When the NHL Trade Deadline passes on Friday afternoon, pundits across the league will be applauding some general managers, berating others, and scratching their heads at others still. Overpayments, underpayments, good decisions, bad decisions, win-wins, and everything in between will be discussed across the continent, with some GMs making moves that greatly benefit their teams and others making moves that seem to take their franchise backwards.
As with every year, some GMs have it easier than others. Teams that are in the midst of a rebuild and make moves to continue that process are lauded for their ability to stick with their process. Other GMs who make shrewd moves to help their franchises push for long playoff runs will be lauded as well for their work.
But other GMs have it much tougher, with the direction of their franchise seemingly up in the air. Perhaps no GM has it harder than Brad Treliving in Calgary, who finds himself in a particularly tough position.
How did Treliving get here?
Treliving came into this season heralded as the GM of the summer, after turning Matthew Tkachuk, Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan into Jonathan Huberdeau, Nazem Kadri, MacKenzie Weegar, prospect Cole Schwindt, and a first-round pick. Aside from signing Kevin Rooney to a baffling two-year deal, this was very much the Summer of Brad in Calgary.
The only question that the Flames seemingly didn’t answer in the offseason was scoring from the wings, but attempted to do so by bringing Sonny Milano in on a PTO. This proved highly unsuccessful in the preseason, with the former Anaheim Duck showing very little in his audition with the Flames. This should have been a small problem for the Flames to fix from within and one where they should have had more than enough depth at centre to paper over this issue.
Sixty-one games into the season and things look far bleaker. The team cannot put the puck in the net, keep it out of their own, or string wins together. They sit outside of a playoff spot and most models seem to suggest that they have a below 50% chance of making the playoffs. If everything stays equal between now and the end of the season, they’ll finish ninth in the Western Conference and 17th in the league. This puts them outside of the playoffs but also outside of the Connor Bedard sweepstakes, with teams only able to move up ten spots in the draft this year. In other words, this will be a truly mediocre season.
What on earth should the Flames do?
The problem for Treliving is that the team on paper and the team on the ice are vastly different. Going into this season, Huberdeau was a consensus top-20 player in the league. He had just come off a year in which he put up 115 points, was a leader on the ice on a very good Florida Panthers side, was a third overall pick in 2011, and had consistently been described as one of the best playmakers in the game.
Kadri was an elite centre and point-producer on the Colorado Avalanche. He was coming off a year in which he was a key part of the Stanley Cup-winning side, and was expected to be a leader on and off the ice in Calgary.
Jacob Markstrom was a Vezina Trophy finalist last season and nobody expected his numbers to crater as badly as they have this season. He was expected to backstop this team to the playoffs again, holding down the net for at least 50 games this year.
The Flames should be much better than they have shown, and in fairness to them, they have had moments of being simply brilliant. Their 6–3 drubbing of the Arizona Coyotes and dominant 7–2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres come to mind in particular. They showed their scoring prowess in both games, simply outworking and outplaying their opponents all game long.
But for every big win like that, there are the games where they simply haven’t shown up. The Buffalo win was bookended by a 2–1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings—in which they managed a lot of shots but very few high-danger chances, and a 4-3 overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators—in which they blew a two-goal lead.
The Arizona win was surrounded by a 4–3 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers—in which they battled back from a two-goal deficit but couldn’t find a way to win, and a 4–3 overtime loss to the Vegas Golden Knights—in which they again blew a two-goal lead. This simply is not good enough.
But then you see games like the Boston Bruins game earlier this week, in which the Flames outplayed their opponent, put up over 50 shots on net, and somehow still managed to lose in overtime. If you were Brad Treliving looking at your team knowing that they were capable of putting that much pressure on such a good team right in the middle of trade deadline madness, it would be hard to justify making a move.
The Flames’ contract conundrums
The other problem is the Flames’ contracts right now. They only have a handful of depth players up at the end of the season, so selling on a rental player is broadly a low-risk low-reward scenario. You may be able to recoup an asset or two for Trevor Lewis or Milan Lucic (should he waive his no-movement clause), but broadly they do not have a player who commands much in the way of value right now.
Then there are the 2024 expiring contracts. Tyler Toffoli, Mikael Backlund, Elias Lindholm, Chris Tanev, Noah Hanifin, and Nikita Zadorov are all up at the end of next year and will be looking for new deals or new homes. The Flames can definitely move one or more of them, but will the return make the team better to help their core group of players that they are tied to compete? Unless they are getting roster players or near NHL-ready prospects back, it seems very unlikely. Contending teams are more likely to give up futures than players, and this only exasperates the problem.
The Flames are going to be contractually tied to Kadri, Huberdeau, and Weegar until the end of the 2028–29 season for Kadri and 2030–31 for the other two. That’s a very long time to be with players that are struggling. And while there are ways out of those deals, they are expensive and hard to execute at least for the first half of those contracts. Whatever Treliving does needs to help build around this core.
Can the Flames fire the coach?
Maybe the issue is coaching, but it’s hard to imagine the Flames moving on from Darryl Sutter. He was clearly hired by those higher up in the organization than Treliving, and he also has the ear of the team’s ownership, given his long history with the organization. On top of that, he’s on a contract for the next two years, and asking the team’s ownership to pay for a Stanley Cup-winning coach to not coach their team is a very tall order.
Even if none of that were true, Treliving has had five coaches try to guide this team under his tenure, and going through coaches that quickly sets a precedent that the minute the players stop liking the coach, they can choose not to perform and the team will just change him out. That’s the wrong message to send to a group of players and doesn’t help the team at all.
What can Treliving do?
Treliving is stuck in the Kobayashi Maru, a scenario from Star Trek, an unwinnable training scenario that cadets at Starfleet Academy are put through. And unlike Captain Kirk’s famous win over it, Treliving is unable to cheat to get out of this one.
It seems as though whatever the Flames do will not benefit the organization in the short-term. Much of the fanbase is pushing for the team to sell on their assets, given the crazy prices being commanded right now. Assuming the market continues to be hot as the deadline approaches, the Flames may be able to walk away with a few pieces that can help them in the long-run.
The problem will be bridging the age gap between the 30- or near-30-year old core and the likely young pieces coming back in a trade. The Flames will be lucky to get a few picks and prospects back by moving one of their veterans, but will need to really retool the mid to late 20-year-old part of their roster if they want to remain competitive for the foreseeable future.
Perhaps harder than that will be convincing the team’s ownership to give up on this season. Looking at the Saddledome on any given night, it’s clear that attendance is way down, which means less money in the pockets of the team’s owners. If the Flames are going to make a move that helps them in the long-run, they need to be okay with the ownership group spending money and also taking a major financial hit this season. Assuming the Flames fully embrace the tank this season to grow into next, attendance is only going to plummet further.
Without a contract at the end of the season, Treliving is going to find it hard to conduct his business at the deadline. He likely already knows if he will be staying with the team or looking for new opportunities when the season is done, and if the latter is true, he will have a lot more scrutiny on his decisions, if he is allowed to act independently at all.
The Flames are the only team that has not made a move this season, and standing pat at the deadline is simply not an option for this team. They are in a very small window to win, are up tight against the cap for next season already, and look like a team without a rudder at this point. It’s very hard to envy Brad Treliving’s position right now, but they will need him to act if they want to help guide the direction of this franchise for this season and beyond.
Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire