The NHL Entry Draft is soon! And after that, it's free agency! Even without your team playing in the Stanley Cup Final - and despite 28 teams in the same position, it's very lonely out here - there are a lot of interesting hockey things going on, or just along the horizon.
There's something in between the draft and free agency, though: restricted free agent qualifications. If you don't want your restricted guys to become unrestricted, you have to send them a qualifying offer, which are almost always accepted by the player. Teams have until June 29 to do exactly this.
This time a year ago, the Calgary Flames had 11 restricted free agents to qualify, and so, 11 decisions. This year, though, the number has gone up to 14. Some of these guys are repeats, some are established NHL regulars, some are en route to be just that, and some still remain in the prospect phase.
Included in the 11 RFAs the Flames had to qualify after the 2013-14 season were Lance Bouma, Paul Byron, and Ben Hanowski. Two of these guys have made the NHL, while one still remains hopeful.
Bouma was qualified and given just a one year "show me" deal. Coming off of a five goal, 15 point season, Bouma was newly 24 years old and a regular NHLer. The problem? That's not a lot of offence to go off of, even if he was primarily playing from the bottom six. The solution? Tell him to prove he deserves more.
That's exactly what Bouma did, exploding for a 16 goal (the best he's ever done, dating back to junior), 34 point career season. After the All-Star break, he was elevated to the top six, where he produced a fair amount of his points. Now that he's shown us, it's up to the Flames to re-sign him... to an appropriate deal. It's tricky, because he had a career season, but there's no reason to believe it'll keep up.
Byron went through an odd path. He left the AHL for a good and had a modest season, only to be snubbed and not receive a qualifying offer. This made Byron an unrestricted free agent, so the Flames... re-signed him.
That's not likely to happen again. Byron's one-year deal is up, and with it, he's an RFA once again. While he was hurt throughout the season, and his offence dipped (from seven goals and 21 points to six goals and 19 points in 10 more games played), the little guy proved himself an extremely versatile, effective forward who limited shots against and made his teammates better. Byron has a home in the bottom six, but it's also up to him to keep it.
Here's the case to re-sign Byron.
Hanowski is the odd man out on this list. Unlike Bouma and Byron, he has yet to make the NHL, or prove he could possibly be a regular. He was acquired in the mess that turned into the Jarome Iginla trade, and while he put together some decent college years, he definitely wasn't the star of that deal.
Hanowski's offence hasn't improved. While he had 13 goals and 31 points over 55 AHL games two seasons ago, this past season, he jumped up to 16 goals, but dipped to 25 points over 56 AHL games. He was never called up to the Flames, and other prospects seem to be passing the 24-year-old by. He'll probably be re-signed - at worst, he's a useful AHL player - but time is starting to run out.
The en route and established regulars
Mikael Backlund is the headliner of this Flames' RFA class, but following right up behind him is Josh Jooris. Drew Shore looks to challenge for a regular NHL spot next season, as does Micheal Ferland. All four players could very well be regulars for the Flames in 2015-16, but first, they need to be qualified.
Backlund is at worst a top-three centre on this team. For the time being, though, it's possible he's the best. That's not to say he'll stay there - both Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett are extremely likely to pass him outright - but in the present, Backlund is one of the most important players to the Flames. He's an elite shutdown centre who puts up roughly half a point per game. What's not to love?
Backlund's previous contracts have been extremely cheap, extremely short bridge deals, the most recent of which was just two years in length. It's time for that to stop. After finally breaking out two seasons ago, Backlund has proved he can play the toughest situations and chip in some scoring while he's at it. He's not a player who's going to break the bank, but he's a guy who needs to be locked up.
Jooris, meanwhile, was a total surprise this past season. After a modest rookie pro year - 11 goals and 27 points over 73 AHL games - he had a training camp for the ages, made the NHL, and refused to leave. He bounced all over the lineup, but ultimately proved effective both at centre and on the right side, and played well in sheltered circumstances.
This time a year ago, Jooris probably wasn't on anybody's radar, but he took that next step and established himself. His 12 goals and 24 points over 60 NHL games certainly warrant an extension, and not even a particularly costly one. Jooris fills a depth role, and he's certainly more valuable to the Flames than what they may be able to receive in exchange for his services.
Shore was acquired in exchange for Corban Knight. A righty-centre, just like Jooris, he was on the cusp of requiring waivers when the Florida Panthers dealt him. They felt he was NHL ready, but they wouldn't be able to give him a chance. This upcoming season, it's up to Shore to prove to the Flames he deserves to be a regular in the NHL lineup, and that he should get more than the 11 games he had this past season.
