After eons of being barely good enough to sneak into the playoffs most of the time but seemingly not good enough to make any noise in them, the Calgary Flames seem poised for a rebuild. Ironically, this whole process happened by accident, with the Flames’ players opting out from extensions after a truly terrible season. This is very strongly against the ownership and management’s direction as they avoided using such vocabulary in press conferences. Nevertheless, the timing of this rebuild could not be better. The team has only three true long-term contracts in Jonathan Huberdeau, Nazem Kadri, and MacKenzie Weegar, and if they do this correctly, they should have enough weapons to ice an incredibly competitive team when the new Calgary Events Centre project is completed hopefully in four to five years.
The Flames haven’t been through a real rebuild in a long time. The last time they did so was in 2013 when the team traded away Jarome Iginla and company to usher in the Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau era. That rebuild lasted two seasons before the Flames accidentally made the playoffs with the “find-a-way Flames” and then the team felt they were good enough to make the playoffs every year subsequently, hampering their ability to get high-value picks. The rebuild this time needs to be just a bit longer, and be done correctly to maximize the ability to compete long-term. If they do this right, the Flames could build a dynasty team that could compete for the next decade or longer. If they don’t they may be rebuilding and re-tooling for the next decade.
Let’s break the process down by year, starting with Summer 2023 and moving all the way to 2028.
What the Flames have to do in 2023
GM Craig Conroy‘s to-do list this summer has seemingly no end as the next few months will dictate the direction of the team. With many areas of tend to, there’s no shortage of work.
Sell this plan to ownership and fans
First and foremost, the team needs to ensure alignment on the plan from the top down. This starts with Conroy and the team selling this plan to Murray Edwards, and in reality, I don’t think this is a hard sell. The Flames are forced into a corner with their players and with the team’s cap structure, even if they try to extend their window by trying to load up and sneak into the window, the odds are that they won’t and that they will fall apart right as the new arena is opening. This is sweetened by the prospect of spending below the cap ceiling to keep costs down as revenue is going to suffer. The Flames want to be immensely competitive when they open the doors of the new arena to encourage fans to come out and watch them in the new barn and bring in revenue to help cover the costs of the building.
It also means selling this plan to fans—particularly to season ticket holders. NHL teams derive the greatest percentage of revenue from fans in the stands of the four major North American leagues, and ensuring that their season ticket holders—the people who make up the majority of those fan—are on side. The pitch is straightforward: the team is going to bring up the most exciting prospects in the league and they are going to play their hearts out. Come watch them and enjoy them develop before the rest of the NHL notices how good they are. The team should also use this as an opportunity to build out more engagement opportunities, and sell ticketholders on the opportunity to really get to know their stars on the ice.
Maximize value on trades
Then the real work begins. The Flames need to maximize the value they get on their expiring contracts. Noah Hanifin, Elias Lindholm, Tyler Toffoli, Mikael Backlund, and Chris Tanev should all be on the way out this summer in exchange for futures-driven packages. If the Flames can recoup five-first round picks in this year and next years draft combined on top of a handful of high-end prospects, they’ve done very, very well. Whether this happens though…
While it’s tough right now, if there is an opportunity to move anyone else with term, they should definitely explore that. If there is a real option on the table for Andrew Mangiapane, Huberdeau, Kadri, or others and the offer is worth it, the Flames should absolutely look to do that.
Maximize value out of the draft
The Flames can’t afford to have just a good draft, they need to come out as the best team in this year’s draft. That means they need to walk in with more picks than they do right now, and walk out with a handful of future star players. This is not the year to gamble on a potential depth NHLer like Topi Ronni or William Stromgren, but instead go for the high-upside guys with tons of skill. Particularly in the second round, where the Flames have been broadly pathetic, they need to nail their selections.
Add value pieces to complement young talent
This is the year where the Flames need to add players on one-year deals in free agency. This allows them to keep their costs down, but also provides an opportunity to sell at the deadline for future assets. The other options would be to acquire players on the last years of their deals in trades that they can also flip at the deadline for futures assets. Bonus points if they can acquire players with intangibles that teams love like being “good in the room,” being large, or having won a championship at some point.
