Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Report Card: Subject-by-Subject Grading of Brad Treliving’s First Three Years as Flames GM

Reports cards are out!

Having wrapped up his first three years on the job in Calgary -- the junior high phase of his front office career -- it's time to grade the performance of Flames general manager Brad Treliving.

Treliving's time working in management in the NHL has unfolded much like the linear path we followed when we went to school.

Starting off in Arizona as an assistant to Don Maloney, this was akin to being in elementary school. In the NHL for the first time, new to it all, there's lots to learn and he spent several years working in that role.

Hired by Calgary as GM on April 28, 2014, that was like switching to a new school. This meant it was off to grade 7 based on how it worked when I grew up. Now there was more responsibility, the stakes are higher, there is more homework.

With those three years in the books and with expectations for his hockey club now greater than ever, it's time for the 47-year-old native of Penticton, B.C., to move on to grade 10. Lying ahead is the high school phase of his career. His enrolment in high school was confirmed Monday when the Flames announced Treliving had agreed to a multi-year contract extension.

Now things get real serious. No longer can the Flames just be happy to be in the hunt for a playoff spot, now the expectation is to challenge for the Stanley Cup. As the team's architect, it's his job to get them there.

But before we look forward, let's take a moment to look back. Before we pin this report card to the door of the refrigerator, it's time to review his performance in his first three years in Calgary. What have been his strongest subjects so far? What are his opportunities for improvement?
Breaking down the managerial role into eight topics or subjects, I've graded each area and included comments. These eight subjects are listed from best grade to worst.

All in all, it's some pretty good marks. I think Treliving has definitely earned himself a trip to Dairy Queen.

1. Subject: The Draft

Overall Grade: A-

This is always a tough area to assess because it takes several years to be able to truly evaluate a draft. Too frequently, GMs are long gone before their draft work comes to fruition. A disclaimer for when I'm grading draft performance is if the GM selects a player that is the consensus choice for next-best player, I temper the blame on the GM if he doesn't work out. To me, it's when the GM goes 'off the board' with a pick that he leaves himself prone to criticism should it not pan out.


Treliving has made two first round picks in his three years. Despite being the obvious choices based on how the top of each draft unfolded, C Sam Bennett (2014, 1st round, 4th) and LW Matthew Tkachuk (2016, 1st round, 6th) were nonetheless two great picks. Both were projected at one point to go higher. We just witnessed Tkachuk's impactful rookie season. It's been a slower transition for Bennett but he is also learning to play a difficult position and in a division with several great centres, whom he has had to go up against. A strong playoffs has many optimistic about 2017-18.

Other picks looking like great finds so far include D Rasmus Andersson (2015, 2nd round, 54th), D Oliver Kylington (2015, 2nd round, 60th), LW Andrew Mangiapane (2015, 6th round), G Tyler Parsons (2016, 2nd round, 54th), C Dillon Dube (2016, 2nd round, 56th) and D Adam Fox (2016, 3rd round). Three later picks that pack a lot of intrigue are RW Eetu Tuulola (2016, 6th round), RW Matthew Phillips (2016, 6th round) and D Stepan Falkovsky (2016, 7th round).


The two biggest blemishes so far came in the second round in 2014 -- G Mason McDonald (34th) and RW Hunter Smith (54th). McDonald is rapidly tumbling down the Flames goalie depth chart. While it's no certainty the consensus No. 1 goalie that year -- Thatcher Demko -- will be an NHLer either, it's nonetheless looking like a squandered pick. A mountain of a man at 6-foot-7, Smith was another eyebrow-raising selection. It's as if truculence-seeking Brian Burke was influencing the personnel decisions still, which is actually a reasonable bet given at the time, Treliving had been with the organization for just two months.


D Brandon Hickey (2014, 3rd round) looked like a steal at one point and still has nice upside for a third rounder, but you do need to temper any optimism with the fact he's returning to Boston University for his senior year. Mark Jankowski went back for his senior season and signed after graduation, no problem, but you do fear when this happens that a player will opt instead to wait until August 15 and become a free agent.

