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Saturday, July 22, 2017

Eight From 80 Feet: Eight Thoughts on Recent Happenings in a Busy Flames Off-Season



As the off-season continues, time to knock the dust off a content feature I haven't trotted out recently. It's a July edition of Eight From 80 Feet.

The premise is simple. It's eight random thoughts on the latest goings-on with the Calgary Flames and there's been plenty of fodder to work with given the rash of recent signings.

Here we go.

1. In Synch: Valimaki and Giordano Contracts

The signing on Friday of 2017 first round pick Juuso Valimaki to an NHL contract is something that deserves a little extra explanation.

Based on him being an older player in terms of the draft with a 1998 year of birth, and with him signing his entry level contract when he did, his contract has the ability to slide twice rather than just once, which is typically the case.

If you're not familiar with the concept of the slide, the standard ELC for most players does not kick in until their second season after being drafted. If they go back to junior after signing, that year does not count and year one of the deal will begin the next season. But with Valimaki, it potentially wouldn't begin until his third season and that's not an insignificant detail.

Rest assured that Valimaki will be playing in the WHL this season. At his age, it's either back to junior or staying in Calgary. Based on the state of the Flames blueline and where the 6-foot-2 Finn is at development-wise, it would make zero sense for him to stay in the NHL this year.

Mark Giordano
Next season, he will be age-eligible to play in the AHL and there is a good chance that's where he ends up. Could he jump straight to the NHL instead? Anything is possible but with more seasoned prospects like Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington also in the pipeline and with the Flames top-five on the blue-line all under contract still, there are only so many jobs. The prudent approach would be to let him adjust to the pro game in the AHL for a season where he can play a ton and in all situations, while adjusting to the next level of competition.

Assuming it isn't until 2019-20 that he reaches that 10-game NHL games played threshold that kicks in his contract, that's ideal timing for the organization because of how it aligns with the contract for Mark Giordano.

In this scenario, what ends up being the first three seasons for the left-shooting Finn at $925,000 (if in the NHL) would coincide perfectly with the last three seasons of left-shooting Giordano's deal that pays him $6.75 million. It's the ideal overlap with Valimaki' not getting into a much bigger AAV until after Giordano comes off the Flames books.

So that's how the white board looks. It's projecting a long way out and much can change, but no doubt these are the types of things that the GM is very well aware of and thinking about.



2. Head-Scratching Hostility Towards Hathaway

The recent barrage of RFA signings included rugged right winger Garnet Hathaway and it was a deal that on social media was met by mixed reviews from some corners of the Flames fan base.

Far from an analytics darling and I get that, it was still surprising to see the amount of venom in the backlash, one person describing it as a waste of a contract.

Signed to the NHL minimum of $650,000 and on a two-way deal so he's only making that if on the NHL roster, it's hard to find a lot of faults with the deal, which is also only for one year.

This is a guy, who wears a letter in the American Hockey League, who plays in the top-six at that level, seeing a lot of time on Mark Jankowski's wing last season.

A favourite of Stockton coach Ryan Huska and a guy who Glen Gulutzan has also spoken highly of, he's clearly an example of a guy that is an ingredient teams like to have but for reasons that don't necessarily translate to statistics.

That said, any assertion that he doesn't contribute to winning is one I would take issue with. Is he integral in winning? Not at the NHL level where he only averaged 9:08 in ice time in his 26 games. No, he's not a core piece. But there are attributes in his game that makes up for some of his shot creation shortcomings.

Garnet Hathaway
For one, he goes out there and pisses off the other team. Repeatedly. He'll hit anybody -- first liner, fourth liner -- and he doesn't care. Hockey is game of emotion and he has the ability to fire up his own team while also getting the opposition off their game. Those are outcomes that can contribute to winning.


One of the League's Best Pests

Further, there is a metric that computes how often a player puts his own team on the power play and that's minor penalties drawn per 60. This looks at how many minor penalties a player draws in total, while also factoring in how much he plays.

No. 1 on the list league-wide last year is a name that won't surprise you -- Matthew Tkachuk. Tkachuk drew 47 penalties and while that was second to Connor McDavid's 51, factor in each player's ice time and Tkachuk was the king at an average 2.53 penalties drawn per 60 minutes of ice time (McDavid was at 1.77).

