This was supposed to be the year. The Calgary Flames were supposed to have done what the Toronto Raptors did on route to winning the NBA Championship in 2019, trading away DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard, and it was supposed to work out for the team. Instead the team of Jonathan Huberdeau, Nazem Kadri, Vezina Trophy finalist Jacob Markstrom and co. look like a team destined to hit the golf course in April as opposed to a long run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Calgary’s struggles project to last a while
And it would be fine to say “yes this is just one season.” Blame it on chemistry, regression, a curse, or whatever it takes to justify this premise and hope for better next year—but even that is hard. The future of this team does not look any brighter, with the Flames destined to only get worse as their core ages and big contracts start to cement them into the bottom of the standings. A lot of things are really not looking great for this team, and it’s hard to see it getting better.
Flames GM Brad Treliving looked to have pulled a rabbit out of a hat this summer, when he turned Matthew Tkachuk into Jonathan Huberdeau, MacKenzie Weegar, Cole Schwindt and a first-round pick. Then adding Kadri by trading away Sean Monahan and adding a few additional complementary pieces to try and round out the team.
On paper, this was looking to be one of the better teams that had been assembled, and Treliving was looking like the GM of the Year, simply from the summer work alone.
But when the rubber hit the road, the team simply didn’t. This season has been abysmal by all accounts, with the team sitting outside of a wildcard spot with 61 points in 55 games played. But perhaps more importantly, their performances on the ice have just been awful. The team looks lifeless. The fire that lit the team last year is simply gone, and there is nothing that is driving them.
It would be easy to say that this team should try to make a move or two to add so that they can fight their way into a playoff spot, but the way that the team is currently built, it’s really hard to do so. The Flames have committed $82.19 million dollars to 18 skaters next year, and with the cap expected to only rise by a million dollars next year to $84.5 million, it’s going to be really hard to add anyone with term.
All contract information from CapFriendly.com.
Money that’s hard to move
The team cannot even get rid of players by trade. Of their 23 skaters, eight currently have some form of trade protection, be it a no-trade clause, modified no-trade clause, or no-movement clause. That number jumps up to 10 after this season with Andrew Mangiapane and Weegar’s trade protection kicking in. Huberdeau’s changed from a modified no-trade to a full no-movement after this year as well, and given the way his deal is structured, it’s going to be very hard to get out of even if he does elect to leave.
The players that the team would want to move are locked in for a long time. Markstrom has three more years after this one with a full NMC, Huberdeau is locked in for eight more after this one, Blake Coleman has had a very good season this year, but that $4.9 million dollar deal is going to start to look heavy in a couple of seasons, and ditto that for MacKenzie Weegar, who has eight more seasons after this one.
The long and the short of it is this: the Flames are tied to this core. It’s going to cost them a pretty penny to move any of these contracts now, and as their players continue to age, and barring a Mark Giordano-esque resurgence in their mid-30s, the cost is only going to get higher. Even if you don’t think that sunk cost fallacy is a real issue in this organization (which it absolutely is), this is not going to be pretty down the line.
The Flames will be getting older than they already are
On top of that, aging is perhaps the biggest problem the team faces going forward. Right now their core is very much in win-now mode. The Flames were the fifth oldest average team going into opening night, with an average age of 28.5, and while this has changed with Adam Ruzicka and Jakob Pelletier on the roster, the core pieces of this team are all around 30.
Kadri is 32, Huberdeau is 29, Mikael Backlund is 33, Coleman is 31, Lindholm is 28, Tyler Toffoli is 30, Chris Tanev and Markstrom are both 33, and Weegar is 29. There is also the younger group of Noah Hanifin, Rasmus Andersson, and Mangiapane who are all 26, but only Andersson has a contract for more than the next three seasons.
This team is getting older and those ages are going to all catch up really quickly to this team. For a core that already looks slow on the ice, this team is only going to get slower. Their ability to be competitive the way that this team and this team’s fans aspire for is going to get worse. That is going to be a major issue.
