The first step of solving a problem is admitting one exists in the first place.
Unfortunately for Calgary Flames fans, their management took far too long to come to grips with reality and have let the franchise stumble into the state that exists today.
It’s never easy to admit failure, but the Flames spent most of the last four years chasing a playoff spot, much like the Toronto Maple Leafs did in the final days of Mats Sundin, with a roster that wasn’t up to the challenge.
As the old adage goes, it’s always better to get rid of someone a year too early than a year too late. The Flames went the opposite way.
Trading a captain has resulted in little success over the years in the NHL, but what’s worse is letting your biggest assets decline then moving them for little value in return.
That’s exactly what happened in Calgary. By the time the Flames accepted the idea they needed to trade Jarome Iginla (partly the fault of no-trade clauses), all they received was two low-level college prospects in return for their franchise player.
Not exactly sterling asset management, and you have to consider they’ll end up getting nothing back for one of the better goalies of this era in Miikka Kiprusoff.
Now general manager Jay Feaster has to get this right. Darryl Sutter left him with a mess of a roster, and Feaster hasn’t exactly done a great job since joining the front office.
Right now, the Flames look primed for a run for the top pick in next year’s draft, which might be Calgary’s best course of action.
Feaster has a number of high draft picks and some salary cap space to work with, so if Calgary wants to return to a franchise that isn’t littered with mediocrity, it’s time for the GM to bring in younger, faster pieces that will be around for the long haul.
Projected cap room: $19,171,667 (via capgeek.com)
For a team that lacks front-end talent, the Flames’ first priority may be getting rid of some of the aging players on their roster.
They are a bit long in the tooth and should look to deal players like Michael Cammalleri, Alex Tanguay, Jiri Hudler and Dennis Wideman — productive players who could be replaced with younger, cheaper options.
Cammalleri has just one year left (a bit expensive at a cap hit of $6.5 million) on his contract but is a piece that could bring back an asset the Flames would be targeting.
Tanguay has three years left on his deal but is at a much more reasonable price, with a salary cap hit of $3.5 million for the next three seasons.
When it comes to re-signing their own players, the Flames don’t face challenging decisions this summer.
They could use one of their two compliance buyouts to create even more cap space moving forward.
The only real tough decision will come with former first-round pick Mikael Backlund, who has proven to be a serviceable pro. Backlund is the type of prospect the Flames should be looking to keep around, and his production shouldn’t require a huge number to sign him.
Brian McGrattan, forward: McGrattan is a pure enforcer. The Flames would be better filling this roster spot on a younger player with more upside.
Steve Begin, forward: The 34-year-old doesn’t have much left in the tank and may be headed for a full time gig in the AHL at this point in his career.
Anton Babchuk, defence: Babchuck has reportedly left the Flames to join the KHL. It’s not a big loss either way.
Brett Carson, defence: Carson is a fringe NHL blueliner who adds nothing more than depth for their defensive corps. He played in just 10 NHL games this season.
Leland Irving, goalie: Irving hasn’t exactly lived up to his first-round draft status, and with Karri Ramo coming over, Irving doesn’t have much of an NHL future in Calgary. He could end up back with Calgary’s AHL affiliate.
Mikael Backlund, forward: Backlund didn’t exactly set the world on fire with just 16 points last season but the 24-year-old still has the upside and potential that the franchise desperately needs up front. Both sides should be looking for a short-term deal where the Swede can finally prove his worth.
Chris Butler, defence: At just 26, it would make sense for both sides to come to a deal for next season. Butler — the main piece acquired in exchange for Robin Regehr — would be the type of player that can eat minutes on defence as the roster goes through a rebuild. He shouldn’t be all that expensive to keep, either.
T.J. Brodie, defence: Brodie just finished his entry-level contract and shouldn’t command too much of a raise after coming off his best season as a pro. He finished with 14 points in 47 games but must show improvement in his own end. It’s hard to imagine the Flames walking away from the 23-year-old.
Mark Cundari, defence: Cundari doesn’t offer much other than an injury replacement, so expect him back with AHL’s Abbotsford. He has played in only four career NHL games.
As we mentioned above, making a shortsighted move and overpaying declining players in free agency is what got Calgary in this mess in the first place. The team needs to focus on getting rid of questionable contracts instead of adding more veteran players. Making the playoffs shouldn’t be the priority right now, as much as that may upset fans.
Stephen Weiss, centre: Coming off an injury, Weiss could prove to be a bargain signing for a team in need of an offensively minded centre. But after spending his entire career in a losing situation in Florida, it could be tough to sell the 30-year-old on joining another potential bottom-feeder.
Mason Raymond, left wing: Depending on the price, Raymond is one of the rare players on the market that still could be ascending at this point. He was never able to reach his potential with the Canucks but could be a player worth taking a flier on. The Flames could really use that speed on the wing.
Derek Roy, centre: Like Weiss, Roy makes sense as a short-term option. They can use a veteran centre to eat minutes as they look to develop some players. Based on his performance this season, it’s hard to imagine Roy being the most attractive player on the free agent market, so they may be able to find a price point that fits the needs for both sides.
Like we said, the free agent route doesn’t make sense for Calgary right now.