Over the last month Dom Luszczyszyn at TheAthletic ran a poll asking fans how confident they were in their teams’ current front offices. A few days ago he summarized those results and tallied up the rankings from most confident to least confident.
Unsurprisingly the Calgary Flames didn’t exactly grade very well, finishing with the second worst confidence rankings in the entire NHL ahead of only the New York Islanders. It’s no doubt be a tumultuous time in Calgary the last year or so and that has clearly led to a complete lack of confidence from the fan base.
Across the board there is really no faith in any aspect of the organization from either Flames fans or the general public. Not exactly a great spot to be in. So how did we get here? Let’s take a look.
How did the Flames lose confidence from their fans?
As mentioned already, it’s been an absolute roller coaster past year and a half for the Calgary Flames. No team in the NHL has had more turnover than the Flames over that timespan. Combine that with a lack of results this past season and you’ve got all the ingredients for disaster.
First off we’ll take a look at roster building, where the Flames were ranked dead last in the NHL by their fanbase when it comes to their confidence in the the front office’s ability. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
The Flames toiled with mediocrity for years under Brad Treliving, continually failing to address their biggest needs until finally pulling the trigger on the Tyler Toffoli trade in 2022 in what ended up being the final year of for the Gaudreau core. Too little too late.
Up to that point, Treliving had failed to build a true contending roster as the Flames advanced past the first round once in the seven years leading up to the 2021–22 season. He continually tried cheap, patchwork solutions to the Flames scoring issues and left the likes of Gaudreau, Monahan and Tkachuk without true support up front.
Now being led by Craig Conroy since June of this year, there hasn’t been much of anything done to increase confidence in the team’s ability to build a contending roster. It’s too early for a full judgement on Conroy’s ability to build a roster, but his complete lack of action this offseason doesn’t help as it appears the team will go into next season with nearly the same roster that led them to a ninth place finish last year.
The Flames front office once again rank near the very bottom of the league this time when it comes to fans confidence in their ability to manage the salary cap, finishing 31st in the NHL. For comparison in this same category the Flames ranked 14th in August of 2022.
I’d say this entire ranking and loss of confidence boils down to Jonathan Huberdeau’s disastrous 2022–23 season. When he first signed his massive extension last summer the fan base was ecstatic to have a true superstar finally signed to a long-term deal, even if it would age poorly. At that time I don’t think anyone was worried about the team’s cap situation for the immediate future.
Fast forward a year and Huberdeau came out of the gate with one of the worst seasons of his career before the extension even kicks in. Now that $10.5 million AAV is already looking like a massive overpay with all eight years left. Add on soon-to-be 33-year-old Nazem Kadri’s six years remaining with a $7 million AAV after a subpar 56-point season and you’ve got some major red flags being raised for the future of the team’s cap. No one wants to be the next San Jose Sharks.
Credit where it’s due, Conroy didn’t make the situation worse this offseason and stayed very quiet in free agency. The Flames also have a ton of money coming off the books next season which will alleviate some pressure. That said, how Huberdeau and Kadri perform next year will have a big impact on where the Flames land in this category in a year.
Drafting and development
This one can essentially be described as a symptom of having Darryl Sutter behind the bench the last two years. The Flames finished 25th in the fan rankings, a year after finishing 18th in the same category in 2022. Frankly I’m surprised they didn’t finish even lower here.
Sutter’s M.O. behind the bench last year was to rely almost exclusively on gritty veterans over young prospects. This rightly led to outcry’s from the fanbase all season due to the lack of playing time for some of the organization’s top NHL-ready prospects.
In particular the team’s treatment of AHL leading scorer Matthew Phillips was frankly embarrassing and watching him leave this offseason no doubt played a big role in the Flames being rated so poorly here. The Flames reportedly only offering him a two-way deal this offseason didn’t help either.
In terms of drafting the Flames have had a couple poor drafts the past two years. In particular the 2021 and 2022 drafts look like complete blunders thus far. Passing on the likes of Logan Stankoven and Lane Hutson in back-to-back years doesn’t help. Luckily the 2023 draft under Conroy was much stronger.
If there’s any category that I can see receiving a big boost this time next year it’s this one. Conroy has clearly made it a goal to open up more spots for young players in the lineup and hiring of Ryan Huska should further that motive.
Again, it’s clear that Huberdeau’s 2022–23 season had a big impact on where the Flames ranked here. After “The Summer of Brad” and what seemed like a massive win with the Tkachuk trade the Flames actually ranked 4th in the NHL in this category in 2022.
Now a year later and the narrative has gone from the deal being a steal for the Flames to being a complete disaster. Because of that there is no confidence in the front office to make trades now. Combine Huberdeau’s NHL record point drop off and Tkachuk going out and putting up a career year and carrying the Panthers to the Stanley Cup Final and it’s no surprise the deal is seen as a massive negative now.
Under Conroy the only trade the Flames have made is the Toffoli for Yegor Sharangovich swap which many viewed as an underwhelming return. It certainly doesn’t help when the first deal of a GM’s new tenure is a mixed bag. On top of that the front office’s complete inability so far to trade Noah Hanifin, Daniel Vladar and Elias Lindholm before the season starts is a red flag and has certainly reduced confidence in their ability to find trades.
This one seems a bit harsh, although it makes sense given the previous general manager’s track record. Treliving’s biggest weakness with the Flames was his poor track record in free agency, continually handing out bloated deals on July 1 that age poorly from the get go.
Kadri’s poor season after signing a massive seven-year $49 million deal last summer just adds to the Flames questionable history in free agency and lowers any confidence from the fanbase. As mentioned, I do think Conroy deserves some credit for staying patient in free agency this season and only signing cheap, league-minimum deals so this poor grade isn’t on him.