A weakened prospect pool
I wish I could tell you that the future looks exceptionally bright for this team, but having not had a top-10 pick since Tkachuk in 2016 and Bennett in 2014, there is not a ton of high-end talent in the prospect pool.
The good news has been the play of AHL all-star and goalie of the year recipient Dustin Wolf, who is looking more and more like an NHL netminder. Taken with the third-last pick in 2019, Wolf is the team’s best prospect by some distance and will be a key part of this team’s future for a long time if all goes well.
Then there are a number of potential NHLers, but probably more question marks than definitive answers. Pelletier looks like a heck of a player in Calgary and has a ton to offer this team. Coronato is still unsigned, and with a number of Harvard players electing for free agency, there is no guarantee that he signs with this team.
Zary has been good, but not exceptional in the AHL. The team has no interest in playing Matthew Phillips for height-related reasons, and Jeremie Poirier looks like a very good offensive defenceman with a ton of defensive work to do before he sees a flaming C on his chest.
All of these prospects look good, but aside from Pelletier, the question marks still loom large. If the Flames add to their roster, expect them to use a pick or two to do so, and if they want to make a big splash with the projected $4 million and change that they should have at the NHL Trade Deadline, that pick may be a high one.
The team made just three selections last year, and none of the three particularly jump off the page at this point. Their best prospects are now in the AHL, and the runway for them is getting smaller. Their non-AHL prospects are generally fine, with only a couple really showing promise at this point.
If you are looking to the farm team for the future of this team, beyond Wolf the depth quite simply isn’t there right now. Scott Wheeler has ranked the Flames’ prospect pool at 20th in the league right now, which is really not a welcome sign for a team that looks as rough as they do right now.
A look at the revenue
I know as fans it’s hard to get behind the revenue side of the game, but at the end of the day, the owners and management of this team are trying to sell a product to us and it simply isn’t there right now. This team has been dull to watch, and the experience that you spend your hard earned money on has simply not been worth the cost or the time. If this team continues to perform this way, the revenue that the team was banking on earning in the playoffs is just going to dissipate. That’s really bad news for an organization that lost a ton of money through the pandemic and will be needing to build a new stadium at some point soon.
If this team is built to be mediocre perpetually, the ability to attract fans to games is going to go down and lead to lower revenues and continue to hurt for a long time. What this does for the future of the organization long-term is probably not much, but in the short-term, this is going to be a huge impediment for the organization that it will need to solve, and solve quickly.
What the Flames need to do about it
The Flames simply needs to figure it out internally. They cannot really bring in a meaningful player at this point without spending a ton of assets, and cannot afford to keep new players beyond this season, especially the ones that they would have wanted to add in the first place.
It’s hard to think that the Flames will mortgage their future to pay for their present when the future is already not great to begin with. Moving picks in this year’s draft—which already looks to be one of the deepest in recent memory—is a not great idea, and unless you think that somehow miraculously, this team turns it around to win the cup this season, it’s very difficult to justify.
It’s easy to say fire the coach or fire the GM and bring in someone new, but this team has gone through five coaches since Treliving took over in 2014. Most GMs don’t get that many chances to try and turn a team around. Even if you think Sutter isn’t right for the team, he’s on contract for the next two seasons, and trying to convince an ownership group to pay the one coach that has come closest to bringing the cup back to Calgary for two years is a very tough sell.
Even if the Flames don’t offer Treliving a contract renewal, the next GM is going to have the same problems on his hands, plus will have to work with a former GM who has been around a long time and knows the ownership group and management better than he would. Their ability to do what they needs to do will be compromised right from the start, and will cause all sorts of issues going forward.
The Flames are broadly stuck with the pieces that they have right now, for better or for worse. They simply are going to need to figure it out. If they cannot this season, things are only going to get worse.
Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire