We're now officially just under one month away from the trade deadline, and the Calgary Flames find themselves in a precarious position: a bubble playoff team. They may make it. They may not. And with how tight the Western Conference and, in particular, the Pacific Division has gotten, at this point in time, there's simply no way of knowing.
They aren't a team that's a lock to be a playoff contender: someone who can buy top-flight assets to give their team that additional boost. They aren't a team that's a lock to be in the Connor McDavid sweepstakes: someone who wants to bring in high picks and talented prospects for veterans. They're in between, and considering this team's current time table, it's tough.
Last season, it was obvious what needed to be done. A year ago, the Flames were the second worst team in the West, and 16 points out of a playoff spot. It was the first official year of the rebuild, and they had veterans with expiring contracts. With sexy targets like Jarome Iginla and Jay Bouwmeester already gone, the 2014 trade deadline was far less eventful - Reto Berra for a second (??), Lee Stempniak for a third, Mike Cammalleri for... nothing (that was not an ideal move) - but it did garner the Flames a couple of assets.
This season, though, the Flames are in a playoff spot. They underwent an eight-game losing streak and didn't even fall out of the playoff race, so it's probably safe to assume (knock on wood) they'll still be in the playoff race a month from now. So that complicates things, even though the solution is clear.
The Flames aren't yet ready to contend
General Manager Brad Treliving has been pleasantly surprised by this season, but his number one priority is the long-term success of the Flames. And like it or not, the current edition of the Calgary Flames is not built for long-term success. This chart, containing the possession stats of the past five Stanley Cup Final match-ups (with this year's Flames for reference) should highlight that. The Cup winners have been bolded. (All numbers taken from Puckalytics.)
|Team||5v5 CF%||Regular Season CF% League Rank|
|2009-10 Chicago Blackhawks||56.5%||1st|
|2009-10 Philadelphia Flyers||50.9%||T-13th|
|2010-11 Boston Bruins||50.7%||14th|
|2010-11 Vancouver Canucks||52.3%||T-5th|
|2011-12 Los Angeles Kings||54.8%||2nd|
|2011-12 New Jersey Devils||50.3%||T-12th|
|2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks||54.1%||4th|
|2012-13 Boston Bruins||54.4%||3rd|
|2013-14 Los Angeles Kings||56.8%||1st|
|2013-14 New York Rangers||52.4%||T-7th|
|2014-15 Calgary Flames||45.0%||28th|
Remember: the Cup is the ultimate goal, not making the playoffs. While the team with the greatest regular season corsi doesn't always win, four out of five of the past Cup winners have been among the best possession teams in the NHL in their respective seasons, and all 10 teams to make the Cup final have been positive possession teams.
The 2014-15 Flames, now over 50 games into their season, are not only not a positive possession team: they're one of the worst in the league. So while the run is fun right now, recent historical data tells us they probably aren't close to actually contending. Yet.
Which fits in line with Treliving's plan to stay the course. The Flames' first round pick and higher-level prospects absolutely have to be off the table when it comes to the trade deadline, no matter what the presented offer may be. In fact, if the Flames can acquire more of those, that's absolutely what they need to do.
This is the second year of the rebuild. The Flames have surpassed expectations, but that doesn't make them any less rebuild-y. So if there's anything the Flames need right now, it's more picks, more prospects, and more young players. If you're trading for someone, you want to be sure he'll 1. be a good player, and 2. re-sign. If circumstances dictate you trading for a rental player, you want to be sure you're giving up nothing of value: like a Greg Nemisz, a guy who clearly doesn't have much of a future in the organization.
Selling targets: Pending UFAs
The Flames have three players who will become unrestricted free agents after this season: Curtis Glencross, Rafa Diaz, and Karri Ramo. All have relatively friendly cap hits: Glencross at $2.5 million, Diaz at $700k, and Ramo at $2.9 million, so if a cap-strapped team is in need of a boost at forward, defence, or goaltending, the Flames could very well be that team's answer.
And do any of those players have a future on the Flames? Glencross shouldn't. Diaz might. Ramo probably does not.
Glencross is a left winger who has flirted with the 30-goal mark in the past and can be an exceptional depth player. The problem? He's already 32 years old, and the Flames have a glut of left wingers, both veterans and prospects. This is probably his last chance to cash in on a big contract, and the Flames need to save that money for the Sean Monahans and Johnny Gaudreaus, not declining veterans. So while he loves Calgary and the western scene, it's simply time to part ways. And if that parting can result in a pick or prospect coming back, then that's better than letting him Cammalleri away.
Diaz is an interesting case. He's a decent bottom pairing defenceman on a very cheap contract. Things could go either way with him, especially now that Ladislav Smid has been out for a while his responsibilities have increased, including going out on the second powerplay unit. The Flames very well could re-sign him, or they could get what would probably a late pick. Honestly, at this point, he's probably more valuable to the Flames on the team than as trade bait. Diaz is 29 years old: not young, but he still has productive years in him yet, and the Flames really don't have much in the way of defence. If there's a good, Berra-caliber offer, you trade him, but otherwise, he's probably worth more holding onto.
