It has been roughly a week-and-a-half since the NHL’s free agency period opened, and most of the big names have either re-signed with their teams from last season or cashed in and switched jerseys to play somewhere new. However, there are still many recognizable names available that could still make a difference for an NHL team during the 2022-23 season.
After a flurry of recent moves including losing both Johnny Gaudreau & Matthew Tkachuk but concurrently welcoming Jonathan Huberdeau and Mackenzie Weegar, the Calgary Flames still have some needs that need to be checked off before fans start filling the seats at the Scotiabank Saddledome. Huberdeau arguably replaces the loss of Gaudreau, assuming the top line left wing and power play duties given that he led the league in assists (85) and tied for second in points with 115 in 80 games, respectively.
Weegar rounds out what will be a formidable defence core, joining Noah Hanifin, Chris Tanev, Oliver Kylington, Rasmus Andersson, and Nikita Zadorov. Both new Flames are free agents after the upcoming season, but that’s a bridge for general manager Brad Treliving to cross when he gets to it. Even after the major acquisitions, the team has $9.3 million in cap space. For now, the focus will be on putting the best possible roster on the ice for 2022-23.
While Huberdeau and Weegar are fine additions, the Flames are not without their holes in the roster. Looking at the aforementioned list of defensemen should bring ease to fans knowing that it can’t get much better. However, up front is a different story. The team is still short of wingers, especially on the right side where the only dedicated right winger on the roster is Tyler Toffoli. While forwards like Blake Coleman and Dillon Dube have demonstrated that they can play there, those changes then take away from the left side. It would be less of a headache for coach Darryl Sutter and his staff if Flames management simply went and purchased a piece or two to round out the lineup. An argument can be made for some of the Flames’ American Hockey League affiliate Stockton Heat forwards to make the jump, but if management feels uncomfortable doing so, there are some talented NHL players still left without contracts that warrant attention.
Phil “The Thrill” Kessel, a two-time Stanley Cup Champion, a veteran of 1,204 NHL games and a 12-time 20-goalscorer, is still a free agent. Perhaps his age of 35 is scaring some teams off, however, he still produces quite well, with 52 points in 82 games last year on a dreadful Arizona Coyotes team. The American is only three years removed from being a point-per-game producer alongside Sidney Crosby and co. with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and is familiar with playing in a Canadian market having put in six years of service with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Kessel has a wicked shot, is a proven finisher and could easily slot into the Flames’ top six and perhaps one of the first or second power play units. Additionally, he likely would not command the $8 million he was paid last year or a long-term contract, given that he is entering the twilight years of his career. Adding a player like him on a one or two-year deal could be the perfect stopgap for the team’s prospects to spend more time conditioning in the AHL and then moving up once he moves on.
Danton Heinen is another productive winger that remains unsigned, most recently scoring 33 points in 76 games with the Pittsburgh Penguins primarily in a bottom-six role. A fourth-round pick of the Boston Bruins in 2014, he also had a cup of coffee with the Anaheim Ducks for the two seasons before last. Heinen hails from nearby Langley, British Columbia and could perhaps be enticed to play in his home country for the first time in his career.
The Penguins have supposedly given up on him, which is strange. The 27-year-old is an analytics darling, having a Corsi For percentage (CF%) of 56.2 last year, meaning the Penguins dominated puck possession with him on the ice. He is defensively responsible and puts up a relative amount of hits, blocked shots and takeaways in addition to his offence. His 33 points also came with only an average time on ice of 12:43, and all but four of his points were at even-strength. Therefore, if he were given an increased role and some power play time, his already impressive numbers would likely increase. Heinen also commanded a $1.1 million average annual value figure last season and would likely want a raise, but it would still probably be something that the Flames could stomach for a few seasons.
The last name on this list is Daniel Sprong, most recently of the new Seattle Kraken franchise. One of only four Dutch players in NHL history, the 25-year-old is noted for having a bullet-like release on his shots and was a proportionately hyped prospect when he was Pittsburgh’s second-round pick in 2015.
The Kraken were the fourth stop already in his young career, however, seemingly never quite blossoming into the sniper he has the potential to be at each one. But has every team given up too quickly on him? The Penguins traded him to the Anaheim Ducks after just 42 games, and they subsequently flipped him to the Washington Capitals after only 52. Lastly, the Caps only gave him an 89-game audition over two seasons before jettisoning him to Seattle. He then scored six times in his 16 Kraken appearances, which would translate to approximately 31 over an 82-game season.
Like Heinen, Sprong controls possession of the puck, as he registered a 57.8 CF% last season. So why has he never panned out? On the surface, the young man has dealt with injuries over his career, including testing positive for COVID-19 last season. Nevertheless, he has been thrust into some tough spots in his career, being cast in the shadow of players such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Alex Ovechkin and having to outshine other talented teammates as well. No one in Calgary would expect him to become a star, and he could probably fit into the top- or middle-six of the forward core as well as on one of the power play units. At 25 years old, he could also grow with the team and would be affordable even after a slight increase to the $725,000 salary he earned last season.
To conclude, if the Flames feel comfortable advancing to next season with the current forward group then so be it. However, with such names still available they should kick the tires on potentially fortifying that group with one or a few of them. After all, the team has money to spend and there is legit NHL talent to be had. While eating up all of the remaining money would likely be irresponsible, none of the aforementioned free agents would cost too much but all would definitely pack a punch as a member of the Flames.