The Calgary Flames had a regular season to remember and a post-season to forget in 2018-19.
The club’s young core took a long-awaited leap forward, with Johnny Gaudreau finishing top 10 in league scoring and captain Mark Giordano capturing his first Norris Trophy at age 35. For 82 games the Flames were one of the top offensive teams in the NHL, leading to their best regular season since 1988-89, finishing second overall with 50 wins and 107 points.
And then they lost to the upstart Colorado Avalanche in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
After a period of examination and soul-searching, the moves made by general manager Brad Treliving suggest that he’s paying more attention to the long regular season rather than the disappointing five playoff games. Aside from a few tinkers, primarily due to salary cap reasons, the 2019-20 Flames will be largely the same team as they were a season ago.
The Flames headed into the summer with three primary goals: goaltending, freeing up some salary cap space and re-signing restricted free agent Matthew Tkachuk. They managed to complete one task, but likely earn an incomplete grade on the other two as they enter training camp.
Despite his strong performance in the playoffs, the Flames parted ways with 37-year-old Mike Smith and opted to go with a younger tandem. Their 2019-20 netminding duo will be incumbent David Rittich and newly signed veteran Cam Talbot. Rittich had a superb first half of 2018-19 as a starter but his game fell off in the second half due to a knee injury, leading to Smith taking over in net through the playoffs. The hope is Rittich can cement himself as a top-flight starting goaltender.
Talbot is coming off a rough couple seasons in Edmonton that saw him lose his starting gig and end up a depth piece in Philadelphia. If one — or both — can return to their recent forms, the Flames will have strong goaltending but if not, it could be a crucial weakness.
In terms of cap space, the Flames bought out Michael Stone in August and reportedly pursued several trades throughout the summer — TJ Brodie and Michael Frolik were said to be among those offered to other clubs. The Stone buyout was the only transaction that materialized, though, and left the club with approximately $7.7 million in cap space (according to Cap Friendly) heading into September.
Tkachuk spent his entire entry-level contract with the Flames, playing primarily with Mikael Backlund on the team’s shutdown line. He graduated to restricted free agency with impressive offensive stats, a strong two-way game, and a reputation as perhaps the NHL’s premier agitator. But in a summer where virtually every big-name RFA has been in a holding pattern, the Flames haven’t been able to ink Tkachuk to a new deal. To get him signed to a long-term pact, they’ll need more cap space than they have.
Brandon Davidson (D), Milan Lucic (F), Jakob Pelletier (F), Cam Talbot (G)
PTOs: Alexandre Genier (F), Andrew MacDonald (D), Tobias Rieder (F), Zac Rinaldo (F), Devante Smith-Pelly (F)
Oscar Fantenberg (D), Garnet Hathaway (F), James Neal (F), Mike Smith (G), Michael Stone (D)
The Flames were relatively quiet in free agency. On July 1, the team signed Talbot and depth defender Davidson — another former Oiler — while free agents Smith, depth defender Oscar Fantenberg and grinder Garnet Hathaway departed for other teams.
In mid-July, they made their other big move: trading James Neal (and the remaining four years of his hefty contract) to Edmonton for Milan Lucic (and his remaining four years) and a conditional third-round pick tied to Neal out-scoring Lucic by a specific margin. For the Flames the logic behind the deal was pretty straight-forward: there was no spot in their top two forward lines for Neal and Lucic’s style is better suited for the Flames’ bottom six.
Trade grade: Who won Milan Lucic-James Neal swap
Due to some uncertainty at the bottom of their roster with the departure of Garnet Hathaway and a serious ACL injury to top prospect Juuso Valimaki, the Flames are bringing in several players on professional tryout agreements. The two most likely to break camp with the team are veteran defender Andrew MacDonald, who could be a solid depth option on a young blue line and winger Devante Smith-Pelly. Smith-Pelly brings a Stanley Cup ring and familiarity with Flames associate coach Geoff Ward (his coach in New Jersey) to town and could be an able replacement for Hathaway on the fourth line.
The Flames made five selections at the entry draft in Vancouver, acquiring the rights to four forwards and a goaltender as they tried to add to their organizational depth. With their first selection in the opening round since 2017, Calgary picked Moncton Wildcats sniper Jakob Pelletier at 26th overall. While listed as a diminutive 5-9 and 160-pounds, Pelletier has been lauded by scouts for his skill and tenacity.
Farm system rankings: No. 23 Calgary Flames
In the later rounds, the Flames opted to draft for depth. They selected Russian two-way center Ilya Nikolayev in the third round, rugged Swedish forward Lucas Feuk in the fourth and talented USHL forward Josh Nodler in the fifth. They closed out the draft gambling on a goalie, nabbing WHL All-Star Dustin Wolf in the seventh round; one of the top goalies in all of major junior hockey, his small stature caused him to slide to the fourth-from-last pick in the draft.
Offseason grade: C+
The Flames didn’t do a ton this offseason but they didn’t really need to. Treliving and his staff did much of the heavy lifting in prior summers and ended up only needing to create cap space to keep the core of hockey’s second-best team together.
That said, the Flames failed to give themselves salary cap flexibility moving forward or get Tkachuk under contract. Due to those struggles, it’s hard to give them much more than a C+.
2019-20 season prediction
The Flames will likely take a slight step back in 2019-20, sliding to third place in the Pacific Division (behind Vegas and San Jose) but remaining firmly in the playoff picture. They may be able to get past the Sharks in the opening round, but they’ll be hard-pressed to knick off the Golden Knights in the next one.
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