As for Ramo, he looks like he's on the way out. Jonas Hiller is signed for another season, and he's started 34 games to Ramo's 16. That alone isn't enough to count out Ramo, but there's another guy in the mix: Joni Ortio. He forced the Flames to keep him in the NHL longer than planned as he took over an entire road trip filled with crucial matches against Pacific Division opponents, and went 4-1 along the way with one shutout and a .931 save percentage - as if things weren't already looking poised for him to be in the NHL next season. This is Ortio's last year of waiver eligibility, and you've gotta think that at this point, the Flames brass wants to keep him. All this points to Ramo being the odd man out. If a team out there needs a backup goaltender, he could possibly fetch a mid-round pick or decent prospect. It would be taking Ortio away from an AHL team fighting to make the playoffs, and putting him on an NHL team fighting to do the same thing.
Selling targets: UFAs in two years time
Bouwmeester still had a year left on his contract when the Flames traded him for a rebuilding package. Flames who will be unrestricted free agents by the end of the 2015-16 season are Jiri Hudler, David Jones, Mark Giordano, Kris Russell, and Hiller.
Let's just put this out there right now: there's no way Hudler, Giordano, or Hiller are getting traded this year. Hudler is one of the best veterans on the team, second in scoring all the while mentoring rookies (especially Gaudreau). It would take an overpayment to get him out of Calgary.
Giordano is probably going to win the Norris Trophy this year. He's also the captain, and was the unanimous choice after Iginla's departure, which says a lot about the guy. He's also leading the team in scoring all the while being a rock on the backend and making life substantially easier for the rookies. Hudler and Giordano are more likely to be re-signed than anything else.
As for Hiller, this season he won't be going anywhere. He's the team's clear cut starting goaltender, and he's been an absolute asset in helping the team win games and stay in the playoff race. Just take a look three hours up north to see how quickly bad goaltending will sink you and all of your hopes and dreams. Next season may very well be a different story, but there's no chance Hiller goes.
That leaves Jones and Russell, both of whom have been useful depth players. They're certainly replaceable - although if traded, the Flames may have to retain part of Jones' $4 million cap hit (Russell's $2.6 million is pretty friendly) - although it's less likely they get traded this season. Neither is a big ticket name like Bouwmeester, so there's little incentive for a team looking for assets for a playoff run to make sure they have them locked up an additional season.
The case to buy at the deadline
All that said, I'd like to reiterate an earlier point: barring my years-long fantasy of the Flames missing the playoffs by one point in the year of the Connor McDavid draft, and then winning the lottery, the Flames are not going to get a top draft pick this season. They could still very well collapse and finish well out of the playoffs, but they are not going to get a top pick.
So we're officially at the point where making the playoffs is the best case scenario for this team. Even though they aren't likely to go far, you're not only giving kids like Monahan and Gaudreau playoff experience; you're giving young veterans like Mikael Backlund and TJ Brodie a taste, too. That may very well be more valuable than picking seventh overall.
And the Flames have two glaring problems: the right side, and defence. The defence is the more pressing issue of the two. There's a steep fall after the top pairing, and the Flames' chances of making the playoffs - not to mention improving all the more quickly - will be greatly benefited by acquiring a capable veteran defender. Preferably someone who's young enough to contribute years down the line. And definitely someone who will come cheap. Because if the Flames are going to buy someone, they need to avoid giving up any assets crucial to the rebuild.
That's not an easy ask, but if the Drew Shore for Corban Knight trade is any indication, Treliving might just have it in him to pull it off. This is his first trade deadline as general manager, so he'll be a very, very interesting guy to watch in what's going to be a major test.
What if you improve the Flames by selling?
This is just a final point I'd like to muse on. This is purely fantasyland - at least it is right now! - but let's say the Flames trade Glencross, and don't get any players back for him. Suddenly there's a hole on left wing. Now let's say (and this is where the fantasyland part comes in) the Flames choose Sven Baertschi to fill that hole. Baertschi starts playing top-six minutes alongside Backlund. Baertschi picks up confidence and, by virtue of playing alongside fellow skilled players - just as he did in the AHL - he starts scoring. And possibly, he contributes more than Glencross.
Substitute Glencross and Baertschi for whatever names you see fit there. My point is: the Flames have a number of good prospects, some who may very well be ready to take on regular NHL roles. And some of those guys might just be better than current veterans. It's no guarantee, and it isn't something this team can rely on if they're looking to improve in the immediate, but it could produce a positive impact.
There are a lot of options for the Flames to improve the team, but every single one of those options has to be executed with the long-term goal in mind. Whether that's trading for picks and prospects, a young veteran, or promoting prospects of your own, it can't be a shortsighted move. The Flames aren't there yet.
But that doesn't mean they can't use this trade deadline to work on getting there all the faster.