Quick playoff exit stings, but the Flames are on a good path

0
33

Disappointed Flames players endure the dying seconds of their loss to the Anaheim Ducks on April 19, 2017. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Officially, the postmortems on an eventful and relatively successful Calgary Flames season will all take place Friday. Players will conduct their exit interviews and mumble words about their off-season plans. Johnny Gaudreau will update all about the progress of his university studies and explain what it was about the Ducks’ defensive strategy that made him struggle at even strength in a playoff series won by Anaheim in the minimum four games.

Most of the attention will be paid to management’s off-season plans – and an outline of the steps needed to evolve from a promising up-and-coming team to a real Stanley Cup contender.

But the first order of business will be to determine the future of general manager Brad Treliving, the man in charge of all the buying, selling and trading decisions. Three years into his tenure, Treliving is like a handful of his players, on an expiring contract.

In two of those three years, the Flames made the playoffs (after missing them for the five previous seasons). He has made some missteps along the way, especially early on when players signed to provide depth (Devin Setoguchi and Mason Raymond to name two) didn’t work out.

But mostly, he has done a thoroughly professional job of setting the franchise straight. Some of the contracts he inherited from the previous regime are either expiring right away (say goodbye to Dennis Wideman and Ladislav Smid) or soon (Matt Stajan, one year left at $3.125-million [U.S.]).

When the Flames hired Treliving, they identified him as one of the NHL’s bright rising managerial talents. Nothing he’s done in his first three years would contradict that belief.

Assuming they get around to confirming that he’s staying around, Treliving can then shift his attention to dealing with this summer’s primary tasks, which begin in goal, where the Flames made important year-over-year strides. Two seasons ago, the quartet of Jonas Hiller, Karri Ramo, Joni Ortio and Nicklas Backstrom produced a cumulative 3.10 goals-against average and .892 save percentage, which statistically left them 30th out of 30 NHL teams.

Not good. This year, it was much improved. The duo of Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson, who saw all but 80 minutes of duty, finished 14th over all in the league, their 2.64 GAA almost half a goal better per game. The Flames actually scored five fewer goals this year compared with last, but allowing 39 fewer goals was the difference between making the playoffs (with 94 points) and missing them (with 77 a year ago).

A 17-point rise in a 12-month period, thanks largely to improved goaltending, would make you think they’d rush like mad to get Elliott and Johnson signed, as both are on expiring contracts.

But the goaltending faltered in the playoffs, so the temptation may be there to scour the market one more time to see if an upgrade is available.

The problem with the pending crop of unrestricted free agents (a list headed by Ben Bishop of the Los Angeles Kings) is the cost. They will all want term and dollars. Calgary has a trio of promising youngsters in the pipeline (Jon Gillies, David Rittich and Tyler Parsons) and at some point, they will need to feed one of them into the lineup.

So a lengthy commitment to an established goaltender may not be the right fit, financially or in terms of stalling the development of one of their kids. Instead, they may need a shorter-term solution in goal (Marc-André Fleury or Mike Smith?) who can buy them time to get Generation Next ready. Beyond his goaltending dilemma, Treliving will also need to sign or acquire at least one more top-four defenceman. The available options include two of his own pending unrestricted free agents, Michael Stone and Deryk Engelland. Up front, a quartet of restricted free agents – Sam Bennett, Micheal Ferland, Curtis Lazar and Alex Chiasson – will also need new contracts, but that will be mostly busy work compared with some of his other tasks.

Bennett didn’t have the kind of breakout season that Gaudreau or Sean Monahan previously had, so his leverage in extracting a big deal coming out of his entry-level contract won’t be nearly as great. Centre Mikael Backlund, coming off the finest season of his career, has one year left on a $3.575-million contract, at which point he will become an unrestricted free agent. Retaining his services will be critical.

When the Flames players speak on Friday, the message will sound familiar to anyone who heard them after Wednesday’s game, which they lost to the Ducks. There will be genuine disappointment, given it’s far too soon for the sting of the defeat to fade away. But there will also be resolve – that this is a team headed in the right direction, with better days ahead.

The core pieces, at forward, on defence, behind the bench, in the GM’s chair, are in place.

A few roster tweaks here; a little more experience there; and a critical make-it-or-break-it decision in goal will ultimately decide how soon that promising future actually arrives.