The evolution of a hockey club is a curious thing. Calgary Flames president of hockey operations Brian Burke has likened it to a child’s progress through their early stages: first they crawl, then they walk, then they run, and finally they sprint. The arrival of veteran wingers Troy Brouwer and Kris Versteeg in the Stampede City may be an indication, along with a few other factors, that the Flames have made it well into the second stage of their rebuild.
First Stage: Crawling
The first stage of Calgary’s rebuild focused on two things: habits and identity. Head coach Bob Hartley and captain Mark Giordano were integral in impressing upon the team the importance of a tireless work ethic, which in turn became embedded in the club’s identity. It would be possible to out-skill the young team on your way to a win, but you’d have to really work in order to get the two points. The importance of emphasizing work ethic was likely in part due to the presence of a lot of raw prospects on the team’s roster; even if the team wasn’t winning every time out, it was important to teach players like Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett how they were expected to play every night.
While the young players have been coming along for Calgary, general manager Brad Treliving has seemingly been conducting a covert import scheme: he’s collecting Chicago Blackhawks. Since his arrival in Calgary, Treliving has recruited four former Blackhawks – all of them past Stanley Cup winners – to complement the young core.
In his first significant move as general manager, Treliving acquired Brandon Bollig from Chicago for a draft pick. In the summer of 2015, he recruited Michael Frolik on the free agent market and signed him to a multi-year deal. This off-season, he signed Troy Brouwer to a long-term pact and snaked free agent Kris Versteeg out of Edmonton’s training camp and signed him to a one-year deal.
Bollig’s recruitment was part of an overall trend in Treliving’s first summer on the job to bring in veterans and physical players to complement the Flames’ youngsters; he also signed Jonas Hiller, Deryk Engelland and Mason Raymond in that span. That wave of acquisitions was consistent with Burke’s philosophy: you have to be able to provide guidance and space for your young players to be able to learn to crawl. As a result, filling out a roster becomes easier because suitable veterans are easier to find. Experience in winning is nice, but not essential, and the ideal teammates are ones that can teach young players how to be professionals.
Second Stage: Walking
Following Calgary’s surprising 2014-15 playoff season (and their 2015-16 backslide down the standings), the Flames have entered the second stage: walking. In this stage, Treliving seems to be much choosier in terms of who he’s brought in to fill out the roster. Since that playoff run, the Flames brought in a new coach in Glen Gulutzan and a trio of former Blackhawks Cup winners in Frolik, Brouwer and Versteeg. Brouwer was even made an alternate captain prior to playing a single game with the Flames, a signal of his importance to the team. Through these moves, the emphasis in terms of roster construction is no longer finding players that can teach the youngsters how to play: it’s finding players that can teach them how to win.
If you look at the franchise they’re seemingly emulating, Chicago did the same thing to aid in their progression: Andrew Ladd was acquired in 2007-08 (a season removed from his Stanley Cup with Carolina), Brian Campbell was signed in the summer of 2008 after a string of playoff appearances, and Marian Hossa was signed in the summer of 2009 after back-to-back trips to the Stanley Cup Final. The key to Chicago’s progression, aside from smart drafting, was adding the right players at the right time to augment their young core. They were successful and their moves provided the base for years of playoff success. Hopefully, the Flames will be as fortunate.