There was one other player in the league tied at No. 1 with that same 2.53 number. You guessed it, it's Hathaway.

Calgary's power play was 10th best last year and over the final three-quarters of the season, was top-five. Sure, maybe his line got outshot while he was on the ice, but if you're often leaving the ice with your team going onto the man advantage, that's going to lead to power play goals and that's another way how a player like Hathaway does contribute to helping his team win.

Add in the physicality he brings that has been lost this off-season with the departure of Deryk Engelland in particular and Lance Bouma as well, and Calgary's skilled players will appreciate having a guy like Hathaway in the line-up.

While eight points (1 goal, 7 assists) in 40 NHL games isn't great production, there might be a little more there skill-wise too. In his last two AHL seasons combined, he's got 16 goals and 41 points in 75 games. In his rookie season in 2014-15, he notched 19 goals and 36 points in 72 games.

It's not a contract that hurts you. He does have elements in his game that will help you and he's making the NHL minimum on a one-year deal. To hate the signing seems like a bit of a stretch.



3. Yes, Gaudreau is Leaving, Just Not Yet

The silly talk of the week is the paranoia that has started to swirl after remarks Johnny Gaudreau made during an interview on a Philadelphia sports radio station. Asked if he'd like to someday play for his hometown Flyers -- he grew up in Carneys Point, New Jersey, which is about a half-hour away --- Gaudreau answered the leading question politely by saying sure, "It would be sweet".

Johnny Gaudreau
Almost every star player yearns to play in his hometown. This is far from breaking news. Let's also remember that nearly every star player will not finish his NHL career where he began.

You look at the all-time greats that have come up through the Flames organization -- Jarome Iginla, Al MacInnis, Theoren Fleury, Joe Nieuwendyk, Mike Vernon, Gary Roberts, Gary Suter, Robyn Regehr, Joel Otto -- all finished their career in a different uniform.

I'd suggest the odds are very good that Gaudreau will eventually find his way to the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, but with 59+ months remaining on the contract he signed less than a year ago, it's not imminent.

Instead, if you want to get all frothed up about something Gaudreau said earlier this week, more relevant would be his comments to NHL.com writer Dan Rosen. In the article, he professed much excitement around the changes the team has made this summer and vowing that Calgary can do something special in the next three years.

The reality is the number of players that play their whole career with one team is so very, very rare.

Longest Tenured Only-a-Flames (and NHL games played)

1. LW Jim Peplinski, 711
2. RW Hakan Loob, 450
3. D Pekka Rautakallio, 235
4. RW Dave Hindmarch, 99
5. C Claude St. Sauveur, 79


Considering Hakan Loob returned to play in Sweden, Pekka Rautakallio went back home to play in Finland, Dave Hindmarch's career came to an abrupt end due to a pair of major knee injuries (suffered when he went crashing into the goal post in 1983, prompting the NHL to go to a more forgiving type of peg) and Claude St. Sauveur's heyday came in the WHA in the 70s, the only notable player in franchise history to start off as a Flame, never leave, and retire from hockey as a Flame was Jim Peplinski. That's it, one guy in 45 years.

So while it's a romantic thought that players will play their entire careers in Calgary, it's more dream than reality. Looking at the current roster, Mark Giordano has the best shot at cracking that very exclusive list, but even with him, we'll have to wait and see.

Active Only-a-Flames (and NHL games played)

1. D Mark Giordano, 673
2. C Mikael Backlund, 461
3. D TJ Brodie, 418
4. C Sean Monahan, 319
5. LW Johnny Gaudreau, 232




4. Ferland's Financials

During an insightful radio visit with Sportsnet960 on Friday afternoon, GM Brad Treliving acknowledged that where a longer-term deal for Micheal Ferland broke down was the inability to agree on what his first UFA year would be worth.

Instead, Ferland signed a two-year/$3.5 million deal that takes him right to unrestricted free agency.


So what should the value of that first UFA year have been if the Flames had gone there? $2 million? $2.5 million? $3 million? More?

Projecting out that far, Ferland's camp would have wanted a real nice bump in pay as they're looking at the trajectory he's on right now after a 15-goal season and would be assuming that continues.

Calgary sure hopes he remains on that upwards path but that's a long time away still. The fiscally responsible move when you're not dealing with one of your core players is to be risk averse and go shorter term for less money, then see how things unfold.


