Coming into the 2016-17 National Hockey League season, there was much noise made about the Calgary Flames and their impressive blue line. Heading into the year, the Flames boasted the likes of Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Dougie Hamilton under lengthy contracts. That trio provided the basis for a defensive group that seemed impressive on paper until the readers’ eyes drifted towards the bottom half of the ledger. To be charitable, Dennis Wideman and Deryk Engelland are established NHL defensemen who are a notch or two below the Flames’ top three defenders, and Brett Kulak and Jyrki Jokipakka are young, green, and still trying to establish themselves at the NHL level.
The winds of change are likely to be blowing this spring and summer, and the Flames are much more likely to be acquiring additional defenders to complement their inexperienced youngsters at the NHL level than shipping anybody out.
Two big things are happening that could impact the blue line: free agency and the expansion draft.
On the free agency front, the hefty contracts for Ladislav Smid, Wideman and Engelland are all expiring on July 1, 2017. The trio boasts a lot of experience but also big cap hits — a combined $11.7 million. While Engelland could be a contender for a new contract, as he’s arguably been the team’s most consistently-performing blueliner through the first third of the season, he’d likely require a pay cut to stick around, given that the Flames are likely giving Sam Bennett a big raise and throwing money at a starting goaltender. Considering Calgary’s cap situation, the debut of the Vegas Golden Knights, and the fact that Engelland has a home in the Nevada city, he could land elsewhere on July 1.
The expansion draft is another factor that could impact the blue line. With the Flames potentially exposing individuals such as Lance Bouma, Matt Stajan, Kulak and Jokipakka, the defensive bodies could be among the better bargains available in the expansion draft for the Golden Knights. While both young defensemen are pending restricted free agents on July 1, the fact that neither of them have lit the lamp with regularity at the NHL level likely means they won’t command big paydays and could be inexpensive depth options.
Between free agency and the Golden Knights, the Flames could have up to three jobs to fill on their blue line for 2017-18.
Inexperienced Internal Applicants
There’s good news and bad news when it comes to those three job openings. The Flames have really excelled at drafting impressive defensive prospects over the past few seasons. The 2016 draft saw them take Adam Fox, the single season record holder for defensive scoring in U.S. National Development Team history. The 2015 draft saw the Flames take talented Swedes Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington. The 2014 draft saw them take Alberta Junior Hockey League standout Brandon Hickey, perhaps the best skater in an organization that includes Brodie and Johnny Gaudreau.
Here’s the rub, though: those four impressive prospects have exactly one full North American pro season between them.
Ahead of those prospects on the farm timeline are Ryan Culkin (third-year pro), Tyler Wotherspoon (fourth-year pro) and Kenney Morrison (second-year pro). Wotherspoon has been an NHL bubble player for his entire pro career but has yet to really cement himself at the NHL level the way Kulak has, and neither of Culkin or Morrison have even gotten a shot at NHL action yet. In the absence of bringing in some outside bodies — in a year that seems to be very weak for free agent defensemen — the scary thing is that NHL jobs may be given out by default.
Moves On The Horizon?
There has been a lot of recent chatter about potential trades involving Hamilton. That chatter misses the point. The Flames have jobs opening up in the near future and a defensive prospect group that doesn’t seem to have anybody immediately knocking on the door for NHL duties, aside from perhaps Kylington.
As a consequence of this developmental gap, and to ensure there’s actual competition for those Flames gigs, expect the Flames to do a bit of shuffling as the season wears on and we get closer and closer to the expansion draft. How aggressively the Flames add these bodies will provide an indication of how deserving they feel their young AHL defenders are to earning full-time NHL jobs.