Take on salary dead weight
This one will be a tougher sell for owners, but the best way for the Flames to maximize their value through the rebuild would be for teams to pay them to take on their bad contracts. The Flames were on the opposite end of this last season when they paid the Montreal Canadiens a first-round pick to take on the last year of Sean Manahan’s contract. With the salary cap expected to remain flat for the next couple of seasons, teams will need to do what they can to maximize their flexibility to add talent to win, and shedding bad value contracts is worth future assets for many teams. This also will help the Flames hit the cap floor, an issue that the Arizona Coyotes and other teams have struggled with in their rebuilds. If the Flames are able to take on some of that dead cap weight on deals that expire in two or three seasons, this works really well with their timeline.
Up next with the 2023–24 season
Focus game plan on maximizing the value of older players
The Flames need to make sure their players who they want to move look really good. Whatever it takes to get Huberdeau, Kadri, and other veteran players on expensive contracts to look good, they need to do. If the Flames are going to be mired in a rebuild, shedding the contracts on the book that cost the most is going to be key. If the Flames can show that Jacob Markstrom, Blake Coleman, or others are worth more than their contracts, they may be able to convince another team to trade for them. The trouble is that the players have movement-limiting clauses in their contracts, but if the Flames are clear about their intentions, there is a good chance that they can convince these players that the prospect of winning now is worth more than sticking around.
Continue to grow young talent by giving them tougher minutes
This is where the Flames need to discover what they have in their young talent. This means giving tougher assignments to Adam Ruzicka and Walker Duehr, so they can better know if they are actually good or just riding high shooting percentages. It also means discovering what they have in Jakob Pelletier, Matt Coronato, and Dustin Wolf. They do have some idea of Pelletier for sure, but they need to figure out if Wolf is a very good AHL netminder or if he can be the goalie of the future for this team. Coronato also looks to be the real deal, but that has been shown at the NCAA level. They need to see if he is a top line winger or more of a middle-six two-way guy.
It may be a bit early to try out Connor Zary or Jeremie Poirier, but getting them into a game or two each this season to see what they have in them would be huge both for their development but also in the team’s evaluation of their guys.
Lose but prioritize fan experience
The Flames cannot just simply lose all the time. Nobody would go out and watch them. They need to provide value to people to go out and watch the team. This means they need a comprehensive community engagement plan. They need to get the players out into the community for jersey signings, spending time in schools, showing up to events and more. They need people in the city to buy into the players and the team.
This also means doing what they can to bring people into the ‘Dome. Whether it’s through theme nights, community events like having minor hockey teams come out, or attracting new hockey fans from different backgrounds to come and watch games, this is the time to prioritize experience over everything. The on-ice product is going to be marginal. The team is going to lose a lot. But fans need to know that their money is going towards having a good time, and that is what the Flames need to prioritize.
The 2024 offseason
Sell and develop
2023–24 will have been an awful year for the team. There are going to be just a handful of good things to rally around, but hopefully, the biggest one is a resurgent year for their best players. If that happens, the Flames should do what they can to trade those players away and acquire more futures. After what will have hopefully been a successful draft in 2023, the Flames will need to do the same again in 2024. This then means continuing to prioritize the development of their AHL team, and building out a strong pipeline from the AHL to the NHL with prospects with high potential. Adding good coaches and great development people around them is going to be key this year.
Both Wolf and Pelletier will be in need of new contracts, but with just one full season in the NHL under their belts, the cost to re-up them should be reasonably low.
The 2024–25 season
Run it back again
Again the Flames need to lose. A lot. But again, they need to prioritize their young players, working with them to take another step forward in their development. The team needs to be exciting to watch, giving their young players real opportunities to dazzle on the ice while being active in the Calgary community.
The Flames will almost certainly be bad again this season, but if they can be less bad this season and still walk away with high picks, that will be another huge win.
