Risk, reward: Hanifin’s deal; future of Flames

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When word surfaced that the Calgary Flames bet big – but not necessarily recklessly so – on Noah Hanifin with a six-year deal that comes in just a hair under $5 million per year, my personal reaction was “Well, that is … fascinating.”

Let’s break down the ins and outs of not just the Hanifin deal, but GM Brad Treliving’s general vision for the Flames.

Assessing Hanifin

Hanifin, 21, inspires some pretty interesting banter. One thing just about no one can deny is that the 2017-18 season was by far his most promising in the NHL.

[For an in-depth breakdown of his breakthrough, check this post]

That said, it’s only so useful to compare 2016-17 Hanifin to last year’s model, at least when you’re trying to gauge if he’ll be valuable during the six years of his contract.

The good: Hanifin checks out as the speedy type of player who fits into the “modern” style of NHL game. Plenty of metrics indicate that, even as he struggled in other areas of the defensive gig through the early years of his still-young career, he was strong in transition.

You could project bigger offense from him in the future, too. Hanifin didn’t just explode (by his previous standards) with 10 goals and 32 points; he also managed nine of those goals at even-strength. If he starts getting more opportunities, might he put up eye-popping offense? It’s at least plausible.

The bad: Hanifin was sheltered early in his NHL career, and Bill Peters, the same coach who sheltered him (and possibly didn’t trust him?) in Carolina, is now in Calgary.

His peak ice time with the Hurricanes came last season, yet he averaged 18:52 minutes per night, a pretty modest total for a guy who’s now making $5M-ish per year. Hanifin also began 63 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone last season, the most sheltered of what’s been a very sheltered career.

Overall, the jury’s out on what kind of player Hanifin is, but Calgary is clearly projecting bigger things for him. It’s easy to forget just how young he is, after all.

Brad Treliving is developing a reputation for witty one-liners, and he nailed that sentiment when discussing the fact that Hanifin already has 239 regular-season games of NHL experience despite being just 21.

“We’re talking about a 21-year-old guy who has played three years in the NHL,” Treliving said, via Postmedia’s Kristen Anderson. “I don’t buy into that, ‘Oh, he’s not where he should be.’ Most guys his age are learning to walk and chew gum at the same time.”

Good stuff.

Personally, this tweet from The Athletic’s Kent Wilson falls in line with my take on Hanifin, and Hanifin’s contract: there may be some reasons to question his true value, but this contract could end up being a nice deal for Calgary. Look at the Predators as an example: they signed guys like Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis before they matured to their highest levels, and have enjoyed bargain contracts as a result. You ultimately need to trust your staff’s ability to project players and assign proper value for players. The Flames could have a gem if they’re right about Hanifin.

And it could still be mostly OK if he’s, well, just mostly OK.

Big, but mostly reasonable, gambles

To some extent, the overall price tag of trading away Dougie Hamilton and Micheal Ferland for Hanifin and Elias Lindholm shows the perks of locking up star players Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan for term and very reasonable prices. It gives you the luxury to pay up for other players, betting on greater returns from youthful talent (ideally) just about to enter primes.

When you consider the Flames’ big-picture situation, it mostly looks reasonable, with some tantalizing upside:

Not awful even if you don’t love every player, right?

On the other hand, another point is clear: this team is committed to Treliving’s vision, for better or worse.

The bottom line is that, for all of the high-end skill of Gaudreau-Monahan, Mark Giordano, and “The 3M Line,” the Flames missed the playoffs last season. They really haven’t put all of that on-paper promise together, yet they’ve continued to make costly investments.

When a GM gets fired, they’ll either leave behind a fairly clean slate (which has its drawbacks, in that the next person will need to do all the building) or a ton of commitments. If things don’t work out with Treliving, the following GM will probably struggle to make a mark on this franchise. Treliving is locking the Flames down with several lengthy deals, and the nightmare scenario is that Calgary could end up being stuck much like the Minnesota Wild (who boast some talent but generally a ton of headaches).

Hanifin’s contract doesn’t feel like it is the sort that can submarine a franchise. The low end seems to be an overpay, rather than an albatross.

It’s still risky, especially when you look at the Flames’ summer overall. After missing the postseason, Treliving pledged $18.675M to Hanifin, Lindholm, James Neal, and Derek Ryan, with the latter two players being 30 and 31-years-old respectively. Treliving changed to head coach Peters and decided to part ways with Hamilton and Ferland.

***

Hanifin could suffer by comparison to Hamilton, and this overall vision could look grim instead of promising if things go wrong in 2018-19.

The good and bad news is that, rather than standing pat, Treliving is rolling the dice. Will these bets look smart in hindsight? It should be fascinating to watch and find out.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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