2022 NHL Offseason: The Calgary Flames
It takes a lot to build a Stanley Cup winning team. You must have talent, of course. The right coach is crucial as well. You have to know when to trust your group and when to tinker. Luck is obviously a requirement. But perhaps more important than anything else is timing. Plenty of teams in the league could make a case they should be better or have been better if the stars had aligned just slightly different. It’s not that they didn’t make good decisions; they just didn’t string them together in the perfect cadence necessary to win a championship.
The Calgary Flames undoubtedly built a very good team in 2021-22. Patience with most of their core group paid off in spades, to the tune of 111 points, their most since their lone Stanley Cup win in 1988-89. They thoroughly outplayed the Dallas Stars in the first round of the playoffs, with only a heroic performance from Jake Oettinger in net making it a series. And even then, the Flames still managed to push through to the second round for just the second time in the salary cap era. Being unable to contain Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl is hardly an unforgivable way to go out, especially with Calgary’s best defensive defenseman Chris Tanev injured.
In a different world, the Flames would be in perfect position to build on their success and remain one of the league’s top teams for years to come. And to be clear, that might still happen. The path to staying there, however, is murky to say the least. Three of the team’s top four scoring forwards are free agents. One is less than two weeks from officially becoming an unrestricted free agent. Three of their six regular defensemen from last year also need new contracts. The Flames do have a lot of cap space. But keeping the gang together would burn through most if not all of it. And that’s a gang that still fell eleven wins short of the Cup last season.
Calgary’s situation is far from the end of the world. Plenty of teams would kill to be where the Flames are right now. Calgary combined a mix of physicality, structure, and skill absolutely perfectly last season, a mix many teams struggle to balance. Maintaining that balance will be even more difficult. In years past, where the Flames underachieved, GM Brad Treliving largely chose to keep the band together. This offseason presents the most obvious window for change any GM could think of. Needless to say, what Treliving and the Flames do will say a lot about just how strong they think last year’s team was. It was undoubtedly good, but is more time all it needs for a truly deep playoff run?
Let’s start with the good here, because there is a lot of it. The one position the Flames have zero uncertainty at is in net. After a tough first year in Calgary, Jacob Markström picked up where he left off from his breakout 2019-20 season in Vancouver. Markström was very clearly seen as the league’s second-best goaltender when the 2021-22 awards were revealed, finishing second in Vezina voting to Igor Shesterkin and earning a Second Team All-Star selection. Markström pitched nine of Calgary’s eleven shutouts, both of which led the league. Backup Daniel Vladar chipped in two of his own, with a respectable .906 save percentage to go with it. Not only is Calgary’s tandem good, but they’re affordable at a combined $6.75 million cap hit.
Calgary’s top four on defense is also largely intact. Tanev, Noah Hanifin, and Rasmus Andersson are locked up to reasonable contracts, with cap hits in the $4 million range with two years left for the first two and four years left on Andersson’s contract. Oliver Kylington will be in for a raise after a breakout 31-point season. But the 2015 2nd rounder probably won’t cost more than any of those three.
A couple of years ago, Juuso Välimäki seemed like a future fixture of that contingent as well. But an ACL tear a few years ago stalled his progress. Välimäki played just 35 games for the Flames last year. With both members of their surprisingly strong third pair of Nikita Zadorov and Erik Gudbranson set to hit the open market, perhaps Välimäki gets a chance to become a regular on Calgary’s blue-line. Given he’d been in line for a $2 million qualifying offer next summer, this may be his last chance to do so.
The Flames have just seven regular NHL forwards under contract for 2022-23, but what they do have is a pretty strong base. That’s especially if you include their two biggest RFAs, wingers Matthew Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane. The latter was one of the hottest players in the NHL, sitting top 10 in the league in goals as late as Jan. 11. He finished the year with 35, and while his shooting percentage early on was too high to sustain, his final 18.9% mark is actually slightly lower than his mark in 2020-21 (19.8%). Whether Mangiapane is a reliable 30-35 goal scorer going forward remains to be seen. But a floor of goal-scoring middle-sixer is nothing to scoff at.
