Flames Face Trade Deadline Balancing Act

After a whirlwind first two-thirds of the 2018-19 season, the Calgary Flames are in an unfamiliar place as they approach the trade deadline: contention. The hockey club is perched atop the Western Conference standings and in a year where there’s no clear conference powerhouse, they’re in a position to potentially make a deep playoff run.

Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

But the sudden opening of the Flames’ window of playoff contention has put the club in a unique and precarious position. Team management is attempting to bolster the current group for a deep run without creating problems for themselves in future seasons.

Three Deadline Priorities

The Flames have a trio of potential trade deadline priorities:

Their top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm has been superb. Their shutdown line of Matthew Tkachuk, Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik has been very strong. But the Flames are likely hoping to get a bit more offense out of their forward group, particularly since high profile free agent signing James Neal has as many goals (five) as depth signing Derek Ryan. Adding another scoring winger would give their attack a bit more depth and make a bounce-back for Neal in the latter stages of the season less of an imperative.

While their third defensive pairing has been a combination of two of three rookies – Rasmus Andersson, Oliver Kylington and Juuso Valimaki – none of the trio has played a single game in the Stanley Cup playoffs. In an ideal world, the Flames would probably love to find a veteran left shot blue-liner on an expiring contract. Adding a veteran would allow them to shelter Kylington a little bit and give them the option to swap him out (with the aim of keeping his confidence up).

Goalies David Rittich and Mike Smith have been strong, if a bit inconsistent, this season, but Rittich is not a completely known quantity and Smith is approaching his 37th birthday. If one (or both) falters, the third stringer is American Hockey League netminder Jon Gillies – statistically the worst regular netminder in that league. A veteran insurance policy would be a “nice to have” for the Flames organization.

The Deadline Balancing Act

The Flames have a lot of needs. Can they fulfill them? The short answer is “yes, but not all of them.” The long answer is a bit more complex.

The club doesn’t have a ton of cap space heading into the deadline; it’s estimated they can add around $5.7 million of combined cap hits at the deadline while still remaining compliant. Unless salary goes the other way, it’s unlikely they can add the likes of Mark Stone ($7 million cap hit) or Artemi Panarin ($6 million). Additionally, they have a trio of pending restricted free agents needing new contracts: Tkachuk, Rittich and Sam Bennett. Unless they know precisely what cap space they have to work with in 2019-20, it’s tough for them to acquire players with any term left.

That situation essentially hems them into being a rental team that focuses on the secondary forward market with names like Mats Zuccarello, Ryan Dzingel and Gustav Nyquist. But even that’s challenging give that a few seasons worth of big moves from Treliving have allowed the team to load up but at the expenses of trading away draft choices. As a result, the Flames have two problems to deal with: they don’t have a ton of draft picks in the 2019 NHL Draft and their best prospects have already arrived in Calgary (or are waiting in the wings in Stockton).

Paying Peter Without Robbing Paul

To borrow a phrase from Treliving, from early in his tenure, the balancing act for the Flames is paying Peter without robbing Paul – can they load up without taking away too many resources from future seasons?

“We’ve spent picks before but all for players with term,” said Treliving to NHL.com’s Tim Campbell. “We’ll have to see how it plays out. You stay in touch with the marketplace and talk to other teams, but we’ll wait and see and watch how things go. It can be a dangerous game, getting involved and spending a lot of assets for something that’s real short-term.”

The Flames are just entering their window of playoff contention. The Seattle expansion draft follows the 2020-21 season and it’s likely the Flames will lose a quality player given the expected exposure requirements – that deadline gives them two full seasons after the current one to maximize the playoff performance of their current group.

While captain (and Norris Trophy contender) Mark Giordano is 35 years old and playing the best hockey of his career, the remainder of the Flames’ core group is younger than 30 and signed for awhile. They’re in the midst of a sprint to maximize their current group but it’s likely a three year (or longer) sprint, and their challenge before the Feb. 25 deadline is to make prudent moves that suit their present needs without handcuffing themselves in the future.