With the Stanley Cup Final done and over, we’re now at the official beginning of the 2023 offseason. There’s no doubt this is the busiest time of the season around the league, with both the NHL Draft and free agency rapidly approaching.
For the Flames, free agency is bound to be much quieter than in 2022. After Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, Andrew Mangiapane, and Oliver Kylington all entered the 2022 offseason as free agents, the Flames’ 2023 free agent class pales in comparison. That said, there are still some decisions to be made that could have a big impact on how the team lines up come October.
Let’s take a look at the teams 2023 free agent class and who may be brought back, and who’s likely to test the market.
Flames forward free agents
When a 34-year-old Milan Lucic is arguably your main UFA, you’re not exactly in for a big free agency period. Lucic’s massive seven-year, $42M contract signed back in 2016 with the Edmonton Oilers has finally come to end. Needless to say it’s a welcome development for everyone involved. Lucic hasn’t been a six-million-dollar player in a very long time.
With his large cap hit behind him, could Lucic provide value to the Flames? He’s typically been one of the more divisive Flames players, with some sections of the fanbase applauding his veteran leadership and grit, and other sections frustrated that he consistently took roster spots from younger players despite his poor play.
To no fault of his own, Lucic’s usage in 2022–23 under Sutter was a disaster as he regularly found himself playing in the team’s top-six despite his poor results. Last season he posted just seven goals and 19 points in 77 games, and was regularly out-chanced when on the ice. Among regular Flames forwards his 50.08 xGF% was dead last.
He’s simply not an impactful NHL player anymore and shouldn’t be playing higher than a fourth line. Sure he still brings some valuable intangibles that NHL teams desire, but I just don’t see a spot for him on the Flames anymore in the present or future.
Given Craig Conroy has made it clear he wants to bring more youth into the Flames lineup in 2023–24, re-signing Lucic doesn’t accomplish that. It’s probably for the best that everyone moves on at this point. I’d be very surprised if Lucic is back next season.
At 36 years old, Trevor Lewis may have already played his final NHL game. However if he does decide to return in 2023–24 for his 16th NHL season, the Flames will have to decide if it’s with them or another team.
Like Lucic, Lewis has been a regular in the Flames lineup the past couple seasons. Unlike Lucic however, Lewis does still hold some on-ice value on an NHL roster. As a Flame the past two season’s, Lewis has posted some respectable defensive results and also been a regular on the teams penalty kill. He’s your typical all-defence fourth line veteran.
Lewis’ xGA/60 across the past two seasons ranks a respectable third among current Flames forwards with at least 500 minutes at 5v5. Sure he brings the other intangibles like leadership, experience, etc., but he’s still an effective NHL player in a fourth line role.
Personally I’m not against bringing back Lewis on a league-minimum deal as the 13th forward if that’s what the team decides to do. He can still hold his own defensively, can play on the penalty kill when called upon, and he’d provide the team with some depth on the fourth line in the event of an injury.
That said the best route forward may be to start completely fresh at the bottom of the lineup and let the younger guys take over as Conroy has alluded to. Given Lewis was clearly a Sutter-driven signing, I think there’s a good chance the Flames pass on re-signing him this offseason in order to reshape the roster a bit.
Acquired at the 2022 trade deadline for his brother Brett Ritchie, Nick played just 16 games with the Flames posting one goal and five points. The most notable moment of his season was the indefensible decision by Sutter to use him in the shootout with the season on the line. You can’t blame him for that, but it’s certainly left a negative memory for most fans when it comes to Ritchie.
Ritchie has had some success in his NHL career, posting 15 goals and 26 points in 56 games back in 2020–21 with the Boston Bruins, but hasn’t done much of anything since. He’s your typical big, heavy bottom-six winger. The type that Sutter loved, but Conroy likely wants to move away from.
I don’t think there’s much to elaborate on here. I’d be shocked if Ritchie is back next season. He was acquired by the old GM as a hail-mary at the deadline and favoured by the old coach. Under a new leadership group I don’t see a path forward where the team brings him back. Conroy has directly come out and said he doesn’t want to clog up training camp with veteran forwards, and Ritchie is the exact type of signing that would do that. 2023–24 could be the first season in awhile where the Flames don’t employ a single Ritchie.
