flames’ management to remember their own message, and make this an all-in season.
Every signal points to going for it this season. Contracts expiring, players aging, and the gift that is Oliver Kylington‘s emergence. Management must read these signals, and bolster the roster for a deep run this year.