2. Subject: Contract Extensions

Overall Grade:  B+

Some of Treliving's finest work has been with contract extensions to the core pieces of his hockey club. There are many factors to consider when you have a veteran player in need of a new deal, starting with is this a player you want back? If so, how quickly do you extend someone and what is the ideal term and dollars. Jumping in early can sometimes get you a better deal, but acting early with the wrong player could get you in trouble.


Acting quickly on TJ Brodie (5Y/$23.2M) -- signing him a couple weeks into the 2014-15 season -- has given the Flames a great value deal for a guy that has a dynamic game and logs a ton of ice. Another shrewd move was re-inking Mikael Backlund (3Y/$10.7M) for the price he got him at. A $3.5M cap hit for one more season is borderline criminal for what the Swedish center provides. While it's still a lot of money and term, the extension last summer for Mark Giordano (6Y/$40.5M) came in under what many had speculated. Locking up the face of the franchise long-term was the desire from both sides. Treliving also did good work on the deal inked by Dougie Hamilton (6Y/$34.5M), whose promising career trajectory is trending straight up. Tons of value and post-game Dougie bombs are still to come.


The only blood on Treliving's hands is Lance Bouma (3Y/$6.6M). The warning signs that his breakout season (16-18-34) in 2014-15 was not repeatable were there. e.g. His career track record, shooting percentage, etc. That said, there are other mitigating factors to consider. Coming off a decent year in 2013-14, Treliving gave him a one-year 'show me' deal and challenged him to do it again -- and he did. As a new GM, your word needs to be worth something with players so re-signing him was a must. Where he probably wishes he could take a mulligan was going three years. The more prudent move, in hindsight, would have been paying him the higher annual salary that was likely via an arbitration ruling, but for just 1-2 years of term.


While neither will go down as steals by any means, Treliving also didn't overpay in his two biggest signings from last off-season. Deals inked by Johnny Gaudreau (6Y/$40.5M) and Sean Monahan (7Y/$44.6M) were in line with what they had earned based on their career production to that point. Both negotiations took a long time, neither signed until later in the summer, but the wait was worth it as he locked up his two biggest offensive weapons through their prime to fair-market deals that won't handcuff the team.

3. Subject: Asset Management

Overall Grade: B+

Let's face it, players are assets. They're currency. However you come into possession of them -- draft them, sign them or trade for them, you're hoping that if they don't become players for your NHL team, they can at least be trade chips to help you bring in other assets that might someday play for your NHL team.


Treliving went to great lengths and really had to turn on the charm to get longtime Minnesota goaltender Nicklas Backstrom to waive his no-trade clause. All that effort was so just Calgary could trade David Jones to the Wild and get back a sixth round pick. Well, that sixth pick was used to draft intriguing talent Matthew Phillips, who just scored 50 goals as an 18-year-old in the WHL. Similarly, pending UFA Jiri Hudler was traded to Florida for a draft pick used to select top goaltending prospect Tyler Parsons. When Kris Russell was sent to Dallas, the package in return included a draft pick used to select Dillon Dube. As well, there was Curtis Glencross being moved to Washington two years ago in exchange for two draft picks, one of which was used to fetch Dougie Hamilton from Boston.


Albeit in different circumstances than the others, Paul Byron is certainly the one that got away. Mind you, worth noting is this wasn't a case of Treliving trying to get rid of him. The Flames needed to get down to their season-opening roster limit and the GM hoped he could slip Byron through waivers without being claimed. After all, most teams had full rosters and lots of decent players pass through waivers at that time of year. Also, Byron was coming off a summer spent recovering from multiple injuries sustained the previous season. But credit to Montreal for claiming him and he's been a revelation in la belle province. This season he notched 22 goals and 43 points and just to show off, he even scored on a few breakaways.


It should be noted that there is also value in holding onto players that are contributors and not easily replaceable if you're in a playoff push. Deryk Engelland is an example this year of an expiring asset that would have had trade value but Treliving chose to keep him because he was a key member of the team. In hindsight, if he knew Calgary was going to be swept in the first round, trading Engelland and promoting someone like Brett Kulak would have been smart. But at the time, no fault on Treliving for hanging onto the 35-year-old blueliner and giving his team the best chance at success.

