The Calgary Flames are in a tough spot entering the offseason. They have a few players starting new, bigger contracts while seven key players are entering the final year of their deals. This brings up a lot of questions and decisions for general manager Brad Treliving, depending on what direction the team looks to be headed in.
On paper, this Flames’ roster is one of the best in the league. Expectations weren’t met this season as they didn’t even make the playoffs this season, nevermind look like one of the best teams in the league. A rebuild isn’t an option with Jonathan Huberdeau, Nazem Kadri, and MacKenzie Weegar all signed for six-plus more years.
The goal when Huberdeau and Weegar were acquired, and Kadri was signed was to win the Stanley Cup. That didn’t work out this season, but the goal remains the same while they are all under contract. I think the Flames’ window to win will open for 3-4 years if done right. On the other hand, their window might be closed right now, and they might need to reset, depending on what the team does with their seven unrestricted free agents (UFA) in 2024.
Flames’ Course of Action for Each Upcoming UFA in 2024
At the moment, the Flames only have nine players signed past 2024, but they do have restricted free agents (RFA) who will get contracts between now and then. As for the UFAs, the Flames will have to make decisions on three forwards and four defencemen.
Lindholm, Toffoli, & Backlund
The Flames’ three best forwards this season, Elias Lindholm, Tyler Toffoli, and Mikael Backlund, all become UFAs after next season. Given their age, contributions, and salaries they will be asking for on their next deals, decisions on these three will be more impactful than those on the four defencemen.
Lindholm finished last season tied for the team lead in goals, third in points, was the top-line center, and finished second in the league in Selke Trophy voting. This season, he lost both of his linemates but finished third on the team in goals and second in points. He is still the top-line center, but he isn’t elite. It was a down year in general for the Flames, and the change in linemates definitely had a negative impact on him. Still, as one of the best two-way players in the game, ideally, he would be a $7-$8 million AAV player and a really good second-line center.
However, Lindholm is likely going to get more than $7-$8 million if he compares himself to Huberdeau and Kadri or others making $9 million AAV-plus. With big contracts already given out to Huberdeau, Kadri, and Weegar, Lindholm is a better age to be given a seven-year, $9 million AAV deal, but the cap will start getting pretty tight as the number of bigger extensions pile up.
Toffoli took a big step forward this season and was the Flames’ MVP. After being traded in the middle of last season to Calgary, he has fit in very nicely and led the team in goals and points this season, coming close to a point-per-game. Having the best season of his career at age 30 is comparable to Huberdeau and Kadri last season. Both were overpaid and if the Flames jump into a longer-term deal at too high of an AAV with Toffoli after this strong season, it could haunt them the same way. Toffoli had only scored over 30 goals once in his career, seven years ago, and never even recorded over 60 points until putting up 73 this season. He has said nothing but good things about head coach Darryl Sutter, but that could also be a problem since nobody else seems to like him, and his time in Calgary may be over.
Toffoli is worth $4.25 million AAV this season and will undoubtedly get a couple million raise. He may be a solid top-six winger, but will he regress to the mean immediately after signing a big contract like the other Flames have done? A $2 million raise would be a risky play, as he might help the team for a year or two if he can keep up his play, but it will be an overpayment if he can only score 20-30 goals and 40-50 points in a season.
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Backlund has been very valuable this season, leading a strong third line that has been the most stable and reliable and has allowed Blake Coleman to improve his game after a subpar first season as a Flame. At 34 years old, Backlund led the team in plus/minus by a wide margin and also logged the second-most minutes among forwards behind Lindholm. Considering his age, he won’t get a long-term deal like Lindholm or Toffoli, if he’s kept around. He will likely get a 2-4 year deal with a lower cap hit than the $5.35 million AAV he’s making now. With 19 goals and 56 points, he did have a resurgence, but again, will it be a flash in the pan? This is a career-high for him in points and even though it might not be matched again, but he will remain as a valuable two-way player.
The verdict? Backlund is a must re-sign, while either Lindholm or Toffoli may have to be traded or risk being lost for nothing in free agency after next season. Lindholm is younger, more consistent, and will demand more money, but Toffoli had an impressive year. That being said, the Flames can take advantage of that impressive year and get a better return before he regresses to the mean.
Hanifin, Zadorov, Tanev, & Kylington
Noah Hanifin, Nikita Zadorov, Chris Tanev, and Oliver Kylington make a solid group and should be considered the top-six defenders on the Flames. Rasmus Andersson and Weegar, potentially the team’s two best defencemen, are locked up for three or more years still, so the Flames will have to figure out who else will be part of that future.
Regardless of whether the Flames decide to reset this season or go for it, it’s unrealistic to think that they can keep all four defencemen around past next season. It would make more sense to alter the defence a bit this offseason because of the down season. The Flames missed Kylington all season and they felt it with their lack of solid depth. They lost two younger defenders, Juuso Valimaki and Connor Mackey, to the Arizona Coyotes, so there is an argument to keep Kylington around if he is ready to return to the Flames. The 25-year-old excelled in his first full season in the NHL in a top-four role but wasn’t able to do that this season with Weegar coming in. Next season will be more of the same, and he will only lose value and play a less impactful role if he is slotted back in on the Flames’ defence.
Hanifin has been Andersson’s regular partner for more than two seasons, but this season, Andersson became the more impactful player. Hanifin is still a key defender for the Flames and should be one of the top priorities to re-sign. He is one player they should considering locking up early so the Flames don’t get hit with a higher cap hit if he can bring evidence of a strong 2023-24 season to the negotiating table.
Zadorov thrived this season and capped it off with a hat trick in Calgary’s final game. He had a very impressive 14 goals (one less than Huberdeau) and logged nearly two more minutes per game than last season. He was one of Sutter’s favourites because he plays a physical game and is paid for what he brings and is capable of moving up and down the lineup. He should be a priority over others, especially since the team lost Erik Gudbranson last offseason and need someone who is big and can be a physical force on the ice.
Finally, Tanev was once a very integral piece of the puzzle and some have even blamed the team’s collapse in the 2022 Playoffs on his absence. He finished 15th in Norris Trophy voting last season, but this season hasn’t been the same. He is the oldest of the Flames’ regular defencemen and his health is more of a concern now. His $4.5 million AAV is arguably a little high for what he should be making as well.
The Flames should prioritize Hanifin and Zadorov on defence over Tanev and Kylington. This will allow room for change in a positive way and keep the most integral pieces on the roster in tact.
The Flames can’t sit on their hands in the offseason. All seven upcoming UFAs are too many to get rid of all at once, and on the other hand, all seven are too many to give extensions to. The Flames also have to keep in mind that they have four key RFAs who will need new contracts at the same time – Dylan Dube, Adam Ruzicka, Jakob Pelletier, and Dustin Wolf. This should be another very interesting offseason as Calgary cannot afford to sit on their hands.