Fans of fairness and wins based entirely on merit should probably switch their focus to chess rather than the NHL playoffs. They should certainly pass over the first-round series between the Calgary Flames and Anaheim Ducks.
The Flames organization doesn’t have that luxury. The team’s architect, Brad Treliving, is on an expiring contract. So are both goaltenders and several big-money defencemen. A decision will need to be made on Treliving, and once that’s done either he or his successor will need to find the right balance in reacting to a season that was in turns both impressive and disappointing.
Confirmation from a Flames' source, Team and Brad Treliving will meet next week to discuss the future.
— John Shannon (@JSportsnet) April 20, 2017
The first step will be not overreacting to the loss to Anaheim, a loss that was far closer than a 4-0 result would suggest.
Every game was a one-goal affair, discounting an empty-netter in the fourth contest. That’s remarkable in a series which saw Flames starter Brian Elliott implode, saw Calgary unable to buy a goal at even strength and included two questionable goals (one by Calgary’s Alex Chiasson, the other by Anaheim’s Nate Thompson) both going the way of the Ducks.
None of this is an attempt to rewrite history, but rather to emphasize the strengths of the Flames’ roster. As much as the sweep stung, Calgary did a lot of good things in those four games, and the approach now must be not to tear everything down but rather to build on what worked.
It makes sense to look at things positionally.
Despite the lack of goals for the top-six forwards in the playoffs, the Flames have a quality group. The supposed second line of Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik and Matthew Tkachuk ran roughshod over the opposition this year, putting up stunning shot and goal metrics in tough minutes. All three are signed long-term, and the unit should return intact next season.
Calgary’s top duo of Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau suffered through an off year, though they started to come around late in the season once Micheal Ferland was assigned to their line. Whether Ferland is a long-term fit or not is unclear, but with the Backlund line doing the heavy lifting in terms of opponents and zone starts there’s no reason this duo (also signed long-term) can’t be successful as the team’s go-to offensive line.
Those five players make up the core of the forward group. The remainder is mostly an odd split between cheap youth and overly expensive veterans. There’s a need to cobble together a serviceable third line out of these parts. Sam Bennett finding his legs would help, as would a return to form for Troy Brouwer, who was a disaster in his first season with the Flames. Ideally Brouwer would be cut loose, but his contract probably makes that impossible; hope is unfortunately the most realistic plan here.
Matt Stajan costs too much but is still useful as an all-purpose centre of a utility fourth line, though Las Vegas might consider claiming him as a third-line option given the dearth of pivots available in expansion. Lance Bouma also costs too much, and a buyout may be the best option there.
In Bennett, Ferland and Curtis Lazar the Flames have some decent young players to work into the mix. The critical need is for a tentpole player, probably a centre, to anchor the third line. Another scoring option wouldn’t go amiss, either, though the salary cap will probably dictate bargain-hunting, as Calgary did with Kris Versteeg this season.
Defensively, the Flames are building around three pieces, and again all of them are signed long-term. Dougie Hamilton had some rough moments in the playoffs, but he and Mark Giordano were brilliant in getting Calgary to the post-season and remain a credible top pair. T.J. Brodie is the other cornerstone on the blue line, and for much of the season the problem was finding a partner who could keep up with him.
Michael Stone was that player in the playoffs, though Stone’s history in Arizona makes that performance suspect. The less said about the rest of Calgary’s defence, the better. Brett Kulak had some nice moments as a rookie, but the Flames should have no compunctions about moving on from Dennis Wideman, Deryk Engelland or Matt Bartkowski.
Some of the money being freed up should be reinvested in a right-shot second pairing guy (again, given history, probably not Stone). Some more should be spent on overhauling the third pair; there’s no need for anything fancy there, just a competent veteran or two who can handle depth minutes.
The biggest question will be in net. Both Elliott and Chad Johnson are free agents this summer. Elliott had high highs and low lows, ending the year with a disastrous playoff showing; surely he won’t be back. Johnson might be, though even if he is there will be a need to go out and get a starting goaltender.
It should be a very busy summer for Calgary. This is a very decent team, and while the list of areas where it needs help is long, the problem spots are mostly down the roster, with the core pieces already in place. The lone exception is in net, where a reasonable gamble on Elliott backfired spectacularly.
If the Flames can get the goaltending right this time around and make some modest improvements around the edges, we might be very surprised at how improved they are in next season’s playoffs.