Without a doubt the free agent that will be followed most closely by Flames fans is also one that played just two games with the team last season. That player is of course Matthew Phillips. We all know the story. Phillips has dominated the AHL the past two seasons but could never earn a fair chance under Sutter. If Sutter remained behind the bench Phillips was as good as gone, but with Sutter now out of the picture is there a chance Phillips returns?
Here’s what Conroy had to say about Phillips future a couple weeks ago.
One thing that’s clear is he’ll only sign for a team where he is guaranteed a roster spot in the NHL to start the year. He’s got nothing left to prove at the AHL level. If I’m the Flames I would have no issue offering Phillips a one-way deal for 2023–24 and that’s likely the route they’ll take. You really have nothing to lose, and you can finally determine if he’s an NHL player or just a really good AHL player.
Conroy was actually the person who pushed the hardest for the Flames to draft Phillips back in 2016, so having him as general manager certainly helps the Flames here. At the end of the day there’s no doubt the Flames want Phillips back, and it sounds like Conroy wants to give him a legit shot in the NHL. By not signing the likes of Lucic, Lewis and Ritchie it would give Phillips a clear message that there’s room for him now. It’s up to Phillips to decide if he wants to give the organization another chance.
It’d be a huge organizational failure if Phillips were to become an NHL player somewhere else after never being given a real shot in Calgary. The Flames can only hope that a combination of Sutter no longer being around along with Conroy calling the shots will convince Phillips to stick around. Naming his former AHL coach in Ryan Huska as head coach in Calgary could help too.
Flames free agent defencemen
Like Ritchie, Troy Stecher was acquired at the 2022 trade deadline and only played in a handful of games for the team. Unlike Ritchie however, Stecher was rather effective in his short time in Calgary. Playing on the teams third pairing to close out the season, Stecher looked right at home with the Flames.
As a number six defenceman, Stecher was solid down the stretch for the Flames while never looking out of place. He finished his 20 game stint with the Flames with a 57.11 CF%, 49.66 xGF%, and 50.94 HDCF%. He also posted seven points in 20 games, matching his 62 game total with Arizona. All said some decent results for a bottom-pairing option.
The Flames blueline is incredibly crowded right now, but what they don’t have is a lot of depth past their six NHL defenceman already signed into next season. The organizations depth on the blueline gets incredibly thin after Nikita Zadorov, with Dennis Gilbert being the only other NHL option under contract right now. For that reason I think it makes a ton of sense to re-sign Stecher.
He won’t be expensive after earning just $1.25 million on his last contract, and can provide the team with some much needed NHL depth on the blueline. Stecher has also been clear that he’d love to return to Calgary.
Personally I think it’s a no-brainer to bring Stecher back to help solidify the team’s blueline. Here’s hoping the organization agrees.
The Michael Stone era in Calgary took a massive hit with Brad Treliving leaving for Toronto. Stone’s yearly PTO’s from Treliving became an annual tradition in Calgary, but 2023–24 may be the first year in a long time that Stone isn’t a Flame. With a crowded blueline and new general manager, Stone may be on the hunt for a team come July.
Credit where it’s due, Stone stepped up when called upon last season as the Flames dealt with a few injuries on the backend. Overall he suited up for 48 games, posting six goals and 11 points. That said his effectiveness started to dwindle as the year went on and it was clear he was playing over his head.
With the Flames already having six NHL defencemen under contract next season as well as Dennis Gilbert in the AHL I don’t know if there is a spot for Stone anymore. It’ll likely come down to Stecher or Stone for the #7 spot on the blueline, and Stecher probably has the upper hand due to his age and skillset.
I hate to break tradition, but it may be time for the Flames and Stone to finally break up. Perhaps Stone follows his long time pal Treliving to Toronto.
Forging forwards to the future
The Flames will have another offseason for the books for the second year in a row. Last time around, it was a franchise-altering summer; this time, it’s about setting the tone for both the now and the future.
Photo from CalgaryWranglers.com.