With how this offseason has gone for the Calgary Flames thus far, it’s not a surprise that our first call for mailbag questions got quite the response.
Last week we focused on answering questions related to the departures of general manager Brad Treliving and head coach Darryl Sutter. In doing so, though, we didn’t get to all kinds of questions related to next season’s roster and potential player movement this summer.
That’s what we’re focusing on this week.
With big money extensions for Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar ready to hit the books, the Flames are one of many teams set to be right up against the cap next season. Depending on your calculations, Calgary’s wiggle room projects to fall between $1 and $2 million right now. They could have more room if the cap goes up more than expected.
Regardless, there’s a distinct possibility the Flames will need to make a move of some sort to maximize their roster. And, at risk of copping out, it’s tough to say anyone is untouchable. That said, the first place I’m looking is the group of players entering the final year of their contracts. Any one of Noah Hanifin, Elias Lindholm, Mikael Backlund, Chris Tanev, Nikita Zadorov, or Tyler Toffoli could get the Flames a solid return and would free up the meaningful cap space they’d need to help fill out the roster effectively.
The best way to answer this question is to determine Calgary’s biggest area of strength. For me, that’s on defence…with more on that shortly.
I’m less bullish on this team’s forward depth, especially with how difficult it was to score last season. Subtracting a forward for cap relief feels a little more precarious, even with Matt Coronato and Jakob Pelletier hopefully pushing for full-time jobs come training camp.
This conversation obviously changes if someone like Lindholm informs the team he’s not interested in signing long-term. Generally, though, moving out a forward for cap reasons feels less desirable when compared to a similar move on defence.
And then there’s goaltending, which we’ll also tackle a little later. But in terms of depth and trading from a position of strength, I’d put it right in the middle between defence and forward.
One of the offseason’s biggest positives thus far is the news Oliver Kylington is ready to return next season. After a breakout campaign in 2021-22, Kylington sat out all of last year for personal reasons. Getting him back in the fold is encouraging and only adds to Calgary’s already solid blue line depth.
Along with Kylington, the Flames have Weegar, Tanev, Hanifin, Zadorov, and Rasmus Andersson under contract for next season. And that’s before factoring in a potential re-signing of pending UFA Troy Stecher, which makes a lot of sense.
Stecher thrived upon his arrival in Calgary at the trade deadline and racked up three goals and seven points in 20 games down the stretch. Furthermore, Stecher spoke very positively about a return to the Flames on locker clean-out day. If that transpires, it only adds to the idea of Calgary dealing from a position of strength.
Kylington’s return and re-signing Stecher would give the Flames the type of depth that would allow them to trade a player like Hanifin or Zadorov. They’d still be able to construct three NHL pairings and would have more cap flexibility to fill out their roster elsewhere, specifically at forward.
My initial answer to this question is yes, I can see the Flames moving Dan Vladar to make room for American League phenom Dustin Wolf. While there’s merit to bringing along young goaltenders slowly, it’s also fair to say Wolf has nothing left to accomplish in the minors.
Wolf is the two-time defending goaltender of the year and he took it one step further by being named league MVP this season. Keeping him exclusively in the American League next year would be hard to justify, and hard to message to the player. So, if Calgary were to deliberately make room this summer, it wouldn’t be a shock.
It’s not something I would do, though…at least not yet. I’ve proposed somewhat of a middle ground where Wolf gets game action in both leagues. It’s something we’ve seen from teams like Nashville, Buffalo, and Carolina in recent years and the Flames have the added benefit of having their number one affiliate in the same city.
A hybrid solution like this allows progression for Wolf and doesn’t keep him solely in the minors, which is important. It also insulates him if, at the age of 22, he’s not quite ready for the NHL. And if he shows he is, Calgary can start going down the road of moving one of Vladar or Jacob Markstrom.
One pending free agent we haven’t mentioned was Matthew Phillips. The local product will be a group six UFA on July 1 and many believe his time with the Flames is coming to an end. As the question suggests, having his AHL coach (Love) and one of the hockey ops members who pushed to draft him (Conroy) in larger roles can’t hurt Calgary’s cause in bringing Phillips back.
But taking Conroy and Love out of the equation, you don’t have to squint to see a path for a return to the Flames. Despite all kinds of minor league productivity, the undersized Phillips has only suited up in three NHL games since being drafted in 2016. But with the firing of Sutter, his main roadblock to the show is no longer in the way.
If I’m the Flames, I go to Phillips and offer him a one-way contract for next season combined with an opportunity to meaningfully compete in training camp. He’s a born and raised Calgarian and has done nothing but produce since being drafted. At best he’s a great homegrown story next season and at worst he’s getting big bucks in the AHL as one of that league’s elite players.