Tkachuk’s contract will be the big one, though, at least on the RFA front. You could argue the Johnny Gaudreau-Elias Lindholm-Tkachuk line was the NHL’s very best in 2021-22. The trio racked up a 61.1% expected goals share with an even stronger actual goals percentage of 70.19% together. All three blitzed past their career highs, with Tkachuk and Gaudreau exceeding 100 points in contract years. Treliving has said the team will “move heaven and earth” to keep Gaudreau, a homegrown star from day one. Whether or not they can lure Gaudreau to return obviously remains to be seen. There are other great players in free agency this year, but none as dynamic or electric as Gaudreau. He proved it last season, not just in the regular season but also in the playoffs, where he’d previously struggled.
There are plenty of solid pieces behind the top line up front. Tyler Toffoli fit in well upon his arrival in Calgary. And though he scored just two goals in the playoffs in 12 games, he should be a solid fit at second line right wing for the next two seasons. Mikael Backlund remains a strong defensive middle-six center. Blake Coleman’s scoring numbers regressed a bit from his only full year in Tampa Bay. But he too is a versatile forward who can play center or wing and contribute a 5-on-5 and the PK. Dillon Dubé just missed the 20-goal mark last season as well. Regardless of what happens with Gaudreau or Calgary’s RFAs, there’s still a lot to like here.
Calgary’s bottom-six is basically all up for free agency, so they’ll need to sign at least a handful of depth forwards. Same goes for their aforementioned third pairing, which was so successful running it back might be the best option. While those may not be the most exciting moves, their importance is still high; especially if Gaudreau goes elsewhere. Bringing back players like Trevor Lewis or Brett Ritchie certainly wouldn’t break the bank. But it will be interesting to see how much turnover the Flames have in that area. Calgary focused on physicality and two-way play in its bottom-six and high-end skill at the top of its lineup. If Gaudreau leaves, we’ll see if that calculus changes, but that’s still a big if. Other than that, there’s probably not much Calgary is looking to change.
Here’s the good news for the Flames: they do have a lot of cap space. Almost $27 million of it, per CapFriendly. However, that money goes away fast if you’re re-signing all of Gaudreau, Tkachuk, and Mangiapane. The problem is that $27 million in cap space only accounts for a roster of seven forwards, five defensemen, and two goaltenders. Re-signing the big three up front takes up about $25 million in cap space, maybe more. It simply isn’t feasible to bring everyone back with the roster as is.
If the Flames want to run it back, it will almost certainly require biting the bullet(s) needed to move on from Milan Lucic or/and Sean Monahan. Lucic is an effective fourth liner making second-line money, a combination that just might not work in Calgary anymore. A buyout would only save about $1.3 million dollars this year for the Flames, plus a penalty just under $300K in 2023-24. Monahan, once as much a part of Calgary’s core as Tkachuk and Gaudreau, has consistently regressed since an 82-point 2018-19 campaign. He was in the bottom six for most of last season before undergoing season-ending right hip surgery in April. The Flames simply might not have the time or cap space to wait for a rebound. Although moving Monahan and his $6.375 cap hit wouldn’t come cheap. A buyout would save $4 million this year, with a $2 million cap charge in 2023-24.
Calgary is extremely light on picks this year after splurging at the deadline. They surrendered their first rounder (No. 26 overall) and their 2023 5th to acquire Toffoli from Montréal. The Flames gave up an extra second rounder they had for 2022 (acquired in the Sam Bennett deal) as well as next year’s third and a 2024 7th to get Calle Järnkrok from Seattle. Going back farther, their 3rd this year belongs to Boston via the Vladar trade. Calgary does have all of its second-round picks (including this year) and first rounders (beyond this year) to move if they’d like.
It would be pretty surprising if the Flames completely fell off the face of the earth next season. They still have lots of talent in the organization. Tkachuk, Mangiapane, and Kylington will all likely be back next year. The big one, of course, is Gaudreau. Re-signing him (or finding some way to effectively replace him) is paramount to keeping the Flames at a Cup caliber level.
Calgary’s regular season play last year was there, although they underwhelmed when it mattered most. Maybe that leads to the Flames front office rethinking things a bit. But given their commitment not just to winning, but winning with their core, there’s no reason to expect anything less than a full-court press to keep Gaudreau a Flame. Calgary can still be a good team without Gaudreau. But their path to being a great one, especially a better one than they were in 2021-22, all but needs Gaudreau around to be realized.
All Advanced Stats are 5-on-5 and via Natural Stat Trick unless otherwise stated