In those 11 games, he played limited minutes, and scored just one goal and three points. He only had one playoff game as well, where he was, again, limited in his usage. That said, Shore definitely has potential, and the Flames didn't acquire him for nothing. He should be extended, and then, he should be challenging for a regular spot in the lineup. Considering the lack of right shooters on the Flames, he definitely fills a role. If he can grow into it, then all the better.
Ferland just broke out a couple of months ago. In danger of never making the NHL, Ferland was able to overcome all adversities, from an inability to afford to play to being overweight to a concussion in his debut game. As the regular season wore down and Ferland started finding himself a regular in the lineup, he started to score. Two goals and five points over 26 games wasn't really much - though his junior and AHL careers hinted towards some latent offence - but then, the playoffs happened.
Ferland found a home on the Flames' third line, and turned into an absolute wrecking ball. He drove the Vancouver Canucks mental, threw them off their games, and ended up with three goals and five points over his nine playoff games. He certainly looked like he belonged in the NHL from that moment onwards. He still has to make it, but he'll be a serious contender for a regular spot to start the next season. No way he isn't a part of the Flames for a while yet.
There are some guys who just haven't made the NHL yet. Maybe they do, maybe they don't. There are a limited number of contracts to go around, though - 50, to be exact - and you can't re-sign everybody. Seven of the Flames' 14 RFAs seem to be gimmes.
On the wayside are Sena Acolatse, Kenny Agostino, Bill Arnold, Turner Elson, John Ramage, Max Reinhart, and David Wolf.
Acolatse is someone who may not be back, at least not on an NHL contract. After putting up PIM-heavy seasons in the WHL, the undrafted defenceman joined the San Jose Sharks organization. He spent three seasons in Worcester, but never made an NHL debut, and the Sharks ended up letting him go. The Flames picked him up for this season, but his six goal, 19 point, 68 PIM year doesn't make the 24-year-old look like he's going to challenge for an NHL spot at any point, really.
Agostino shares the Iginla trade distinction with Hanowski, so he'll probably be brought back on that principle alone. It isn't just that, though. In his first professional season, Agostino scored 15 goals and 43 points over 67 games. He was only 22 years old throughout the year, and looks like he could be a decent enough depth player one day. He's definitely sticking around.
Arnold, like Agostino, played his first professional season this year, and he did not disappoint. The same age as Agostino, he put up similar points - 15 goals and 38 points over 61 games - and could potentially be an excellent depth centre in the NHL. Sure, all the fanfare that came with his NHL debut was actually for Johnny Gaudreau, but Arnold is still a great prospect with a future in this organization.
Elson is someone who could end up being another Bouma (although he's shown a greater proficiency for scoring in the minor leagues). Two seasons ago, he was sent down to the ECHL; this past year, he recovered from that nicely. Elson ended up potting 17 goals and 30 points over 59 games. Is that enough to warrant an extension? It may be, although he'll have his work cut out for him - especially because he's a left winger, which is one of the Flames' positions of strength.
Ramage made his NHL debut in the Flames' regular season finale, and he was essentially the team's ninth defencemen (excluding the injured Ladislav Smid and Mark Giordano). It never came to the point of playing him, but the Flames showed more faith in him than any defence prospect not named Tyler Wotherspoon. Like Elson, he also recovered from a stint in the ECHL, and ended up scoring three goals and 15 points over 57 games in Adirondack. With the Flames so thin in regards to defence prospects, he'll probably be back.
Reinhart has gotten several chances with the Flames throughout the years now, but he's never been able to stick. Worse yet, he's been completely passed by a number of Flames centre prospects. He was pointless in four NHL games this past season, but did score 15 goals and 39 points over 69 AHL games. He's only 23, so it's not like his career is over yet, and at worst, he's proving serviceable in the AHL. We may be approaching his last chances with the Flames, though.
Wolf was one of the Flames' first free agent signings last year. He's huge, and he's shown some scoring talent, both in Germany and the AHL. In his first season on North American ice, he put up 20 goals and 38 points over 59 AHL games (and 168 PIMs, too - dang), so there might just be something there in regards to the 25-year-old. He was held pointless in all his NHL games, but, uh, the Flames, for some reason, actually dressed him in a playoff game, so he's almost certainly back.
[ed. This article missed Bryce Van Brabant, who is also set to be a restricted free agent. He falls into the prospect category as well, and with a rather unimpressive AHL season under his belt - just eight goals and 15 points over 52 games - his future with the Flames is uncertain. He's a left winger, so he plays a position the Flames already have plenty of prospects in, and if he makes it, it'll be as a fourth liner and nothing more.]