With the two-year deal, Ferland's first UFA season in 2019-20 will now reflect what he does in the next two seasons, rather than what he did last year. That's a smart way of conducting business if you're the hockey team and are dealing with a player that at this point is a restricted free agent only and under team control.

Treliving emphasized that he hopes to have Ferland in the organization a long time and just because his current deal ends in his UFA season, it does not reflect a lack of desire to have him as part of the team in the long term. If all goes well, expect Calgary to be more open to a longer-term deal when the time comes and his track record is that much more established.




5. Bringing Backlund Back is Being Looked At

Another takeaway from Treliving's Friday visit with Rob Kerr was that talks on a contract extension for Mikael Backlund have begun and will continue in the near future.

Backlund's agent is busy with other clients at the moment with the NHL in the throes of arbitration season, but once those cases and the work involved are behind him, it sounds like the two sides will be getting together.

Mikael Backlund
It was 10 years ago that Backlund was drafted into the organization as a first round pick, 24th overall. It's been a slow ramp-up to his NHL career but the trusted, two-way player he has become has made him a critical part of this team.

I'll be the first to admit that for a while, I figured Backlund was a candidate to move on after his deal expires after 2017-18. My thinking being that he would become too expensive for the team to be able to afford as a third line centre with Sam Bennett expected to be ready by then to surely inherit that role as second line centre.

But no longer is that my view and you sense that the view from the front office has evolved too. Playing the best hockey of his career and seemingly only getting better, bringing Backlund back for another four or five years is something I wouldn't hesitate to do. Should Bennett eventually fulfill his potential and with young centre Mark Jankowski coming, moving Bennett to the wing is certainly a viable option to make all the pieces fit. What shouldn't be viewed as an option is a Flames future that doesn't include No. 11 up the middle and shouldering all those difficult shutdown assignments.

Backlund is very much a core piece and with the Flames on the cusp of what should be at least three years of being a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, he is the exact player the team should be looking to retain, not looking to replace.



6. Coming to Cali: Swedish Hits

The team also announced on Friday that 2014 6th round pick Adam Ollas-Mattsson has signed a one-year AHL deal.

Calgary was on the clock on Mattsson with them holding his rights for just one more season. However, it is clear that they wanted to see a bit more before committing to the Swedish defenceman with an NHL deal. As noted in my Flames Development camp recap, Treliving loves all aspects of his game -- physical play, hockey sense -- but his skating remains the concern.

Adam Ollas-Mattsson
With no realistic chance of playing in the NHL this season anyway, Ollas-Mattsson chose to accept Calgary's offer of an AHL-only deal (over offers to return to Sweden) and for the first time will come to Flames training camp in September, including the Young Stars rookie tournament in Penticton. While he got in nine games for Stockton at the end of last season, coming over after his Swedish season ended, this will be his first full season on this side of the Atlantic.

If the Flames like what they see after seeing him play a full year on the 200 x 85, they reserve the ability to sign him to an NHL deal next spring.

Garnet Hathaway and Ryan Lomberg are two examples of players in the organization today on NHL deals, who started their pro career with AHL-only deals. It was through their play that they earned that next level of commitment from the organization. In fact, with Lomberg, he went through two one-year AHL deals before eventually being offered that coveted NHL entry-level contract, which kicks in this season.

On the other hand, 2016 seventh round pick Stepan Falkovsky is an example of a player, who Calgary signed to a one-year AHL deal, but then lost afterwards.

The Flames wanted to sign the Belarusian to a second AHL deal, like they did with Lomberg. Instead, he spurned the organization as a free agent when he was offered an NHL deal by the Los Angeles Kings.

So we'll see how it plays out with Ollas-Mattsson, who turns 21 on July 30. Should he have an impactful year in the AHL and show that he is a guy that could one day ascend to the NHL, you could very well see him sign an ELC with Calgary next spring.

If they just don't see that upside, with the finite amount of NHL contracts (50) they're allowed, and with the pipeline stocked with other high-quality defenders, this could be a one and done year.



7. Waiver-Exempt Wonderings

Overvaluing one's own players is a real thing that happens in all sports and it happens often. This was a topic on the last podcast and we've seen it in the Flames organization many times before. Most recently there was the fear of losing Joni Ortio on waivers that paralyzed the team two years ago and led to Calgary keeping three goaltenders. You know the disaster that turned into.

