Here is the problem with being Brad Treliving, the sharp yet exceedingly humble new general manager of the Calgary Flames: Rebuilds are slow, and fans want a winning team fast.
“The reality is,” he said from behind his desk at Flames HQ, “if you’re not drafting well, growing a base from within, you’re absolutely spinning your wheels.
“I’ve studied a bunch of teams,” he continues. “You look at L.A. You look at St. Louis. You look at Chicago. You look at Boston, Philadelphia… There are nuances in each, but the consistent theme is that they drafted well. And when they took that step, the core of their teams were homegrown players.”
Sure, he admits, at a certain point you begin to add key players through trades and free agency. “But the foundation of L.A. is the Kopitars, the Doughtys, the Browns, the Quicks…”
Of course, the reason teams find themselves in such humble places as where the Flames reside today, is because of a succession of poor decisions. Bad drafting, ill-advised trades, poor free agent acquisitions, inadequate player development—a lot of bad moves and bad planning all come together.
You can accuse Calgary of all of those, just as you can the say the same about the New York Islanders, Florida, Edmonton and Toronto. But it’s a fresh start for Treliving, who leaves the Arizona Coyotes for his first big GM job in Calgary, where he’s currently engaged in the task of assessing the state of the Flames’ talent pipeline.
“I’m going to find that out,” he says, before thinking for a moment. “I would say there are more pieces here than I originally thought. To what degree, or how high they’ll play? I’ll start learning that in camp.”
The most pertinent question for Treliving would be, how many of the players on Calgary’s Opening Day roster will still be here the next time a puck drops in the playoffs at the Saddledome? It’s not a fair question however, as the answer would likely alienate about 15 guys whose names aren’t Sean Monahan, Mark Giordano, Ladislav Smid, or possibly Michael Backlund and Tyler Wotherspoon.
The question does, however, give us a hint at the mandate in Calgary this October. This is a roster that young players like 2014 draftee Sam Bennett and Hobey Baker winner Johnny Gaudreau may have no trouble making. The same way all those No. 1 overalls walked into Edmonton’s training camp and were flat out better than the players they were competing with.
Edmonton is a template for Calgary, if not for what the Oilers have done right but for the many decisions that have slowed the Oilers rebuild down, namely playing their star kids before they were ready. On the flip-side for the Flames though, if sending Bennett back to junior and Gaudreau to the American Hockey League is better for their development, would it also speed up the project in Calgary? Likely not.
“There are a lot of guys who can play in the league. But [the real questions are] can you help the team, and is it good for you?” Treliving asks. “I would be shocked [if Bennett sticks]. He will have to come in here and show beyond a shadow of a doubt that, not only is he ready to be here, but this is what’s best for him.”
As for Gaudreau, he is a fascinating prospect, good enough to have shined for Team USA at the World Championships last season (2-8-10 in seven games). But he is listed on the Flames website at 5-foot-6, 141 lbs. NHL.com kindly upgrades him to 5-9, 150. Either way, that is Bantam AAA-sized.
Gaudreau undoubtedly has the most hockey smarts, and likely the best hands among all Flames prospects. But is he good enough to be that small? Treliving won’t put an ounce of pressure on the 21-year-old, who can go to the AHL if he doesn’t make the Flames this fall.
“A fair expectation is, he’s going to come into Rookie Camp, and that’ll be the first test,” said the GM, a healthy tone of skepticism present in his voice. “I’m not down on Johnny Gaudreau at all. We’re dying for ability,” he said. “But we’ve seen it here before, where it’s, ‘Here’s the saviour.’ The expectation for me is… playing in the American League is hard. Stepping right in from the college to the NHL? Very few do it.”
In the meantime, Treliving smartly shored up his goaltending, acquiring Jonas Hiller to work in tandem with Karri Ramo. “When you’re in the stage that we’re in, you need to build a foundation somewhere. This isn’t a slight to Karri (but) the combo gives us some stability.”
Stability on the ice will be paramount, because off the ice these Calgary Flames are only at the foot of the mountain. By the time they get to the top, there will be very few survivors from Training Camp 2014.