The 2025 offseason
This is the summer that the team starts to move to build out their team. This is the year that Matt Coronato will need a new contract, and assuming he plays 2023–24 and 2024–25 in the NHL, he’s likely due for a big raise in the NHL. The team has a long history of grinding down restricted free agents on their deals then struggling to sign them as unrestricted counterparts, but this may be an opportunity to get him signed long-term—especially if he develops into the player the Flames think he will be.
This is also the year to start building out some of the support to the team, adding good pieces around their young core. Bringing in some more experienced pieces around their core now would be huge to help their young core develop more.
The 2025–26 season
The Flames need to be much better this season, taking steps to push for the playoffs. The hope is that they just barely miss the playoffs, but take huge strides forward as a team and begin to look like a competitive project that attracts the interest of players across the league. The Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens are good examples of this right now, having built out a really good young core, but still being about a year or two away from competing, they are exciting to watch and are projects that players can see as being winners in a season or two. The Flames will ideally be at this point of their rebuild by now.
The 2026 offseason
This is the summer the team needs to make a few splashes. The team will be one year away from the end of Rasmus Andersson and Markstrom’s current contracts, and the team will be looking to fully usher in their new core. Hopefully, Wolf will have succeeded Markstrom as the Flames’ starting netminder and the team has an elite puck-moving offensive defenceman to play alongside Andersson. This will be complemented by an elite offence of young stars that they will have drafted and developed internally.
This is the summer to make a big swing or two on free agents. The cap should be higher, allowing the team to really go to town on free agent players, and having developed a young exciting project from the ground up, they should have the capacity to attract big names to town. Throw in a new arena on the way, this is a cool opportunity to be part of history in ushering in a new era for this team. If the Flames can show they have enough depth in their lineup, they should be able to attract some top talent to join their squad.
The 2026–27 season
This is the year the Flames need to target as the year they want to not only make the playoffs but make a splash in them. After a long four years, the team will be primed to make a splash in the regular season and push for a spot in the postseason. Having built out from the ground up and with some new talent acquired from across the league, they should be able to make some noise in the playoffs, going into 2027 when the new arena should be ready to open. This will build the buzz in the city around the team, allowing for people to want to buy tickets and become season ticket holders.
While this likely isn’t the year that they win the Cup, it will be a good way to see out the Saddledome era in the city and usher in the new era of the new arena. Having a competitive team show that they can make a big splash the following season in the new arena is huge for the city and for the franchise.
The 2027 summer
If they execute this right, they should also have broad support from the Calgary community for the players, particularly the young players. This will allow fans to connect strongly with the on-ice product, and now that they are finally good, be excited to go out and watch a game in person.
This year is about fine-tuning. Adding in a few more players to complement the core that the team has built will be good to help them be competitive the season following and beyond.
2027-28 season and beyond
This is where the team should enter their winning era. If they can build and maintain this core, they should be able to compete for five to seven seasons from her by just adding and tweaking their team. With a few seasons of high picks and adding really good complementary pieces as needed, if the Flames can build a winning culture in Calgary and build this franchise brand into one that players around the league see as a place where they want to play, they should have no issue attracting talent to play for this team. Barring a major catastrophe like what has happened in Calgary in the last twelve months, this should be a competitive team for some time.
Is this realistic for Calgary?
Broadly the Flames have two options. They can either try to run it back again this year, taking on free agents and making trades for players with present value and try to run it back again this year or they can embrace the tank and try to build to be better in four years. The latter option makes far more sense. The team’s current core is at or over 30 years old now, and time is slowly (or quickly, depending how you look at it) running out. This is a prime opportunity to utilize the pieces that they have under team control to acquire future assets to build this team out down the road. And if the Flames can do this effectively, it’ll make an enormous impact on their revenue when the new building opens.
The biggest thing that this team needs to do is stick to the process. The Flames cannot be tempted away by one good year, but instead need to stay the course, build out an elite young talent pool, and prosper going forward. This means ensuring alignment from ownership all the way down to fans to stick to the plan. While the road ahead may be dark, if the Flames can do it properly, this could be a dynasty that lasts a decade.
Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire