The 2019 trade deadline came and went without fanfare for the Calgary Flames. The Winnipeg Jets added Kevin Hayes. The Nashville Predators added Wayne Simmonds and Mikael Granlund. The San Jose Sharks added Gustav Nyquist. The Vegas Golden Knights added Mark Stone.
In the midst of their best season since 1988-89, the top team in the Western Conference raised eyebrows for the moves they didn’t make. While the other big guns in the West loaded up, the Flames decided to head towards the post-season with the group they have. It’s all seemingly part of general manager Brad Treliving sticking to his long-term organizational plan. The general plan appears to have three successive, but somewhat overlapping, phases.
Phase One: Asset Accumulation
The first few months for a GM on a new team usually involves figuring out what style they need to play to be successful, evaluating the current roster to determine which players are compatible with that style, and then making moves to acquire players that can play that style. Treliving inherited a fairly young group from predecessor Jay Feaster and didn’t make a ton of moves during his first year on the job aside from acquiring grinder Brandon Bollig as a bodyguard for the team’s youngsters.
“We were throwing punches to the 12th round.” – GM Brad Treliving on how close the team was to other moves prior to today’s deadline.
“It just kept coming back to players and pieces we weren’t prepared to give up.” #Flames
— Pat Steinberg (@Fan960Steinberg) February 25, 2019
The majority of Treliving’s other early moves fell into one of three categories: shifting out expiring assets for future assets, moving projects from the previous regime out for future assets, or taking low-risk gambles on unheralded players – teams early in their builds usually don’t have a ton of expendable resources, so they have to look for value buys.
- Shifting Out Expiring Assets: Curtis Glencross traded to the Capitals for picks, Kris Russell traded to the Stars for a package that included a pick, Jiri Hudler traded to Panthers for picks, David Jones traded to the Wild for an expiring contract and a pick
- Moving Projects: Corban Knight traded to Panthers for Nick Shore, Sven Baertschi traded to Canucks for a pick
- Low-Risk Gambles: signing college free agents Garnet Hathaway and Ryan Lomberg, signing European free agents Jakub Nakladal and David Rittich
The thought process behind the asset accumulation phase is often “We’re not sure how our young players will develop and what strengths they’ll have, so let’s give ourselves some options to work around how they develop.”
Phase Two: Asset Maturation and Leveraging
Once a team has accumulated assets and given themselves options, the waiting game starts as the assets mature. This doesn’t describe just a player’s on-ice maturation, but their development as an asset. As a player develops a reputation, their value in the trading market develops – and their value as a trading chip may have very little to do with their on-ice maturation, as plenty of one-dimensional players have become tremendously valuable for their GMs.
In the asset maturation and leveraging phase, draft picks or young players mature and turn into either key pieces for the hockey club or valuable assets that can be flipped to help their team in other ways. Or assets that haven’t matured yet can be bundled together and traded to help acquire key pieces.
Treliving has frequently dipped into asset leveraging during his time as Flames GM:
- He bundled three draft picks to land Dougie Hamilton from the Bruins, then bundled Hamilton, Micheal Ferland and Adam Fox to the Hurricanes for Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin
- He bundled two picks to land Brian Elliott from the Blues
- He bundled a package that included a pick, an expiring contract and a prospect to land Mike Smith from the Coyotes
- He bundled three draft picks to land Travis Hamonic from the Islanders
It’s worth noting that Treliving’s instances of asset leveraging all involved the acquisition of relatively key, long-term pieces: starting goaltenders, top four defenders and top six forwards – the things that are expensive to find in free agency and extremely challenging to find in the draft.
Phase Three: Asset Maturity and Roster Back-Filling
Drafting and development is crucial for any organization, but doubly so when a club has built their team properly. If a hockey operations team has built a young core and surrounded them with a strong supporting cast, the toughest thing to do is to surround that broad group with the right players in complementary, fringe roles. When a team is rebuilding, decisions on who plays on the fourth line or third defensive pairing don’t matter as much; when a team is poised to content, those decisions can be huge.
Back-filling a roster with young, inexpensive players that can contribute in key roles while not toppling a team’s salary cap structure is one of the keys to success in the modern NHL. While the Flames haven’t been in a situation of roster maturity for very long – the 2018-19 season was arguably their first with all their key pieces in place – they have begun to get contributions from young, recently-drafted players. Their roster has featured 2015 picks Rasmus Andersson, Andrew Mangiapane and Oliver Kylington, 2016 pick Dillon Dube and 2017 pick Juuso Valimaki in supporting role throughout the season.
The key to long-term success is constantly having enough draft picks to be effective at restocking the cupboards with young depth as players age out of the entry level system and become more expensive – and often becoming key pieces in their own right, prompting some existing core pieces to be swapped out for futures to sustain the cycle.
Treliving Sticks to the Plan
Despite the temptation to deviate, Treliving has been remarkably consistent with sticking to the guidelines of his professed plan throughout the past four or five seasons. In media engagements following key events such as free agency, the trade deadline and the draft, he’s cautioned about “robbing Peter to pay Paul” and “keeping up with the Joneses.” In other words: putting the Flames in an asset deficit just to speed through the rebuild probably wouldn’t work – as it would create problems later – and spending key assets to bring in short-term rentals also wasn’t ideal.
Building up a hockey club can be long, painful work. The Flames have slogged through many of the stages of their rebuild and are finally enjoying the fruits of their labours. Their big run to the top of the Western Conference standings is a validation of their GM’s patient, prudent approach to the job and his resistance to the temptations of deviating from their organizational plan.