This is very much a grading of the old regime as the true grading for Conroy and the new front office will come next year when the team has six major pending unrestricted free agents and what should be a ton of open money to work with. Revisiting this grade in a year should be very interesting.
It doesn’t matter what year you look at, the Flames always rank poorly when it comes to fan confidence in the overall vision for the team. Who can blame them? The Flames have been the model for mediocrity for decades, continually prioritizing squeaking into the playoffs over building a true contender. Last year they ranked 22nd in this category and this time around they drop to second worst, ranking 31st.
With the hiring of a new front office, there was hope the team would finally embrace a real vision and perhaps explore a retool or rebuild. Thus far, it’s been completely status quo. Despite six major free 2024 agents still unsigned and a perfect chance to finally rebuild the right way, it’s clear the front office has once again made it a goal to make the playoffs no matter what.
Add on the reports the team is prioritizing roster players in any major trade and not future picks and prospects—the Toffoli trade being a perfect example—and you’ve got further proof nothing has truly changed when it comes to the front office vision in Calgary.
After the Gaudreau situation unfolded, most assumed the team would never open themselves up to the same outcome again, Conroy even promised it himself in his opening press conference. Yet here we are a month away from the season starting with the likes of Lindholm, Hanifin, and Backlund unsigned and on expiring deals.
That certainly doesn’t seem like something a front office with a forward thinking vision would allow. Instead it seems like the new regime is taking on the exact same approach as the last one that lost Gaudreau for nothing. For that reason it’s completely understandable why the fanbase’s confidence in the team’s vision is at an all-time low.
How can the Flames rectify the fanbase’s low confidence?
So what steps can Conroy and the new front office team take to regain the trust of the fanbase? It’s not hard to figure this part out.
Deal with the Elias Lindholm situation soon
There’s no question the number one task on Conroy’s to-do list is the status of Lindholm. He’s arguably the team’s best player, and without a doubt their best centre. As a pending free agent, the Gaudreau situation is at the back of every fan’s mind. Conroy promised he wouldn’t let that happen again, but we’ve yet to see any progress towards that goal. Only recently on the player’s end did we get indication that Lindholm would be willing to sign with Calgary.
Now a month from the start of the season Lindholm is in the exact same spot he was at season’s end. Not putting a deadline on his decision opens the Flames up for a ton of risk. What if Lindholm gets injured? What if the Flames are fighting for a playoff spot come the deadline? Conroy absolutely has to either sign Lindholm or trade him for a favourable return no matter how the season goes.
Botching the Lindholm situation would do nothing but lower the confidence of the fanbase even more. Getting him locked down or dealt for a big return would go a long way in increasing the confidence in Conroy and the front office.
Handle the remaining 2024 UFA class
Lindholm is obviously the main priority, but the Flames also have to deal Hanifin and decide what to do with the likes of Mikael Backlund, Chris Tanev and Nikita Zadorov. Like Lindholm, we’ve gotten absolutely no updates on any of the other 2024 UFAs and each one is currently slated to start the season in Calgary unsigned with their future unknown.
In particular Hanifin has made it clear he doesn’t want to re-sign in Calgary. Despite that he’s still on the roster and will likely enter the year unsigned and playing in Calgary. Conroy needs to make sure he gets a solid return for Hanifin and doesn’t wait too long to the point the market isn’t there, he gets injured, or he walks for nothing in a year.
The same goes for Tanev, Backlund and Zadorov. Ensuring you’re aware of their intentions before the 2024 trade deadline and trading anyone who is non committal is an absolute must for Conroy and the front office if they hope to gain the trust of the fanbase. Doing so would certainly gain him some fans.
Let the young guys play
One of the biggest issue of the previous regime was the lack of playing time for younger players. Treliving and Sutter loved to bring in veterans for the bottom of the lineup, blocking the Flames young talent from ever playing.
The good news is Conroy already seems to be an improvement over Treliving and co. By not going crazy in free agency and not signing any PTOs thus far, Conroy is ensuring the young talent in the organization is given a real shot of earning playing time this season. After last year’s mess, the fanbase is desperate to see the likes of Jakob Pelletier, Matthew Coronato among others in the lineup full-time.
Knowing the new management group recognizes the teams issues and has heard the fanbase’s complaints goes a long way to gaining trust.
Commit to a long-term vision
The most important thing the current regime can do to regain the confidence of the Flames fanbase is to commit to a real vision for the team. The Flames haven’t had a real vision in what seems like forever. It’s always been the same mandate, get into the playoffs no matter what. As long as that continues, the fanbase will never trust the organization to build a contender.
Regardless of where the Flames stand at the 2024 trade deadline, Conroy and his staff need to be firm and stick to the goal of long-term success. If that means moving Lindholm or Hanifin while sitting in a playoff spot, so be it.
With such a massive amount of the roster coming off the books in 2024 and some major money opening up, the Flames have a real chance to start fresh and commit to a real retool and vision for the future. It’s integral for Conroy and his staff to take this opportunity and make the most of it. Commit to building a real long-term contender—even it means you have to make some hard decisions.
Continuing the status quo in Calgary will do nothing to regain the confidence and trust of the fanbase. Real change to the teams vision is needed and Conroy and his staff have the chance to make that change.
Rock bottom for Calgary
The Flames may not be at rock bottom when it comes to the standings, but as an organization they’re absolutely at their lowest point in a very long time. The confidence and patience of the fanbase has run out and there is absolutely no hope in Calgary right now.
How Conroy and his staff handle the teams major decisions in the next 10 to 12 months will determine whether or not the fanbase’s confidence can be redeemed or if we’re in for a much longer, and darker period in Flames history.