Calgary Flames

How the Calgary Flames could retool on the fly this season

No matter what way you look at it, this season has been an unmitigated disaster for the Calgary Flames. Everything that could have gone wrong practically did go wrong. Place the blame at whoever’s feet you want, but this has been a highly forgettable year for the Flames.

Now take the emotions out of it. On paper, this should be a much better team than they are showing. Nearly all of the Flames’ top players are having down years this year. Jonathan Huberdeau is projected to hit 61 points on the year, a far cry from his 115 last year. Nazem Kadri is expected to hit 60 points, down from 85 last year. Jacob Markstrom‘s save percentage has cratered from a 0.922 to a measly 0.887 at this point in the season. All not great.

But these players have all shown themselves to be much better than their numbers this season have shown. If last season was a near perfect regular season for the Flames and this season is a nearly perfectly terrible season, then you have to assume some regression to the mean.

The Flames are clearly much better than they have shown, and adding in the Flames’ contract situations, they are tied to this core for the next number of years. Kadri, Huberdeau, and Weegar are all signed long-term with no-move clauses. It’s incredibly hard to see Jacob Markstrom waiving his no-movement clause. The Flames also have Rasmus Andersson and Blake Coleman tied up for the next three and four seasons respectively, and both have clauses built into their contracts.

You have to assume that this is going to be how the Flames look going forward. Barring a surprise move for Weegar or Huberdeau before their new deals this summer or a shock contract waive, the Flames have virtually no chance of moving on from this group in the near future. However, the Flames can still make moves to lengthen their window and make the most of their circumstances. Here’s how.

Accept this season for what it is

The first step to solving a problem is to accept that there is one in the first place. This season has not gone well, and while the Flames’ ownership and management may look at the Western Conference and say, “there’s a chance we can sneak in then it’s anyone’s game”, the reality of the situation is that the Flames are far more likely to finish ninth in the Western Conference than to make the playoffs. Nearly every model is giving the Flames a below 50% chance of making the playoffs this year, with the way other wild card teams have performed.

It’s not worth finishing just outside of the playoff picture for the Flames. They need to throw in the towel on the year, and try to drop substantially in order to enter the realm of being eligible to select Connor Bedard this year. Teams can only move up ten spots in the draft, so the Flames would at worst need to finish 22nd in the league if they want a shot at the future superstar.

Even if the Flames do not get Bedard, earning a top-10 draft pick in this year’s very deep draft is enormous for the team. The Flames have only made six top-10 picks since 2000, and only one developed into an elite performer—Matthew Tkachuk who is now playing his trade in Sunrise, Florida. Not great for the Flames.

If the Flames want to do this, now is the time to start scratching players who are playing through injuries, putting them on the IR and calling up younger players. Connor Zary, Jeremie Poirier, Dustin Wolf, and even Matthew Phillips should all see some NHL time this season. It will not only be good for their development to play NHL games, but will also be good to help the Flames get back to healthy for next season.

Make moves to build a younger core

The Flames are the 10th oldest team in the league right now, and much of the reason for that is having Jakob Pelletier in the lineup. Prior to adding him, they were even older, coming in third.

On top of that, much of their core is around 30 now. Huberdeau and Weegar are bout 29. Kadri is 32, and Markstrom and Backlund are both 33. Here is how the team breaks down by age currently this season.

AgeTotal Players

The team is tied to their core, which leaves them with fewer options. Simply, the Flames should try to retool the middle part of their age demographic, bringing in more younger talent to widen their competitive window.

Move out expiring contracts this year and next year

As much as it would hurt, this means considering selling high on players like Mikael Backlund, Elias Lindholm, Tyler Toffoli, Chris Tanev, Nikita Zadorov, and Noah Hanifin. All are players whose contracts expire at the end of next season. The Flames I’m sure would love to keep many if not all of these players, but the reality is that the cap is going to make it very hard to do so.

The most attractive names on that list are Toffoli, Hanifin, and Lindholm, who could all fetch a ton of picks, prospects, or even players right now. The priority for the Flames should be either high picks in this year’s draft to try and select a player who needs maybe a year to develop before being NHL-ready, near NHL-ready prospects, or similar roster players who are younger. Even if it means incentivizing teams with late picks to make moves they would otherwise not make, the Flames need to do what they can to widen their window.

The Flames do have Brett Ritchie, Milan Lucic, Trevor Lewis, and Michael Stone as free agents this summer, and while they can move any of the four out (except for Lucic unless he waives his no-movement clause), the returns will likely be much smaller than a player with term up at the end of next season.

Push to remain competitive for longer

In either case, pushing to get younger is going to be the key for the Flames this season and even over the off-season. The team is struggling to put together an on-ice performance that people want to watch, driving down attendance at games and revenue as a result. This is probably the biggest issue facing the organization.

NHL owners know that making the playoffs is the key to increasing revenue, and if the Flames continue to fall into the trap of being mediocre, being right outside of the playoff picture, with an aging core and long contracts with clauses that are hard to move, they are going to be in a financial pickle for the better part of the decade. That’s an awfully bleak prospect to sell to an ownership group who are also looking to build a new arena in this city in the near future.

The better option for this team is to tell the ownership to let this season go. Fold the tent, drive engagement through bringing up their best prospects, and making moves to build for next season. Then to make a real push next season with a new group of depth players to compliment their current core of players, who will have a full season under their belt in Calgary.

The Flames can make this pitch far easier by presenting the alternative scenario. Having made lemonade this summer, ownership should understand that this was going to be a tough season to win this year, and having understood the issue, building to make the playoffs for the next half-decade is a far better proposal than continued mediocrity. The Flames should opt to retool now rather than waiting and seeing how this season goes.

Planning for what’s next

The Flames went from being shellshocked by the departures of major players last offseason to immediately retooling to contend. That strategy should have worked as most analysts and models had the Flames as legitimate Cup contenders heading into the season. What happened on the ice over the first three quarters of the season has been unfathomable by all accounts.

However, they’ve shown that when facing adversity with the roster, the team will push through and find a way. With a major rebuild being off the table, they will have to work with the hand they’ve been dealt and at this point in the season, it’ll require a long-term outlook. Let’s see what this team does both immediately and into the future.

Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire

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