4. Subject: Hirings

Overall Grade: B+

While the players are the most visible 'hires' that a general manager makes, the most important hire he makes would be the coach and the staff that will run the NHL team. In addition to that, there are other roles in the front office, minor league staff, scouts, etc. Treliving's time at the helm has seen him transition from an inherited coach to picking his own coach. He has also surrounded himself with assistant GMs to help divide up the work and get things done.


Treliving should be credited for realizing the time had come that he had to walk away from Bob Hartley, despite one year remaining on his deal. Bringing in his own coach for the first time to implement a new puck possession-oriented style of play, Treliving didn't go the recycled route but instead hired a fresh thinker in Corsi-quoting Glen Gulutzan, who got the team into the playoffs while showing improvement across the board from special teams to goals against to five-on-five play.

While the assistants were more Gulutzan's hires, adding Dave Cameron (power play) and Paul Jerrard (penalty kill) obviously would have needed Treliving's blessing and each delivered in their area of specialty. It was in his first summer that he hired Ryan Huska out of Kelowna (WHL) to run the Flames AHL affiliate. Despite missing the playoffs his first two seasons, Treliving has spoke highly of Huska's work with the team's prospects. 


When you extend a coach as he did with Hartley and end up firing him with a year remaining on his contract, regardless of circumstances, that needs to go down as a failing and an expensive one at that.


It's always difficult to evaluate the work done by an assistant GM. What we know about Brad Pascall and Craig Conroy is that by Buffalo interviewing the latter for their open GM job, that's an indication that league-wide, Conroy's work is viewed in high regard. While Treliving was at the World Championships last spring with Team Canada, Conroy and Pascall shouldered much of the load in terms of first interviews and shortlisting coach candidates. So, credit to them for their role in a process that eventually churned out Gulutzan. Pascall, GM for Stockton, has found some good veteran fits for the Heat to help the youth develop down there.

5. Subject: 'Hockey' Trades

Overall Grade: B+

When it comes to trades, often these will involve pending UFAs. To avoid overlap, those particular trades are captured above under Asset Management. The focus in this space will be the other types of transactions including those rare so-called hockey trades that are made.


Mentioned above under Asset Management because it involved a draft pick received for Glencross, the trading of a 15th overall pick and two second round picks in exchange for Dougie Hamilton, age 22 at the time, was a steal of a deal. Another shrewd pick-up was bringing in Brian Elliott in exchange for a second round pick last June. That was arguably his most notable deal because goaltending was Calgary's biggest need last off-season. Factoring in acquisition cost, his thrifty salary, contract status, quality of goaltender statistically he had been including in last year's playoffs, this was a great acquisition and for the final half of the season -- 11 straight wins at one point -- he performed well above his level of pay. While many would call it a failure based on Elliott's bellyflop in the playoffs, I don't hold the GM responsible for the outcome. It was still a smart deal. Also a win was the non-trade that happened just prior and not surrendering to the huge contract demands made by Ben Bishop.

Leveraging Jyrki Jokipakka -- found money  from the Russell trade -- and a second round pick in a weak draft class to get a guy packed with upside like Curtis Lazar is another success. Alex Chiasson for Patrick Sieloff is yet another. Basically for free, Calgary brought in a decent bottom six player, who scored 12 goals and killed penalties. Paying a third round pick to rent Michael Stone for two months and strengthen the second pairing was also a worthwhile gamble. Didn't result in a long playoff run but could have.

The other deal I'll add here is Sven Baertschi being moved for a second round pick (turned into Rasmus Andersson). The situation with Baertschi was unfortunate and whether you wag your finger at Bob Hartley or Brian Burke or both, it doesn't change the fact that as far as the GM went, Baertschi was unhappy in Calgary, he was a pending RFA that was threatening to not re-sign with with the Flames so losing him to Europe for nothing had become a real possibility. Salvaging a second round pick was a good return job for a player, who wasn't worth much around the league (being traded within the division confirms there were no other second round picks on the table.)


