The Calgary Flames are all looking towards the offseason as the first day of the 2023 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. Despite a fast start, the team simply couldn’t hold it together, as they surrendered leads, were unable to score goals reliably, and were unable to get saves. It was to be expected that with all the changes that this team went through this summer that it would take time for the pieces to gel, but it essentially took 60 games before things started to really click, and by then it was simply too late for them to make up the ground that they needed to earn a spot in the playoffs.
The Flames have been through a lot in the past 12 months, and general manager Brad Treliving has been right in the middle of all of it. Now in the last year of his current deal, the Flames’ long-time GM is without a contract as of July 1, and will be looking for either a renewal or a new job. Should he stay or should he go? Let’s take a look at both sides.
The case to retain Treliving
The case for Treliving comes down broadly to two things. First, regardless of how you feel about him as a manager, you have to give him major kudos for the way he handled this past offseason. Despite their performances, he turned Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk into Jonathan Huberdeau, Nazem Kadri, and MacKenzie Weegar on top of adding a first-round pick. That is an enormous haul.
He has made a number of enormous moves for this franchise in his tenure beyond this one. The move to add Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin for Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland, and the rights to sign Adam Fox set this franchise up for the success it had over in the regular season last year and in 2018–19.
You absolutely have to give him credit for the way he has developed this team’s roster. This past season, player usage aside, he brought in both enormous organizational depth as well as players who should have succeeded under Coach Darryl Sutter’s system. This includes the aforementioned Kadri, but also re-signing Trevor Lewis, and adding Kevin Rooney, Brett Ritchie, and Michael Stone. Grit and size were prioritized this summer.
Depth wise, the Flames had more bodies than they knew what to do with at the start of the season, but did not utilize them enough. This includes waiving Juuso Valimaki—and subsequently losing him on waivers—not playing Adam Ruzicka or Jakob Pelletier down the final stretch of the season, sending Kevin Rooney down to the AHL, but also calling up and using Walker Duehr, Nick DeSimone and Dennis Gilbert. There were numerous bodies available this season, some of whom the Flames used well but others they simply did not—and overall it was to their detriment.
Then there is the way he has drafted. Treliving and the Flames’ scouting team have found numerous diamonds in the draft, including Dustin Wolf, Matthew Phillips, Jeremie Poirier, and Matt Coronato. All of whom look like NHLers, although Philips likely won’t be one in Calgary. This has been enormous in the way that the Flames have been able to build organizational depth up and down the organization. The team has a number of prospects in the CHL and AHL that look like they could be players for this organization.
The second part of the argument is that it’s really hard to look at the results of this team this year and blame it on Treliving. The GM builds the team out based on past results, manages the cap, then entrusts the coaching staff to get the most out of their players through both on-ice tactics as well as off-ice personnel management. The Flames did not do that well this season.
On paper, this is a playoff lineup. Coming into this season, Huberdeau and Kadri were elite performers who simply did not look the part at all this season. Huberdeau saw the largest season-over-season points drop off in league history while Kadri was there some games and simply non-existent in others. That’s a major problem for any organization.
The Flames only had a handful of players perform at or better than expected, but when you are relying on Tyler Toffoli, Dillon Dube, and Nikita Zadorov instead of Huberdeau, Kadri, and Jacob Markstrom, you are not going to have a whole lot of luck.
Sutter should shoulder the blame
Sutter’s player utilization and off-ice comments simply did not work this season. Everything from playing Huberdeau on his off-wing to throwing Nick Ritchie on the ice in a must-win shootout attempt contributed to the team not having the success that was expected.
On top of that, the Flames’ system this season was simply to pepper shots from anywhere on the ice, but with zero direction or even attempt to get chances from high-danger areas. Study after study across goal-based sports has shown the importance of getting to dangerous areas of the playing area in order to have success. Sutter’s system did not prioritize that, and night after night the team would lose despite massively outshooting their opponents.
It’s hard to look at this team’s production on the ice this season and blame it on Treliving. Even when things were not working, Treliving tried to do what he could to spark them. When the team was struggling, he called up one of the AHL’s top scorers, Phillips, to play in the NHL, but Sutter refused to give him a real look. Instead he chose to play slow older players like Lewis and Lucic, who ended the season with the worst numbers on the team.
