Dustin Wolf

Long-term outlook for the Calgary Flames

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Calgary Flames. 

Pending free agents

The Core

The Flames played a little over their heads for much of 2018-19, building some belief that the Flames might possess one of the NHL’s best cores. Unfortunately, Nathan MacKinnon and the Avs rained on that parade during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and things got downright soggy at times in 2019-20.

Overall, though? The Flames’ core still looks quite good. Not best-in-class, but quite good.

If nothing else, they boast some serious value.

Thankfully, they didn’t overreact and trade Johnny Gaudreau, who’s almost insultingly underpaid ($6.75M AAV through 2021-22). Maybe 2018-19 inflated expectations for “Johnny Hockey,” but he’s still an excellent player.

It’s actually difficult to tell how much Sean Monahan and/or Elias Lindholm lean on Gaudreau for production, but both are cheap and covered for years, so it doesn’t really matter.

Matthew Tkachuk? He’s worth every bit of that $7M per year through 2021-22. So the forward group is covered pretty nicely.

And, yes, Mark Giordano‘s age (36) is troubling for the future, but we’ll get to that. For now, consider Giordano pretty fantastic (not quite Norris-fantastic, but fantastic nonetheless), and nicely cost-efficient at $6.75M. Giordano’s contract ending after 2021-22 mitigates much of that aging curve concern, too.

Now, not every long-term dollar is well-spent. While Milan Lucic isn’t as bad of a player as the snark suggests, his contract really is a headache. There are other issues, such as Mikael Backlund‘s troubling term.

Ultimately, though … not bad. Not cream of the crop stuff, but you can bump that group up quite a bit thanks to a mix of bargains and relatively limited risks.

Long-term needs for Flames

Consider Cam Talbot’s resurgence triage for the Flames’ goaltending situation. Talbot provided a short-term fix, but considering his pending UFA status and how unpredictable the position can be, will the Band-Aid slip off soon?

There’s quite a bit of uncertainty there, whether Talbot returns or the Flames find the “next” Talbot. Meanwhile, David Rittich presents an unpleasant form of predictability: he’s been consistently mediocre.

Unfortunately, the Flames face questions about how to insulate their goalies. Their defense lacks clarity beyond aging star Giordano, especially if both Hamonic and Brodie played their last games for the Flames. There are worse groups out there, but the Flames may be stuck with “good” while seeking “great.”

In ranking the NHL’s farm systems for The Athletic in January (sub required), Scott Wheeler placed the Flames 26th. Even at such a low ranking, Calgary’s highest rank prospects were forwards (and goalie Dustin Wolf), not defensemen. If the Flames get help on defense, it might have to come via free agency.

Oh yeah … they might need a coach, too, if they aren’t impressed with Geoff Ward.

Long-term strengths of Flames

While the Flames’ forward group ranks a notch or two behind the best of the best, it’s still quite good. The one-two punch of Gaudreau’s playmaking on one line and Tkachuk’s two-way peskiness on another can be very effective.

The Flames also lack a cap hit above Tkachuk’s $7M. That flexibility could come in very handy if other teams need to shed salary thanks to a coronavirus-related cap squeeze.

Even certain weaknesses could be spun as strengths.

Yes, their goalie situation is uncertain, but the Flames also enjoy flexibility. Before you scoff at that point, consider that Sergei Bobrovsky‘s performing at a sub-backup level for $10M per year at age 31.

Who’s to say that the Flames won’t successfully target better goaltending, at better prices, without the risky term other teams hand out?

Such flexibility opens up lanes for free agency, too. Perhaps the Flames could take that next step by landing, say, Alex Pietrangelo or Taylor Hall?

As is, the Flames mostly show the makings of a good team. Last season showed they could flirt with great, while this one reminded that there’s still work to do. They have a decent shot at getting there, even if they aren’t there yet.

(Then again, there’s also the possibility that they already missed their best chance or chances. Hockey’s fickle that way.)

MORE FLAMES BITS:
Looking at the 2019-20 Flames (so far?)
Biggest surprises and disappointments.

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.