Markus Granlund to the Canucks for Hunter Shinkaruk headlines this list because Granlund is producing in the NHL and we're still not sure on Shinkaruk. Granlund's 19 goals was second on the Canucks. He still can't win face-offs, which seemed to cost him his future in Calgary, but in a solution that the Flames didn't seem game to try, Vancouver is playing him on the right side -- his off wing -- and now face-offs aren't an issue yet you still have the same talented player. Trading a third round pick for Brandon Bollig got the Flames a tough fourth liner at about the same time as limited minutes, non-serviceable tough fourth lines were going out of style around the league. The final year of Bollig's contract this year has been spent buried in the minors.


Drew Shore, despite some hype when he arrived in a trade with Florida, never worked out but parting with Corban Knight to get him means that's a wash... Other pieces acquired in the Russell trade are non-factors. Jokipakka is already gone and Brett Pollock is playing in the ECHL but you were only going to get so much for a short-term rental of Russell. Plus, Jokipakka was leveraged to get Lazar.

6. Subject: RFA Decisions

Overall Grade: B

Every year in June, it's decision time on numerous players in an organization. Some in the NHL, lots of guys in the minors, do you re-sign them or have you seen enough and it's time to cut bait? In many instances, we're not talking about guys costing a lot of money, but this isn't adult rec hockey either. If you don't envision a player having a chance at ever making the NHL team, it's time to move on and open rosters spots for players graduating from major junior or college that still have that potential. Last summer, Treliving cleared out way more bodies than I recall in recent memory and while the volume of guys cut loose was a surprise, looking back on it now, no real regrets among them,


Having the discipline to walk away from Joe Colborne after a 19-goal, 44-point season and avoiding what would have been a huge pay day is a shrewd move that worked out. Colborne's totals fell to four goals and eights points with Colorado. It also shows a new GM learning from his past (Bouma) and improving. Hey, we all make mistakes, what you want to see is someone that learns from it.

Kenny AgostinoBill Arnold and Joni Ortio were all once highly-touted RFAs that were cut loose with no regrets. Agostino looks more like a career AHLer than an NHLer. Ortio ended up in Sweden and Arnold retired. Some were surprised to see Freddie Hamilton kept around but in an organization thin on forward prospects ready to step into the NHL, he was a cheap source of realiable depth. Letting high-scoring minor leaguer Derek Grant go also looks like it was for the better.Treliving wasn't willing to offer a one-way and considering this season Grant had no goals again in 46 NHL games (now has no goals in 86 career NHL games), it's best that his deal that guaranteed him $450,000 even if in the minors, isn't on Calgary's books. 


The one notable blunder was the handling of Bouma, which I already addressed in the Contract Extensions section. A lot of other RFA's have come and gone over the last few years but none of the decisions -- guys cut loose, or re-signed -- have backfired. 


Letting Josh Jooris leave was a move some were critical of at the time but this is a borderline NHL player, who was waived by the Rangers not long after signing there and finished last season in a depth role with the Coyotes. The Flames aren't missing him. Tyler Wotherspoon was brought back, signing a team-friendly NHL deal. He again didn't crack the NHL roster but on a cheap AAV and with a chance to keep the asset, no issues with the decision to retain him. Jakub Nakladal seemed like a guy that had potential and could have been brought back as an economical depth D option, but there was no space. Then again, he went unwanted by the other 29 teams too and ended up back in Europe so no red flag with him either.

7. Subject: Non-July 1 FA Signings/Waiver Pick-Ups

Overall Grade: B-

There are two times of year when you sign players. One is July 1 when free agency begins. Big dough and plenty of fireworks are involved in that day. The other time is the rest of the year. With non-July 1 free agent signings, as long as the money isn't exorbitant and it's typically modest deals or entry-level contracts, and as long as the term is reasonable, it's hard to get bad grades because you're adding players without parting with any assets. Here's a rundown of some of the best, worst and insignificant non-July 1 signings of the last three years. 


