The 2o15-16 season has been a disappointing one for the Calgary Flames, as they followed up their impressive 2014-15 campaign with one that sees them booking tee times in April rather than flights and accommodations for playoff games. Despite the disappointment in the Stampede City, the Flames may be closer than many think to returning to the postseason and actually making some noise in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
All told, the Flames need to add five key pieces to their existing group in order to make that great leap to the level of NHL contenders. In no particular order, the five pieces are as follows:
A Solid Goalie
Last season, the Flames made the big leap into the postseason, in part, because they had solid goaltending. After finishing dead last in the NHL in even-strength save percentage in 2013-14, the Flames were about average in 2014-15. In a league that puts a premium on goal-scoring — and a market system that pays out the nose for proven goal-scorers — the Flames won’t have a ton of money to spend on goaltending next season and probably don’t want to given how ineffective Jonas Hiller ($4.5 million) and Karri Ramo ($3.8 million) were this past season. They could go the Anaheim route and invest in goaltenders that are promising but perhaps unproven, rather than throwing money at a big-name netminder.
Recently the Flames have shown that don’t need good goaltending, they just need good enough goaltending.
A Top-Six Right Wing
Aside from goaltending, the biggest riddle the Flames need to solve in the offseason is “Who will be playing with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan?” Last season, Jiri Hudler was the lucky beneficiary of playing on their right side. But the club tried everybody this season — Hudler, David Jones, Josh Jooris, Michael Frolik, Micheal Ferland and more recently AHL call-up Freddie Hamilton — and have failed to recreate the chemistry and creativity that they enjoyed a year ago.
This right-wing dilemma is emblematic of a larger problem: the Flames have four or five forwards capable of playing consistent hockey in a top-six role (Gaudreau, Monahan, Frolik, Mikael Backlund and perhaps Sam Bennett). In an ideal world, Backlund and Frolik anchor a shut-down line that can provide some offense, and Bennett plays with another grouping that creates offense in the top six. The big question is whether the Flames can develop or acquire somebody that can complement Bennett’s skill set and provide the team with a third dynamic pairing to go along with Gaudreau/Monahan and Frolik/Backlund.
Inexpensive Bottom-Six Options
This issue is more of a complementary problem to the previous one, as the Flames have a bunch of decent bottom-six options but lack inexpensive depth. Regular faces on their bottom-six rotation this season have included Jones ($4 million), Jooris ($975,000), Brandon Bollig ($1.25 million), Lance Bouma ($2.2 million), Joe Colborne ($1.275 million), Mason Raymond ($3.15 million) and Matt Stajan ($3.125 million). While all the players mentioned here are all capable contributors in that rotation, a cap system almost dictates that players are either paid handsomely to score, or they need to be inexpensive complementary pieces. Right now, the challenge the Flames face is that their complementary players aren’t inexpensive. They’ve auditioned Hamilton ($688,000) and Garnet Hathaway ($690,000) on call-ups late in the season, with both seeming up for the challenge of full-time NHL duty.
The expectation should be for them to explore similar depth options in the future, as inexpensive bottom-six players would give the Flames some flexibility to make moves midseason or even just to rotate bodies to and from the AHL (as both incentive for their youngsters and a threat for their veterans) without worrying about burying cap space in the minors. As it stands now, the Flames’ auditions for Hamilton and Hathaway are coming at the cost of spending $2.2 million of cap space on Raymond, who’s been demoted to Stockton.
A Second-Pairing Defender
The Flames have a unique problem. They have three top-flight defenders in Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Dougie Hamilton. They also have discovered that they have a handful of pretty effective third-pairing options in Jyrki Jokipakka, Deryk Engelland, Jakub Nakladal and Tyler Wotherspoon. Then they have the gigantic cap hits of Dennis Wideman ($5.25 million) and Ladislav Smid ($3.5 million), and no obvious spot to put them.
The Flames are in dire need of a second-pairing defender to complement their top trio. Wideman wasn’t up to the challenge this past season. For them to balance out their top-heavy defensive deployments, which lean heavily on their top pairing, they really need to find somebody that’s an upgrade on Wideman — ideally at a lower cap hit.
Some Cap Space
Arguably the biggest challenge facing the Flames — and the largest obstacle to them making a move into the next tier of NHL clubs — is their salary cap situation. With Gaudreau and Monahan due for new contracts at the end of this season, and captain Giordano’s big contract extension kicking in next season, the Flames will need to find cost-effective ways to upgrade their club or get out from under some of their oversized contracts to their lesser lights. As it stands, the team lacks flexibility to do much upgrading in the offseason or to maneuver very much during the upcoming season.
If the Flames can fix one or two of these issues, they should be able to creep back into the playoff pack next season. If they can somehow fix three or more, you never know, they may just become contenders.
Ryan Pike has covered the Calgary Flames and the NHL Draft extensively since 2010 as a Senior Writer for The Hockey Writers and Senior Contributing Editor of FlamesNation.ca. A member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, he lives in Calgary.