This has not been a memorable start to the season for the Calgary Flames. Currently sitting with a 2–4–1 record and sitting fourth in the Pacific Division, things have not gone the way that new GM Craig Conroy probably imagined. The team on the ice is struggling to get into sync—their big stars Jonathan Huberdeau and Nazem Kadri in particular not looking nearly as good as they probably should. With the departure of Darryl Sutter and the hiring of softer head coach Ryan Huska, the Flames were expected to see an uptick in production from their top guys, but it has been Jacob Markstrom who has been the Flames’ best player, keeping the team in games that their forward group simply did not perform in.
You can look to the team on the ice and say the signs are there. The Flames are one of the teams spending the most time in the offensive zone in the league according to NHL EDGE, their new zone defensive style takes a long time to get used to, and some of the underlying numbers are there for some of their forwards, but putting the whole product together has been lacking. The team has yet to put together a full sixty-minute performance to this point in the season, and the frustration is starting to boil over.
Off the ice, the Flames seem keen to try and add stability. There have been rumblings of contract talks with Chris Tanev, Noah Hanifin, and Elias Lindholm, all of whom are pending unrestricted free agents at the end of the season. While adding roster stability is important to take away from the constant questions on this subject, it begs a much larger question about exactly what the Calgary Flames are building and whether it is even working.
Here’s where the Flames are at right now
When the Flames were on the brink of losing Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk two summers back, the organization reached an inflection point. Was it time to sell assets and enter a rebuild or push all of their chips into the middle and gun for a playoff spot over the next few years. They obviously made the choice of the latter, signing Jonathan Huberdeau, MacKenzie Weegar, and Nazem Kadri to long-term deals. This is expected to be the final big contract in all of these players’ careers, given they are all at or over 29 years old.
All three players had down seasons last year. Huberdeau and Kadri looked like shells of their former selves, with Huberdeau posting the greatest season-to-season drop in points for a 100+ point player in NHL history. This past summer the Flames cleaned house, but struggled to sign the seven pending free agents for next season: Lindholm, Tanev, Hanifin, Mikael Backlund, Oliver Kylington, Nikita Zadorov, and at the time Tyler Toffoli. The Flames moved the latter for Yegor Sharangovich, who they subsequently signed for three years. They also signed Backlund to a two-year extension and named him the team’s captain.
That was a tidy bit of business by Conroy for sure, particularly to keep Backlund’s extension term as short as he did, but the big part of the work was left unfinished this summer. The Flames walked into the season with Lindholm and Hanifin unsigned.
The Flames need to pick their direction and stick to it
Now the challenge for the Flames lies in exactly what they are doing and the direction they are charting. Going into last season, the direction was clear. The Flames are pushing all of their chips into the middle, betting big on their new players and their core draft picks to be a contender for the next few years until such time as their stars get too old to compete the way they did in their prime.
If the Flames were still charting this course, the decision to sign Lindholm, Hanifin, Tanev, and co. would simply be a no-brainer—sign them all and fill in the depth with young players on entry-level contracts or veterans on league-minimum contracts, and roll the dice each and every season until you can’t. This strategy looked like a mistake last season from the outside, but it sounds like there is some hedging being done on the inside too.
Lindholm is perhaps the biggest piece of this puzzle. If the Flames feel they are going to be a contender, they need a number-one centre, and for better or for worse, their only real option is him. There is nobody else in the depth chart who reads like a bona-fide top line centre. If they want to get the most from Huberdeau and Kadri—the two star players that this strategy hinges on—they need to have an effective centre who can produce, and unless they can execute a brilliant trade for Lindholm to bring in someone even better, their plan is tied to the Swede.
Even if it means a slight overpayment in the short-term, the hope would be that it would lead to multiple playoff runs and ideally a good shot at the Stanley Cup. Couple in an increase in the salary cap expected in the next few seasons and the contract should age reasonably well.
Figuring out the strategy based on contracts
But that’s not happening. The Flames seem to be both very hesitant to dole out contracts to their players and also hesitant to play with term, which is reasonable in isolation but confusing compared to where this team’s strategy has been. The team cannot have it both ways where they leave players on long deals alone to perform as they do but not build a long-term strategy around those players. They seem to be trying to cut corners by building a short-term stopgap for the next couple of years with the guys that they do have, but this is clearly causing frustration and confusion across the organization.
This team is built around four players, and right now these players are at their physiological prime (even if that is not mirrored on the ice). It is incumbent on the team to build a structure around these players in order to help them succeed. Huberdeau and Kadri have both shown themselves to be stars in this league, and while they haven’t proven themselves on the ice in Calgary, the potential is still there. The Flames need to do what they can to build a structure around them.
This requires a long-term strategic approach to the team, and looking at teams that have contended, you can see exactly what they do. They prioritize players who can help them win, drop those who cannot or will not do so, and reorient the entire organization to move in that direction. Even when there are big contracts that are immovable, teams still find ways to make them work. The Dallas Stars have Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin on expensive and long-term extensions but still have built out a winning franchise that competes. The Flames approaching this season with a one-foot-in, one-foot-out mentality is not a recipe for success.
Will the same Calgary cast return?
At the end of the day, it’s hard to imagine that the Flames re-sign all seven of their pending UFAs to contracts between now and July 1, but whatever they do, they need to be clear about their direction. If they opt to push all of their chips into the middle, they need to do so by getting the most out of their current core, and prioritize making decisions on that basis.
If they decide that now is the time to switch gears, and retool slightly (again), they need to actually make the moves to do so. This means actually making the tough decisions around who stays and who goes, prioritizing the end goal of making the playoffs over maintaining their current group.
It’s hard to imagine the Flames go into rebuild mode, but if they do, that likely means exploring buyouts and trades for future assets. It also means that they shy away from re-signing some of their pending free agents. But whatever they do, this team needs to pick a lane and stick with it. They cannot afford to have the same year that they did last year, and it feels as though they are walking the same way to start the year.