Over the years, the current Calgary Flames core group has heard from fans and media alike about how they have struggled in the playoffs, failing to make much, if any, noise. While many called for some of their top-end players to be traded, general manager Brad Treliving chose instead to keep the core intact, and bring in new depth players.
Three of the players Treliving brought in this season were players from the Edmonton Oilers’ 2018-19 roster. This was heavily criticized by media, and at the time appeared to be for a fair reason, as the Oilers had been one of the worst teams in the league and were more than ready to move on from all three. Of course, the three being goaltender Cam Talbot, along with forwards Milan Lucic and Tobias Rieder.
While Treliving was questioned early on, these moves appear to be working out, as the Oilers were eliminated in the play-in round, while the Flames advanced and are tied at two games a piece with the Dallas Stars in the first round of the postseason. A big reason for the Flames’ early success is the terrific play of the former Oilers.
Talbot was signed by the Flames during the 2019 offseason to a one-year, $2.75 million deal. Though he was a veteran who had been a successful starting NHL goalie in the past, many questioned the move as he had struggled over the past two seasons. In fact, the Oilers decided during the 2018-19 season that it was time to move on from him, and sent him to the Philadelphia Flyers straight up for Anthony Stolarz. The Flyers didn’t appear to be too high on him either, giving him just four starts for the remainder of the season.
Despite the questionable past two seasons, Treliving believed Talbot would be a great mentor to David Rittich, and would be able to step up to the plate when and if the team needed him to do so. That has certainly turned out to be the case, as Talbot looks like the goalie who led the Oilers to the second round of the 2017 playoffs. While 2019-20 didn’t start out great for him, he got better and better as the season went on, finishing with a 2.63 goals against average (GAA) and a .919 save percentage (SV%).
While it came as a bit of a surprise that the team elected to start Talbot over Rittich, there is no doubt now that it was the right decision. The 33-year-old netminder has been the team’s MVP through the first eight postseason games, posting a spectacular 2.19 GAA and a .933 SV%. Early on in these Stanley Cup Playoffs, he looks like the goaltender who was once considered a top-10 starter in the NHL.
One of the biggest and most controversial moves for any general manager last offseason came when Treliving dealt forward James Neal to the Oilers in exchange for Lucic. Lucic, 32, was coming off his worst season in the NHL, managing to put up just 6 goals and 20 points in 79 games. This wasn’t just a one off, either, as the previous season he had managed only 32 points. That, along with the fact he had four years remaining on his contract that pays him $6 million per season, made this seem like a very bad deal.
The 2019-20 regular season didn’t help his case, as Neal got off to a red-hot start with his new squad, and Lucic continued to struggle. By the end of the regular season, Neal had 19 goals in 55 games while Lucic had just 8 in 68. However, at the time the deal was made, Treliving had made it clear that Lucic was brought in to help the Flames out in playoffs, creating more space for the team’s skilled forwards. Early on, he has certainly helped them out in the postseason, likely more than even Treliving could have imagined.
Lucic started the playoffs on a five-game point streak, and currently has six points in eight games. This has come despite seeing third-line minutes and limited power-play time. While it was easy to declare the Oilers the winners of this trade early on, the narrative has certainly changed in a short time. It seems fair at this point to suggest that this trade was a win-win, as Lucic has been as good as almost any Flames forward during the 2020 Playoffs.
When the Oilers signed Tobias Rieder to a one-year, $2 million deal during the 2018 offseason, it seemed like a very good move for the team. The German-born forward was expected to provide secondary scoring to a team who desperately lacked just that. His previous seasons in the league, including the 2016-17 season, which saw him put up a career-high 16 goals, made it appear he would do just that.
Instead, the complete opposite happened. Rieder had a nightmare 2018-19 season, as he was unable to score a single goal. To make matters even worse, he was blasted to the media by Oilers chairman Bob Nicholson. While it seemed like his NHL career may be over, Treliving decided to give the now 27-year-old a professional try-out. He made the most of that opportunity, signing a one-year deal with the Flames after training camp.
Much like Lucic, Rieder had his fair share of struggles over the 2019-20 regular season. Near the end of October, he was placed on waivers and went unclaimed. He remained with the Flames, but saw limited ice time over his 55 games, and as a result posted just 4 goals and 10 points. The one value he brought to the team was his ability to play on the penalty kill, as he ranked fifth amongst Flames forwards for ice time when down a man. That penalty kill ability has been on display big time this postseason.
During the 2020 Playoffs, Rieder has nearly matched his regular season goal output, with three in just eight games. What makes that number even more incredible is that all three have come while shorthanded. As a result, he joined a short list with just six other players, one being Wayne Gretzky, to score three shorties in a single playoff run. (from ‘Wes Gilbertson: SNAPSHOTS: Flames Penalty Killer Rieder ties NHL record during overtime loss’ , Calgary Sun — 08/17/20)
With the incredible performance early on, the speedy winger may have given himself a chance to extend his NHL career beyond this season.
Role Players Stepping up
So far, Treliving’s gambles, especially the Lucic trade, have all been paying off. While it is technically the first round of the playoffs, the Flames have looked much better during this year’s play-in series, and their current series against the Stars, than they have in other recent playoffs. If players like Talbot, Lucic, and Rieder are able to continue their current play, this team has a chance to go on a serious run this summer.
Former Jr. A player turned writer. Cover both the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers, and am part of both the Flames Faceoff and Oilers Overtime podcasts.