Saturday, January 23, 2016

As the NHL Trade Deadline Approaches, the Big Picture Should be the Flames Only Focus

Thirty-eight days to go. Sixteen more games.

The Feb. 29 NHL trade deadline is creeping closer and with that, debate is intensifying around how the Calgary Flames -- six points back of third place in the Pacific Division with three teams to pass -- should approach this last chance to ship guys out or bring guys in.

In this black and white world we live in, there is a tendency to want to label every team as doing one of two things:
  1. Going for it.
  2. Giving up.

The barometer for determining what your favourite team is doing is unrestricted free agents. If your team is trading for UFAs, they're loading up for a long Stanley Cup playoff run. If they're trading them away, it's a waving of the white flag on the season.

However, by our stubborn insistence on categorizing teams as doing one or the other, are we over simplifying it?

When your options are (a) or (b), why not choose (c) all of the above?


History Lesson

On Mar. 1, 2015, one day prior to last year's trade deadline, the Flames could not have been closer to a playoff spot without actually being in one. In the Pacific, they were tied for third in points with Los Angeles but were fourth on the grounds of having played one additional game.

On that Sunday, Calgary traded veteran Curtis Glencross to the Washington Capitals, getting a second and third round pick in return for the longtime Flame and pending unrestricted free agent.

By the end of that night and without even stepping on the ice, the Flames then climbed back into a playoff spot when the Kings lost. Yet on Monday, the approach remained the same. The lone move made by general manager Brad Treliving before the deadline passed was another player heading out. This time it was Sven Baertschi, sent to Vancouver in exchange for a second round draft pick.

By trading away two players and only getting draft picks in return, by not bringing in a defenceman to replace Mark Giordano, who suffered a season-ending injury in New Jersey on Feb. 25, the optics were that of a team that had chosen the path of surrender. It was the approach that made sense too. Calgary was an overachieving team that was still in the early stages of rebuilding and could not afford to mortgage the future for short-term gain.

However, if we learned anything from the final seven weeks of last season, never underestimate the resolve of the players left behind when a couple of veterans are removed from the roster. In a best-of-both-worlds scenario, the Flames took their three additional picks in the 2015 NHL Draft and still went on to make the post-season.

The icing on the cake was knocking off the Canucks in the first round and making it to the final eight for just the second time in 26 years.


Replenishing the Farm System

The onus on Treliving this year, based on what's unfolded over the last few years, has to be on accumulating draft picks

At last year's draft, the Flames traded away three picks -- one first round (15) and two second rounds (45, 52) to acquire 22-year-old defenceman Dougie Hamilton from Boston.

The price was worth it as after a rocky start, Hamilton has really settled in nicely on the Flames blueline and is showing why he was such a coveted player. However, the price was still expensive. Losing three draft picks in the first two rounds of a deep draft is going to leave a development void for the organization that will take a while to backfill.

Combine no draft picks in the top 50 in 2015 with the fact that the team's top selections in each of the previous two drafts -- Sam Bennett (4th overall in 2014) and Sean Monahan (6th overall in 2013) are already fixtures in the line-up and you have an organization with a lack of young, can't-miss, high-end prospects in the pipeline.

The Flames only top-20 pick prior to Monahan and since Dion Phaneuf in 2004 was Baertschi and he's now toiling on the West Coast.

The organization remains optimistic about Emile Poirier (22nd overall in 2013) and Morgan Klimchuk (28th overall in 2013), both playing with Stockton in the AHL. They're still hopeful with Mark Jankowski (21st overall in 2012), who will turn pro this summer after graduating from Providence College, but it's paramount that this team inject some new, younger, high-upside prospects into the system.

While it looks like Calgary did a nice salvage job in last year's draft by getting two highly-touted Swedish defencemen where they did -- Rasmus Andersson at No. 53 and Oliver Kylington at No. 60, generally speaking it's higher picks that come with greater assurances that you'll select a player that will pan out.

Obviously, pending UFAs Kris Russell, Jiri Hudler and David Jones are not going to fetch first round picks but by accumulating second, third or fourth round picks, that gives you options such as bundling picks and trading up like Calgary did in June to get a player they really like. Last year, the Flames sent two third round picks (76, 83) to Arizona for the Coyotes late second round pick and drafted Kylington, who Treliving admitted they had ranked much higher.

The ability to trade up in the draft, or just make more picks and better your odds of striking gold that way, all hinges on Treliving's ability over the next six weeks to add draft picks.


Final Word

The two guys creating quite the stir across Flames nation these days, as well as around the league, are Johnny Gaudreau and Bennett. Calgary has scored 18 goals in six games over the last two weeks -- 15 of them have been created by and/or scored by one or the other.

When your two top-producing forwards (by far) are a sophomore and a rookie, that's a pretty clear indication that as a team, it's not your time yet. Calgary needs to build up its forward depth and to accomplish that over the next few years and get to the point where they're a perennial contender, they need to add young impact players into their system and pronto.

The priority for this year, to set the team up better for future years, has to be unloading veterans that aren't part of the big picture for assets that one day could be.

This need not mean Calgary is giving up on making the playoffs this year as anything can happen in the very weak Pacific, but your priority as a GM is not on moves that will help this season.

For now, it's about sticking with a player like Markus Granlund so you know by the summer what he is. It's about finding a way to get Czech defenceman Jakub Nakladal to Calgary for an audition so you can find out if he's NHL-calibre and a potential value-priced third pairing option for the next few years. What about accomplished face-off man Derek Grant, who has been an offensive standout in Stockton and is only 25 still, could he be part of this team's bottom six for the next few years?

The mindset need not change, the coach and players can certainly remain focused on winning and if the kids up front and the big three on the back end of Giordano, TJ Brodie and Hamilton can all stay healthy, there's still a chance of making the playoffs anyway. Heck, if last year's team could climb back into a playoff spot without Giordano, this year's team -- deeper and more talented -- could still do so without Russell.

Calgary would gladly take a playoff appearance this spring over a spot in the draft lottery, but it's not important enough to trade assets for that. Making the playoffs repeatedly in years to come by accumulating assets is the smarter play.




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