The team had Pelletier, Coronato, and Ruzicka sitting in the press box for the final stretch of the season, instead electing to play the same aging veterans in heavy minutes night after night. Bizarre decisions on the ice were beyond Treliving’s control, and it’s hard to look at the way this season went to blame him for it.
The case against Treliving
The biggest argument against Treliving right now is his contract structuring. The Flames’ GM has not only tied this team to its core, he has bound them together with very little in the way of getting out of it. That is a massive problem for this team going forward.
Coming into this season, the Flames were at a crossroads. With the departures of Gaudreau and Tkachuk, was this the year to push the chips into the middle or rather was this a time to retool or rebuild around a new core. Treliving chose the latter, and not only that, he chose that before the season even began, signing Huberdeau and Weegar to long-term extensions before they had even played a minute for the team.
This was a decision that he did not have to make. Although the team has had a history of losing players in free agency, the Flames had three choices with their two big pending unrestricted free agenss. They could have signed them—which they did—or they could have waited to see how they performed and then made the call to sign them or to trade them closer to the deadline.
If they performed well in the early part of the season, it would not have cost the team much more to sign than they already paid. Huberdeau was coming off of a 115-point season, the first of his career, and even if he was on pace for the same number this season, it arguably would not have cost them much more to sign him. Even for Weegar, given his past few seasons, another good one would not have moved the number up much.
If either had struggled early in the season, the Flames could have locked them up for even cheaper or could have flipped them to contenders. Coming off of great years in Florida, teams would have paid an arm and a leg for either one and Treliving would have come out of the NHL Trade Deadline looking like an absolute bandit.
Instead the Flames have tied up nearly 20% of the cap for the next eight years in these two players. That is an enormous problem if Huberdeau doesn’t bounce back substantially this year. And now being over 30 years old, it’s likely that his best years are behind him and he will begin to decline in short order. That is an incredibly tough position for the Flames to be in as they look to either contend with this roster or attempt to rebuild.
Now you can look at these two contracts and say “look, he made the best of a bad situation,” but it goes deeper than that. Even before that, Treliving has had a history of signing players to deals that have not been beneficial for this franchise. Looking all the way back, the Troy Brouwer and James Neal deals were major franchise-altering decisions that the team had to fight to get out of. Then there was the Michael Frolik signing for four years that hurt the team’s ability to sign Matthew Tkachuk long-term.
Looking at the current roster, the Flames have 11 players with movement-limiting clauses in their contract (no-trade, modified no-trade, and no-movement). This has forced the Flames into pushing their chips into the middle this summer, and makes it even harder for the team to make moves this summer, either under Treliving or without him.
The Flames are the most cap-tied team going into the 2023–24 season, with $82.25 million already tied up for next season. That leaves them with just $250,000 to fill the spots left by Lucic, Lewis, Ritchie, Stone, and other depth players. That’s an issue.
Whoever is the GM next season will have a tough task on their hands. The team will need to retool this summer one way or another, and coming off of a rough season in which their best players had very down years and with the number of contracts with movement clauses, it’s going to be more difficult for the Flames to retool than before.
What’s next for Treliving?
Looking at his whole body of work, he broadly comes out somewhere middle of the pack. He had some great results in the draft, but also made some highly questionable calls over the years. Some of his trades have worked out beautifully, but his contract decisions have often been suspect. What it will come down to is how you weigh each of these categories, but he was hired to help build a winning franchise, and after this year it’s hard to say he has done that.
Whether he stays or goes, the franchise is going to need to chart a course for the next five years, and it starts with the decision of whether this team should be a contender next season. If the answer is yes, it is almost certainly around this core, as the team has been contractually built around this group of players. If not, the team is likely going to be in a tough position to move contracts in ways that are favourable to them. Buying out contracts or moving prospects and picks to shed salary is really bad asset management.
In either event, whoever is the GM of the Calgary Flames next season is going to have a number of very tough decisions to make. And if that man ends up being Treliving, it will be a result of the decisions he has already made.