This has been a rollercoaster of a summer for the Flames. Between the lows of losing Johnny Gaudreau to the highs of acquiring Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar from the Florida Panthers for Matthew Tkachuk, there has been no shortage of news surrounding this team. Needless to say, the way this team looks next season is going to be vastly different from last year.
While the team is clearly not ready to start 2022–23 quite yet, with contract negotiations and more adds still to be done, this team is starting to look very good. Between an embarrassment of riches on the blueline, Vezina trophy finalist Jacob Markstrom in net, Selke Trophy finalist Elias Lindholm centring the top line alongside Huberdeau, not to mention a ton of depth in the forward group, this looks to be a very good team next year. The one glaring hole is the team’s right wing depth.
Who’s on the right right now?
As things stand now, here are what we project the Flames’ forward lines to look like with the current roster:
Huberdeau – Lindholm – Toffoli
Mangiapane – Backlund – Coleman
Pelletier/Phillips – Monahan – Dube
Lucic – Rooney/Ruzicka – Lewis
Looking at this grouping, the Flames have the greatest depth at centre, with Lindholm and Backlund centring your top two groups. Then there’s Sean Monahan who is a complete wild card. If he can come back to being somewhat healthy, he could be a difference-maker for the team, but the worst-case scenario if he plays is being an alright bottom-six centre. If he cannot play, the team has additional cap space to use by burying him on LTIR.
Finally, you have Adam Ruzicka or Kevin Rooney or even Trevor Lewis if need be to centre the bottom line. The best guy earns the spot and will almost certainly be fine in this depth role. Low impact, low risk role.
Then there’s the left side, where the Flames have bonafide superstar Huberdeau centring the top line. An almost point-for-point replacement for Gaudreau (Huberdeau scoring more on the power play while Gaudreau at 5v5), this should be a very good fit on the team’s top line left side role.
Add in Andrew Mangiapane, who will hopefully sign a long-term deal with the team, and you have two very strong options in the top-six.
From there you have a question mark for the Flames to fill. The hope is one of Jakob Pelletier or Matthew Phillips earns that spot, but it is far more likely the Flames acquire someone to slot in there. Finally, Milan Lucic slots in as the team’s fourth line left winger.
On the right, this is where the questions emerge. Let’s work backwards this time from bottom to top. It’s most likely that Lewis slots in on the bottom line right wing spot, but that role could very easily be taken by Walker Duehr or another Flames’ farmhand.
Third line is almost certainly going to be Dillon Dube‘s at this rate. The Flames need him to take another step forward this season, but he showed he has a good amount of potential to do so. He and Monahan worked well together for stretches of last season, and will likely start the year together.
Then there are two right wingers left to slot in. Blake Coleman likely becomes your second line right winger, as he formed a very effective partnership with Backlund and Mangiapane on the team’s shutdown group. He added a strong two-way presence to the team, but was very unlucky to have not had more pucks go into the net. Hopefully that changes this season.
This then leaves by exception Tyler Toffoli to be the team’s top line right winger. With due respect to the former Ottawa 67’s forward, he likely is not the best fit on this line. Toffoli’s career high in points is 58 from 2015–16, and this was the only time he hit the 30-goal plateau, popping 31 in that year.
In his time with the Flames last season, he showed flashes of being very good, but finished with 23 points in 37 games. If you slot Huberdeau in as the Gaudreau replacement, Lindholm stays, then try to put Toffoli in for Tkachuk, the production quite simply does not match.
How do the Flames fix this problem?
Leave things as they are
The Flames do have a few options that they can explore. Simplest of all is to say maybe Toffoli is the guy and gamble on a huge year with him alongside Huberdeau and Lindholm. Maybe playing alongside two elite players is what he needs to really get going, but you know that he is almost certainly the complementary piece on that line and likely will not give the line what they need to thrive like Tkachuk did.
With signs pointing to the Flames wanting to be competitive again this year, expect them to explore other options that this through the rest of the summer.
On the free agency market, the options are starting to really grow thin. The big name still remaining at forward is Nazem Kadri, and while we have already explored what he could bring to the Flames, his age and playing style make it hard to imagine the team being comfortable offering him a long-term deal. He is also a natural centre, which does not solve the Flames’ problem.
Aside from Kadri, the free agency market has really dried up. Danton Heinen, who would have been a good add by the Flames, has re-signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins on a cut-rate deal. The other interesting name that was out but who has recently re-signed with the Seattle Kraken is Ryan Donato. Both took less than what many had expected them to get on the market this summer.
The problem is even if they were all available to the Flames, none of them are answers to the Flames’ top line. What they do add is additional depth should the Flames be hit with an injury. If one of Coleman or Toffoli goes down with an injury this season, are the Flames comfortable rolling Dube or Lewis in a top-six role? Unlikely at this point. Having an extra player on the right goes a long way to enhancing the team’s depth.
Could there be a trade to announce?
The most likely solution is the Flames look to acquire a player via trade to slot in. The problem with this is threefold. First, the players that the Flames want to try and replace an elite winger like Tkachuk are players that do not come cheap or come available at all.
Second, the Flames are going to need to move some money to another team to make this transaction work. The most obvious solutions are either Monahan on Lucic’s contracts, and while they both have some value, teams will likely want an asset in exchange for taking back one or both of these contracts on top of whoever the Flames want in return. The Flames currently have nine million dollars and change in cap room remaining, but this does not factor for the Mangiapane or Oliver Kylington contracts that both need to get done.
Finally, it is going to cost the Flames a ton to acquire a player of this calibre. That offer likely means moving one of the team’s top blueliners, as this is where they have the greatest number of assets, a top prospect or two, and likely a very high pick. The Flames have not been shy about moving draft picks, leaving themselves just three this past season, but another season with just a couple of lottery picks is likely to become an issue in a few years if the team wants or needs to rebuild.
Where do the Flames go from here?
As much as I would love to see try to acquire another big name forward to complement their top line, the price for this is almost certainly going to be astronomical. The team realized last season in the Battle of Alberta that losing Chris Tanev to injury spelled the end of their playoffs. It may make more sense in their mind to build out from the back and sacrifice some scoring prowess for being impossible to score against.
This makes me think that the Flames may opt to add more depth pieces to their forward group, players that typically play in the middle-six, and then role a top line with Toffoli as opposed to adding even more. This likely means leaving their core intact, not moving Monahan or Lucic’s contracts at this point, and adding players like Sonny Milano, as opposed to trying to hunt for a big name in a trade.
Assuming they go this route, the Flames can still evaluate their strategy down the line. If they are not getting enough scoring prowess but still want to be competitive, they can make a move through the season to acquire a player from a less competitive team, like they did Toffoli last season. They will also be able to use any cap space that they accrue over the season from players on LTIR, buried in the minors, or elsewhere to make the math work.
No matter what way you look at it, the Flames still have a bunch of work to do this summer, but they cannot afford to let their right wing depth remain as weak and shallow as it is to start the year.