Veteran Kris Versteeg (1Y/$950K) was the prize catch. Poached from Edmonton, he was a perfect fit as a mainstay on the first power play, productive third liner and likeable presence in the dressing room. Another nice find was 24-year-old David Rittich, who came over from the Czech Republic and has pushed Jon Gillies for playing time in the AHL. The Matt Bartkowski mid-season signing bumped Dennis Wideman to the press box and brought much-needed foot-speed to the third pairing. Two seasons ago, plucking David Schlemko off waivers in March helped the Flames squeak into the playoffs despite Giordano's season-ending injury. To avoid being forced into a hurried goaltender decision this summer with UFAs Johnson and Elliott, the signing of journeyman Tom McCollum to appease expansion goaltender exposure requirements has provided the GM with time and flexibility.


From the start, the idea of Nicklas Grossmann was just weird considering it was evident as soon as he first set foot on the ice that his glacial foot speed was not good. That said, I believe there was some salary cap maneuvering being done (getting as close to the ceiling as possible to maximize the Ladislav Smid LTIR cap relief) so that played a role. Calgary moved on from him pretty quickly to limit any damage but his costly first period giveaway in that season-opening loss to Edmonton still haunts fans. Not a major black mark given Grossmann's short time in town but a pretty forgettable month nonetheless. Devin Setoguchi, signed as a reclamation project prior to the 2014-15 season, also did not work out. Again, limited damage given his relatively inexpensive $750K one-year deal, it still goes down as a failed transaction given he was brought in to help the offence yet had zero points in 12 NHL games. He ended up in the minors.


On a two-year deal and also out of the Czech Republic, there was lots of optimism around forward Daniel Pribyl. But already recovering from off-season knee surgery, to more injuries during the season resulted in year 1 being a write-off. Tapping into Germany, David Wolf was an interesting guy that got in a few games but after one season, he returned home. No harm in that experiment. Raphael Diaz was a cheap veteran addition to the blueline in 2014 that allowed Calgary to keep its prospects developing in the minors. Flames beat out other NHL teams to sign Kenney Morrison, but he hasn't had the impact many hoped. Goaltender Nick Schneider and college grad defenceman Josh Healey, who just signed, were both free assets. It's still wait and see with them. While Linden Vey struggled to produce at the NHL level, he was on a two-way deal and he's been a nice piece in the AHL working a lot with Mangiapane. 

8. Subject: July 1 Signings

Overall Grade: C

Treliving is the first to admit that you don't get bargains when you shop on July 1. That said, if demand is thin on specific attributes you are seeking, just like limited item door crasher specials on Boxing Day, sometime you have to act fast while there's still stock. Like it or not, sometimes you're better off paying a little extra for exactly what you want versus paying less but having to settle for something of lesser quality that doesn't meet your needs.


Michael Frolik (2015, 5Y/$21.5M) has been a terrific addition as a player since signing in 2015. It's a rich deal and for a long time but two years in, so far, so good. He's nicely addressed the team's shortcomings on right wing while forming a terrific partnership with Backlund. Another decent signing was Chad Johnson (2016, 1Y/$1.7M). For what he was asked to do, there's nothing wrong with the season he just had. His hot stretch in November and December saved Calgary's season.


Playing fourth line in the playoffs is all the proof you need that Troy Brouwer (2016, 4Y/$18M) has not worked out on the ice as expected. Sure, other elements of Calgary's game improved like the power play and penalty kill but I'd credit the coaches for that, not Brouwer's presence. Now he did wear an 'A';on a team where many players raved about the tightness of the team and how they liked the leadership group so that's worth something, just not a $4.5M AAV. Mason Raymond (3Y/$9.45M) also never found his way and a turbulent time with the organization resulted in being sent to the minors in year 2 and eventually being bought out prior to year 3.


Deryk Engelland (2014, 3Y/$8.75M) ended u giving the Flames a nice blend of veteran, toughness and character along with a guy that could (and did) play top-four in a pinch. Those pros were mitigated by the salary though, which was simply too much to pay a third pairing defenceman. In net, given the needs they were filling, performance delivered, and limited/manageable term, deals offered to goaltenders Jonas Hiller (2014, 2Y/$9M) and Karri Ramo (2015, 1Y/$3.8M) were not great, not awful, but OK.

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 Calgary stories I've written, other articles from my colleagues I enjoyed and I'll also sometimes use that space to weigh in on the news of the day.


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