The Flames Have Laid A Foundation, Now Comes The Hard Part

The Calgary Flames were a much different team when Bob Hartley first took the helm following the 2012-13 National Hockey League lockout. The club had loaded up in the off-season, adding power-play specialist Dennis Wideman and veteran forward Jiri Hudler, and gambled on Czech newcomer Roman Cervenka adding some additional offense to the mix. With Jarome Iginla’s contract running out and superstar netminder Miikka Kiprusoff’s career winding down, the thought was it now or never for the club to make a serious playoff push.

Turns out, the answer was “never.” 250-plus games later, the club is in a much different – more optimistic – place. But now the difficult part of Calgary’s rebuilding process is beginning.

From the 22 players that were on Hartley’s line-up card on opening night in 2012-13, only five remain with the organization: captain Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie (who was a healthy scratch that night), Wideman, Mikael Backlund and Matt Stajan. To be charitable, Wideman has a contract that makes it difficult to move him, while the other four players have been re-signed in the interim (in other words, the were actively retained). Beginning in March 2013, the Flame jettisoned several veteran players in favour of youngsters and draft picks, and following the May 2014 hiring of new general manager Brad Treliving the club began signing a series of players to deals to help fill out their roster as they waited for their youngsters to blossom into contributing NHL bodies and create a foundation for future success.

The big issue for Calgary now? Their youngsters have blossomed ahead of schedule, while the players they signed to buy them time to develop are lingering on their roster with cap hits that make them tough to move.

Prior to the 2014-15 season, the Flames made a series of signings and acquisitions: adding goalie Jonas Hiller (two years at $4.5 million each), defender Deryk Engelland (three years at $2.9 million each), forward Brandon Bollig (three years at $1.25 million each) and forward Mason Raymond (three years at $3.15 million each). Respectively, that’s a quartet of effective complementary players that weren’t world-beaters by any respect, but filled key roles on a team that was bound to be full of young, untested players looking for guidance.

  • Hiller was a rock-solid, established (but aging) NHL starter needing a new home after Anaheim went young.
  • Engelland was brought in to be a third-pairing physical blueliner.
  • Bollig was a year removed from a Stanley Cup win, and a solid physical depth forward that Chicago had to trade to stay under the salary cap.
  • Raymond was coming off a solid season with Toronto, and was a solid speedy complementary forward.

It seems obvious by the timelines of these signings and acquisitions that Treliving probably felt that the Flames would need two to three seasons for the youngsters in the system to accumulate, mature, and adjust to professional hockey enough to become useful NHL players and be able to complement the team’s existing core of Sean Monahan, Giordano and Brodie. “Unfortunately” for the Flames, three years was a conservative window and the team’s young players – Sam Bennett, Johnny Gaudreau, Micheal Ferland and Josh Jooris – became NHL regulars after about a year, and Treliving was able to add Dougie Hamilton to his group. Suddenly the Flames had a young core of talented players, and a group of players surrounding them that desperately needs an upgrade in order for them to take a much-needed leap forward.

Unfortunately, the bulk of the players that Treliving inherited from his predecessor Jay Feaster and that he acquired to fill out the roster and buy prospects time to ripen are precisely what is holding them back right now. While players like Monahan, Gaudreau and Bennett mature into difference-makers, the contractual statuses of the older complementary players has stacked the balance of the team’s roster with useful players, but ones whose cap hits out-strip their ability to help the team take a leap to the next level. Thus, until the Flames can clear some cap space to allow Treliving to pursue strong free agents – such as Calgary’s addition of Michael Frolik over the summer – their young group will have to bide their time and try not to get too stir-crazy as they slog it out in the NHL’s mushy middle.

If anything, this is where Treliving’s tenure as general manager will be judged. Feaster did a great deal of the hard work as general manager: he “shoveled out the barn,” as Flames hockey operations head Brian Burke puts it, and began the asset accumulation phase of the rebuild. It’s easy to draft well when your team is really bad. What do you need? Everything. But now that the team has a young core and some established skills and tendencies Treliving will not only have to move some existing complementary players out to upgrade his club, but the larger challenge is bringing in the right players to complement the team’s young stars.

In March 2013, the Flames made a tough decision and began a rebuild. Since then, they’ve enjoyed three strong drafts and their developing young players helped drive them into the playoffs last season for the first time since 2009. The Flames have moved from the NHL’s basement to the middle of the pack on the backs of their youngsters. If they want to become more than a middling club, they need to not only upgrade their supporting cast but to surround their young players with the right linemates and teammates going forward. And they need to do so in a manner that allows them the salary cap room to lock down Gaudreau and Monahan long-term this summer and Bennett next summer.

The rebuild has entered its second, most crucial phase, and the moves Treliving makes over the next six-to-nine months will determine how quickly the Flames are able to distinguish themselves from the NHL’s mushy middle – if at all.