Four score and seven years ago—wait no, this past offseason, the Calgary Flames went on a journey to find a new direction for the team. Gone were the days of Brad Treliving as general manager and Darryl Sutter as head coach. Trelviing was replaced by Don Maloney as President of Hockey Operations and interim GM. Then came a promotion to GM for someone who definitely deserved it: Craig Conroy. Along with Conroy taking the reins came the naming of Dave Nonis as Senior VP of Hockey Operations, as well as both Brad Pascall and the late Chris Snow becoming VP of Hockey Operations and AGM. After that, the Flames brought on Jarome Iginla as Special Advisor to the GM, and finally named Ryan Huska as their new head coach.
To say it was a big change in organisational philosophies was an understatement, as much of the front office was altered in the summer months.
Running it back with the Flames’ roster
During the summer, it was unclear what the Flames were going to do. The franchise was in a prime position to rebuild with a plethora of pending unrestricted free agents that could pick up pretty packages as returns. They were also in a prime position to run it back and try to make the playoffs, as the below-average 2022–23 results just needed merely average outcomes in 2023–24 for the Flames to be a playoff team. The team opted to go mostly for the latter. The only major change they acted on was trading away their leading scorer in Tyler Toffoli for Yegor Sharangovich and a third-round pick, as well as extending and naming Mikael Backlund the captain of the team. They even kept Daniel Vladar as backup while sending Dustin Wolf back to the AHL where he really has nothing left to prove.
By and large, this was about as “run it back” as the Flames could have possibly gone. During the initial days of Conroy’s tenure, the front office staff weren’t even allowed to utter the word “rebuild” in any media availabilities. The directive since Day 1 up until this point has been to try to make the playoffs again with the current roster as there’s simply no way they can underperform more than they did last season.
It was genuinely a safe bet to expect a bounceback season, but perhaps that’s just hubris talking. A good start to the preseason was a sure sign of good things to come, a season-opener win was an even surer one. However, the safe bet turned sour shortly after. One dreadful October later, the Flames sit 31st in the league and are amid a six-game regulation losing streak.
Is Calgary’s rebuild coming?
Now in the past few days, there have been stronger indications that maybe, just maybe, a rebuild in Calgary is finally on the horizon. No, this isn’t about the end of the Saddledome and a new arena, this rebuild is actually about the roster. There have been more and more sprinklings that a rebuild is indeed coming, or at least the Flames are seriously considering one. Let’s dive into the growing mound of evidence.
The owner watching the team live
Flames owner Murray Edwards was in attendance at the Heritage Classic and got to witness the Flames get pulverised on outdoor ice. The struggling Flames made the struggling Oilers look phenomenal, and the Heritage Classic ended up seeing the Oilers leapfrog the Flames in the standings as the two teams swapped places between 30th and 31st. The presence of Edwards is not insignificant. He didn’t just come to Edmonton to watch a game. That safe bet about a bounceback may not have panned out, but a safer bet yet is that this was a business trip with some difficult conversations along the way. Flames attendance is clocking in at a two-decade low and those are the types of metrics that will urge a team’s owner to come check on the franchise with their own eyes.
The contract halt
To close out October, it was reported by Eric Francis on Halloween that the Flames had a team-wide contract halt on discussions around upcoming free agents, which included Noah Hanifin, Elias Lindholm, and every other player. For some fans that may have felt like a big trick, for others, it was certainly a big treat.
The decision to pause contract talks doesn’t just simply end in resuming said talks days down the line—at least, it shouldn’t. Deciding to put a pause on re-signing major unrestricted free agents means the club is warming up to the idea that extensions may not be prudent for the team or the players.
It was later revealed by Elliotte Friedman that Hanifin was the one to back out of a mega seven-year deal worth north of $50.0M. It’s not every day a player walks away from such a large amount of money, but that’s exactly where the Flames are at.
The roster shakeup
On the ice, there were moves of smaller consequences with still relatively big impacts. The Flames closed out their game against Dallas down by a goal. In the critical moments with Jacob Markstrom on the bench, the extra attacker was not Jonathan Huberdeau. It was instead Connor Zary, who had himself an outstanding NHL debut. Yes, the Flames saw their $10.5M star player benched in a one-goal deficit situation. That kind of move acts as a wake-up call, but it wouldn’t be completely outlandish to think that the Flames must be thinking about healthy scratches pretty soon here.
The Flames were supposedly debating a larger roster shakeup that involved sending down a veteran player. Early musings I had expected it to be a threat to Blake Coleman‘s NHL status, as he was the only reasonable veteran whose waiving would definitely rattle the room. However, the Flames ended up waiving Jordan Oesterle. Oesterle being re-assigned doesn’t scream a roster shakeup. No matter how good of a locker room presence Oesterle might have had, sending down a depth player who has featured in only four games doesn’t really have a lasting impact. He will still be in literally the same building with the Wranglers and he may even keep his locker. No player on the team could possibly be rattled by that. Unless he’s claimed of course.
So maybe it wasn’t Oesterle and there were considerations of waiving someone else. But until that happens, it’s all rumours.
The forbidden word
As alluded to earlier, the Flames were not coming anywhere close to any message that signalled a rebuild. However, this has changed once again. In another Francis article that was meant to be highly complimentary of Zary’s debut, the headline started with Zary’s name and ended with the word “rebuild.”
With Sportsnet and Francis’ close relation to the Flames, these headlines aren’t just written at the discretion of Sportsnet. It is entirely possible that the Flames are gauging the reaction to see how fans may receive such a notion. In the article, the word “rebuild” was written out twice over two paragraphs. Again, this isn’t trivial. This is probably a live litmus test on fan sentiment.
Reaping the rewards of a rebuild
As the saying goes: “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”
For the Flames, the best time to rebuild was the offseason of 2021–22 when both Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk left the team. The second best time to rebuild would have been during the 2022–23 season before the trade deadline when everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The third best time would have been the 2022–23 offseason where a clean slate for both the front office and the players would have been appetising. Well, the fourth best time to rebuild is now.
Many people have been calling for a rebuild over the past two seasons, but the team shied away for as long as they could have. Now, it finally looks like there may be seeds planted for a new era.
Time to bring on the temporary pain now for a much more hopeful future. This might be the safest bet yet.
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