But fears exist for good reason as the Flames are still scarred from three years ago when they thought they could sneak Paul Byron through on waivers prior to the season (they weren't trying to get rid of him, just give themselves more flexibility), and sure enough, Montreal claimed him and the rest is history.

Given that sequence of events is still one that haunts, one does wonder how much waiver-exempt status will influence final cuts at this year's training camp. In particular with the battles up front.

As I see it and reflected on the projected 2017-18 roster I'm tracking on the blog, there are 11 forwards that are locks: Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Ferland, Tkachuk, Backlund, Michael Frolik, Kris Versteeg, Bennett, Troy Brouwer, Matt Stajan and Curtis Lazar.

From there, the next two or three spots (they can keep up to 14 forwards, but Glen Gulutzan seems to prefer 13) are wide open with there being eight legitimate candidates:
  • RW Spencer Foo (waiver exempt)
  • LW Luke Gazdic
  • C/RW Freddie Hamilton
  • RW Garnet Hathaway
  • C/LW Marek Hrivik
  • C Mark Jankowski (waiver exempt)
  • RW Emile Poirier
  • LW Hunter Shinkaruk

Of the six waiver-eligible players on the bubble, 2013 first rounders Emile Poirier and Hunter Shinkaruk carry the biggest risk of being claimed by another organization based on their pedigree. Poirier is particularly interesting, knowing now the off-ice issues he's been having that has impacted his play the last two years. In July 2015, I had him as the club's No. 2 prospect behind Bennett.

You'd think for guys like Spencer Foo and Mark Jankowski, who the team has flexibility on, they need to really separate themselves from the others in order to lock up a opening night spot. As an example, if Poirier and Foo are close, do they keep Poirier instead with the tie-breaker being that Foo can be sent to Stockton without being exposed to the rest of the league? Maybe. Although there is also the possibility that neither player will make it.

After a solid rookie season in the AHL, I'd say Jankowski's odds of sticking are better. It's not out of the question that he could separate himself as most ready. If so, guys like Freddie Hamilton or Luke Gazdic could be placed on waivers without much fear (or concern) about losing them.




8. No RFA Remorse

Out of curiosity, I revisited the lists of restricted free agents from the last five years who were not qualified by the Flames and were cut loose.

Of the 23 RFAs that did not get a contract offer and became free agents (so this excludes Byron in 2014, who was subsequently re-signed), all the players cast aside by Calgary have only amassed nine goals in 176 combined NHL games since departing the organization.

Looking down the list, I don't see a single regret.

Even the three players not qualified this past June have not yet found work, which is.generally a sign that you didn't get the decision wrong.

It's a bit like the over-valuing of waiver-eligible prospects. As a fan, you hate to see guys go that you have followed closely, but many of the players won't amount to much anyway and the fear of what they will go on to do elsewhere eventually subsides.

Here is the full list of RFAs that 'got away' in the last five years, but only because Calgary opened the exit door for them and pushed them on the way out. Also listed is their NHL totals accumulated since.


2017

Alex Chiasson - Not signed
Kenney Morrison - Not signed
Ryan Culkin - Not signed

2016

Joe Colborne, COL - 62 gm, 4-4-8
Josh Jooris, NYR/ARI - 54 gm, 3-7-10
Kenny Agostino, STL - 7 gm, 1-2-3
Bill Arnold
Turner Elson
Drew Shore, VAN - 14 gm, 0-2-2
Bryce Van Brabant
Joni Ortio
Kevin Poulin

2015

Sena Acolatse
Ben Hanowski
John Ramage, CBJ - 1 gm, 0-0-0

2014

Paul Byron (re-signed with Calgary)
TJ Galiardi, WPG - 38 gm, 1-0-1
David Eddy
James Martin
Olivier Roy

2013

Akim Aliu
Bryan Cameron
Brady Lamb
Gaelan Patterson


This isn't to suggest that all RFAs retained eventually turn into anything of value but in recent years, there is no remorse with those that the club has moved on from.




By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Do so now! It's another way to be alerted to new stories I've written, other articles from my colleagues that I've enjoyed and I'll occasionally use that space to weigh in on the news of the day.

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