It’s generally accepted at this point that the Calgary Flames are quite likely to trade a defencemen before the next season begins. With far too many players under contract, it’s just a matter of time. The question that remains is which one?
Should the Flames make a trade?
With an abundance of NHL-calibre defencemen and a hole left behind up front by the departures of Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk, it makes sense that there may be a forward-for-defenseman swap in the team’s future.
Even if management is content with their forward group after acquiring and signing Jonathan Huberdeau long-term, there are now simply too many defencemen for too few roster spots. The team will almost certainly have to move a player out.
The easy thing to do would be to flip someone towards the bottom of the defensive depth chart, a simple move to ensure everyone has enough minutes to be happy. But given the nature of this offseason, it feels like something more major is appropriate. It feels like it’s time to make a hard decision, rather than take the easy option.
The Flames have a top-tier top-four
The 2021–22 Flames already had one of the best top-four defensive groups in the league. Now with the addition of MacKenzie Weegar, that top-four is now even better. With reports out that Weegar is already in extension talks with the Flames, it’s clear not everyone can stay.
While the loss of Gaudreau can be considered more or less offset by the addition of Huberdeau, there is still the rather significant issue of replacing Tkachuk.
I don’t doubt for a second that recently-extended Andrew Mangiapane could slot into the top line role, but the implications down the depth chart are significant. When Mangiapane is on the second line, he is one of the league’s best in that role. A championship team needs to have top-end talent and depth, and sliding Mangiapane up would likely give the team another strong first line, but would create another gap in the roster down a line.
All of this points to a situation in which the Flames’ are best served by trading a high-end defenceman in exchange for a high-end forward. And despite his amazing growth over the last few seasons—or perhaps because of that growth—Noah Hanifin is the best trade candidate.
Defensive depth is crowded on the left side
The defensive depth chart, as it stands now, looks like this-including only players likely to play in the NHL next season. Obviously, the left side has a whole lot more depth than the right.
|MacKenzie Weegar||Rasmus Andersson|
|Noah Hanifin||Chris Tanev|
|Nikita Zadorov||Nicolas Meloche|
|Juuso Valimaki||Michael Stone*|
*Although not under contract, there is always the possibility that Michael Stone returns to the team as well, given the past few offseasons.
It’s also worth pointing out that Zadorov, Weegar, and Kylington all have experience playing their off-side, but its likely the team prefers to have left-shot/right-shot pairings.
So why Hanifin? The truth is, Weegar has made Hanifin’s role all but redundant. Hanifin was relied on in all three zones, and at every game state in 2021–22. His value to the team was tremendous, especially considering his team-friendly cap hit of $4.95M. But so was Weegar in Florida, and his impact is even greater than Hanifin’s.
Based on Evolving-hockey’s GAR player cards, Weegar has been among the league’s best over the past three seasons. Hanifin has also emerged as an excellent player—but not to the same extent as Weegar.
Not only that, the younger and much less expensive Oliver Kylington proved himself a worthy partner to Chris Tanev on the second pair. Championship teams need at least a few team-friendly contracts, and a top-four defenceman at under three million dollars definitely fits that description.
If (or when) Weegar is extended—and it certainly feels inevitable following the Huberdeau extension—suddenly Hanifin is on a relatively short deal, and three years younger—a near perfect trade chip.
While it’s always a good idea to try to draft and develop your own young talent, recent history has made it clear there’s no guarantee homegrown talent cares to stick around. Hanifin’s next deal is likely to see him receive a substantial raise, and he will be an unrestricted free agent during those negotiations.
On the other hand, Weegar will be paid well above Hanifin’s salary, but the term should be much longer, keeping the cost steady and the player under team control.
But there’s another piece to this puzzle. Why not simply keep both, and trade a less valuable defenceman, and keep the defence corps elite for next year? The answer lies in the expected return in a trade.
Hanifin’s market value is sky-high
Compared to his peers on the Flames’ backend, Hanifin carries an enormous amount of value on the open market. A first-round draft pick who is somehow both an experienced veteran of 517 games, and just 25 years old, he is the exact type of player GMs are willing to pay a small fortune for. On top of that, he has two more seasons on his current sub-five million dollar deal.
All of these factors suggest his value right now is as high as it will ever be. If the Flames want to ensure a fair haul in return for a player they’ve invested years into developing, they would be wise to not wait until their hand is forced by pending free agency, or his value is lowered by a looming extension.
The simple fact is that Hanifin is the only player on the Flames’ backend worthy of returning a top line forward in a trade. Dangling Hanifin as bait draws in substantially bigger fish than Kylington, Weegar (if for some reason he does not sign an extension), or Zadorov. Andersson may have similar trade value on the open market, but the team is much less capable of replacing him on the right side and he’s easily an untouchable.
Again, given the massive hole left by Tkachuk, it makes sense to aim as big as possible with a trade.
Weegar’s extension should seal Hanifin’s fate
Assuming the team and Weegar can agree to terms on a reasonable deal, Hanifin should be first out the door. Not because of any issue with his game, but because, as we have seen too well from the losses of Tkachuk and Gaudreau, this is both a game and a business. It’s not because of anything Hanifin has done wrong that he should be traded, it’s simply an unfortunate consequence of the business side of the game.
To win, you need to maximize your assets. That’s what the team did in a difficult position with Tkachuk. They acquired the most value back they could, despite the fact they weren’t really in need of a top pair defenceman. Now, they have two guys to fill the top left defenseman role, meaning it’s once again time to maximize the return they can get for their asset.
Another way to look at this: if the Flames flip Hanifin (and perhaps some draft picks or prospects) for a top line forward, regardless of Weegar’s extension, they could be an even better team next year than they were last. No other defenceman on the team can be traded for the same result.
Business still needs to be taken care of with Weegar, but once it’s done, let’s hope Treliving hasn’t made his last big swing of the summer.
Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire