It’s been well-documented that the Calgary Flames fell well below expectations in the 2017-18 National Hockey League season. If the theme of last season was “dashed expectations,” the theme of the following off-season was “sober second thought.”
A year ago, the Flames roster and coaching staff was full of sentimental favourites and big bets on individuals that might somehow work out. Heading into the 2018-19 season, general manager Brad Treliving has seemingly abandoned sentimentality in favour of focusing on putting a better team on the ice.
The Departure of Veteran Forwards
Last season’s Flames featured a bottom six rotation that included veteran forwards Kris Versteeg, Matt Stajan and Jaromir Jagr. The trio were immensely popular with fans and Stajan and Versteeg, in particular, well extremely well-regarded by teammates during their tenure with the club. Stajan was a key penalty killer. Versteeg was a big part of the power play. Jagr was brought in to help bring along the young offensive players. It wasn’t difficult to see how the trio brought value to the table.
"Coming here to Calgary, this became home."
— Calgary Flames (@NHLFlames) August 30, 2018
Unfortunately, as well-regarded as the trio of veteran was, they were a big part of one of the least offensively productive bottom six groups in the NHL. While each of the three players had the potential for rebound years (harkening back with nostalgia to past performances), Treliving’s hockey operations group made the determination not to bring back any of them – instead opting to give some of the organization’s younger players a chance to crack the NHL lineup.
The Coaching Staff Mulligan
When Treliving took over as GM in the spring of 2014, he inherited Bob Hartley and his coaching staff from predecessor Jay Feaster. He cleared the deck following the 2015-16 season and hired head coach Glen Gulutzan and assistants Dave Cameron and Paul Jerrard to put the Flames over the top.
It didn’t work out. The Flames became a highly-skilled puck possession team that couldn’t score goals, and the club was mired with consistency challenges for much of Gulutzan’s tenure. When it became evident that Bill Peters could be wrestled away from the Carolina Hurricanes, Treliving made the move to change out his new coaching staff after just two seasons. In the game of golf, Treliving resetting things is what’s know as “taking a mulligan” and playing a hole over again.
He likely won’t be given an opportunity to swap out the whole coaching staff without some playoff success, but the move indicated that Treliving wasn’t satisfied to muddle along with his existing coaching staff.
Treliving’s Three Bad Bets
If the coaching staff swap wasn’t Treliving tacitly admitting he might have made a mistake in his initial hires, three transactions made during the off-season saw him effectively swallow his pride and move on from some gambles that didn’t pay off.
- The acquisition of defender Dougie Hamilton carried a heavy piece tag (a first round selection and a pair of second round picks), but the hope was that Hamilton could continue to develop and the Flames would have two dynamic defensive pairings. That didn’t materialize, though, and Treliving decided to cut his losses this summer and made a swap with the Hurricanes to add to the team’s forward depth (with Elias Lindholm) and add a young defender (Noah Hanifin).
- Adding Troy Brouwer made a lot of sense for the Flames, who had been pushed around a bit by the Anaheim Ducks in the 2015 playoffs and could’ve used some veteran savvy and grit in that series. However, the terms of Brouwer’s pact (four seasons a $4.5 million) were a bit steep and his speed dropped off a bit to the point where he was a regular on the team’s fourth line. With prospects on the farm team pushing for jobs – and carrying much lower cap hits – Treliving opted to cut bait and bought out the remaining two seasons of Brouwer’s deal.
- Curtis Lazar was acquired from the Ottawa Senators at the 2017 trade deadline for a second round selection. The thought was Lazar, who struggled with finding a consistent role with the Senators, could find his way with the Flames. Unfortunately, he was saddled with the same consistency issues that plagued him with his old club and he was frequently in and out of the lineup. The Flames finally waived him prior to the setting of the 2018-19 roster, giving them the opportunity to send him to the AHL to get his offensive swagger back.
Hockey is a human business, and it’s no small wonder that hockey operations departments often see their decision-making clouded by things like nostalgia and pride. The past several months have seen the Flames jettison fan favourites and swallow their pride regarding old gambles in favour of trying to ice a more competitive team. Time will tell if their approach will bear fruit, but they should be commended for their efforts.