Calgary Flames

Craig Conroy’s patient approach is a dangerous gamble for the Calgary Flames

Calgary Flames new general manager Craig Conroy is in an unenviable position—there is no sugar coating it.

Just a few weeks after taking on his first general manager position of his career, he was required to conduct a deep coaching search after a season where that position caused the most friction, deal with one of the more important NHL drafts in the last decade, and deal with a number of pending unrestricted free agents informing the team they wouldn’t re-sign with the club.

Not the best welcome party.

The risk in being too patient as Flames general manager

Conroy’s approach to almost everything that has come across his desk can be summed up in one word: patience.

Now based on all of the factors involved, patience is without a doubt the safest route for Conroy. It unfortunately comes with the biggest risk as well. Let me explain.

Time is running out on the 2024 UFA class

The biggest “bluff” when it comes to the patience route and how dangerous it can be is summarized perfectly with the 2024 unrestricted free agent class of Elias Lindholm, Noah Hanifin, Mikael Backlund, Nikita Zadorov, Chris Tanev, Oliver Kylington, and formerly Tyler Toffoli. 

Based on the results of last season, and end-of-season interviews, it was clear people were ready to move on. Insiders reported that Hanifin wants to play back home in the US, Backlund wants to play for a contending team, Lindholm is undecided regardless of the contract offers he has received, and Toffoli wants a change of scenery.

The team prioritized Lindholm and Hanifin first over others, which makes sense from a pure value perspective. The team has Hanifin’s answer, and have been bending over backwards waiting for Lindholm to decide. As a result of the team waiting on both players, Tollofi was the first domino to fall in asking for a trade.

Others will surely follow. 

The team can wait as long as possible on who they view to be their best player to make a decision, but at a certain point in time the team has to realize they may not get the answer they want. 

Failing to attract free agents

The other issue with waiting on player decisions is that it completely handcuffs the team into a paralysis-like state entering the busiest portion of the season. Both from a salary cap perspective, but also in the ability to make beneficial deals for the organization.

Take the last few days for example, since the Flames are already spending to the salary cap limit they were unable to make moves for some of the significant free agents on the market. Their lone new signing of Jordan Oesterle was the only move the team was able to make. Meanwhile teams were loading up on available players to prepare for next season. 

While other teams were racing down the highway, the Flames were still refueling at the gas station. 

The benefits of patience

Now all that being said, there are a ton of reasons why Conroy’s approach to the start of his tenure gives some sense of optimism. 

When Brad Treliving similarly jumped into the first GM role of his career, he traded a draft pick for Brandon Bollig, and then signed three albatross contracts for Mason Raymond, Jonas Hiller, and Deryk Engellend. Although the team made the postseason that year, those moves anchored the team for the following season.

Conroy taking a much more prudent role, although perhaps not at his choosing, has resulted in less painful moves to digest to kickstart his team management.

The Toffoli for Yegor Sharangovich trade actually looks half decent now based on the trade market that came out of the NHL draft, and could end up proving to work out for the team on the ice and on the salary cap. 

He’s also being very cautious not to just give up one of their pending UFAs for the sake of trading them. He’s waiting for an offer that makes the most sense. 

Taking a look at other GMs that have done the same in previous seasons, Joe Sakic with Matt Duchene and Bill Armstrong with Jacob Chychrun, it’s worked out pretty well for those organizations. 

Surely Conroy is hoping for the same result.

Patience can pay off but it comes with risk

Although there are some positives, the negatives here far outweigh them when looking at the Flames situation as a whole. 

First off, the team doesn’t truly have a direction. They aren’t bad enough to be rebuilding and aren’t really good enough to be considered as Stanley Cup contenders. Waiting on Lindholm to sign a brand new long-term contract seems counter intuitive based on the players who have said they want out of the organization.

Secondly, when looking at the past trades of players who had their GMs hold out for the right return, most of them had terms left on their contracts. Conroy does not have that luxury. The team really has until the 2024 trade deadline to make a move or those players are leaving for nothing.

Additionally, holding out and waiting until then poses even more risk. Those players could get injured or take a serious step back in play where the team is then faced with trading away depreciating asset. At the deadline, most of these players are going to be looked at as rentals more than they are right now, potentially further depreciating their value. Of course, while some of them may play well and boost their stock, the Flames won’t be making a massive set of trades for all their UFAs altogether at the deadline.

The maximum value on aggregate includes trading some of the 2024 UFAs during the offseason, plain and simple.

The biggest and most painful point is that by being as patient as Conroy has been up until now, he’s losing his trade suitors as those teams are starting to move on from high demands. Look at the Pittsburgh Penguins who were rumoured to have significant interest in Hanifin at the NHL draft. Since then they have gone out in free agency and filled out their roster to the point they are now over the cap. They have also shown interest in Erik Karlsson, making it even harder for Conroy to make a compelling trade.

Before the draft, the Flames could have made these types of deals to open up cap space, recoup draft assets and prospects, and potentially weaponize that cap space for further assets.

Yet, they didn’t. And the longer they wait, the less teams will be compelled to make those first-swing all-in moves where trading with the Flames lands them their whale. More and more teams will switch over to filling out complementary pieces and as such will offer lower returns.

May the odds be ever in your favour, Conny

If there is one thing that everyone is praying for here is that things work out for Conroy. Perhaps the last few months have made the outlook on this situation far more negative than it should be. The summer has really just started and teams aren’t stopping their roster shakeups just yet.

The team could still execute a number of trades and free agent signings—some that they very much could win at the end of the day—and head into next season with a fresh look and sense of optimism.

Since it’s the Flames though, it’s hard to imagine that happening.

Conroy can be patient to an extent, but if he keeps waiting he may reach the end of the line before he’s forced to make some even poorer decisions. 

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