Reactionary Roster Management

April 24th, 2019 | Posted in Commentary | By: D'Arcy McGrath

Missing the playoffs isn’t fun.

The NHL season is a long journey, and to have that journey end without a single playoff game seems somewhat like a complete waste of time. Oh sure there are seasons, rebuilding seasons, where the team is up front and honest and intentions and with that fans are happy to support a young, plucky team that exceeds expectations, as infinitesimal as they are.

We saw that with Bob Hartley during the 2013-14 season. With Jarome Iginla gone, and the Flames moving towards youth. Sean Monahan had his first season, the team never gave up and they received standing ovations in losses. Quite the thing, really.

It’s when expectations get ramped up that the questions get more pointed, the answers require more thought, and the course or direction to rectify a huge disappointment is monumental in terms of the off season and the team that will appear in the fall to crank things up again.

What do I make of the complete faceplant we witnessed in the first round against Colorado?

It doesn’t really matter. The important read or view will come from Brad Treliving.

Removing the Emotion

Getting over disappointment takes time. Hockey fans feel the losses of their sports team deeply, but imagine being the architect of a group of athletes that exceed all expectations by winning a conference and then completely implode when the games ramp up and really matter?

“The disappointment is heightened because the expectation has risen and that’s a part of becoming a good team. There’s still shock and emotion and we’re all pissed off.”, Treliving offered up on garbage bag day at the Saddledome.

“It’s important that you don’t overreact but it’s also important that you don’t under react.”

“But we’ll figure this out.”

The man has always been about the process, and that’s a good thing when a shocking result to the negative has the potential to lure an overreaction from a furious manager that would likely love to slap a half dozen players during the exit interviews instead of wishing them a good summer.

The biggest trap to avoid falling into is the rabbit hole that emerges when a management group decide to move a player before actually seeing what the market for said player holds. A few summers ago that certainly appeared to be the case in Edmonton when Taylor Hall was deemed a necessary exit victim likely due to dressing room dynamics. Targeting Hall was understandable, he was long standing on a roster that wasn’t getting it done, and his comments to the media were always somewhat flipid. But should they have just jumped off the cliff and taken the best offer available even though the Jersey Adam Larsson suggestion had to be well under the haul they set out to acquire?

Changing Lenses

If the job was up to me I’d strongly consider a dual focus on an action plan; one in the current situation of heartbreak and missed expectations, and the other a what-if scenario for how this off season would transpire if the team had won two rounds and lost in the conference final.

Teams change each and every off season, and I’m pretty sure Treliving had a map somewhat worked out based on the team doing well (the obvious expectation), and he should be sure to compare and contrast that plan with how he feels now to ensure he’s not applying too much weight to the most recent circumstances.

Regular Season Shopping List Post Playoff Flop Shopping List
Upgrade in net Maybe bring Smith back?
Move defensive depth for forwards and/or futures Move defensive depth for forwards
Upgrade forwards 6-7 Upgrade forwards 6-7
Clear cap space Alter chemistry by moving core piece?
Getting bigger? Add experience?

Upgrade in Net

Lense 1: When the regular season ended Mike Smith had certainly rebuilt himself into an NHL goaltender. His numbers weren’t spectacular, and he was made the game one starter only by the slide of David Rittich (since learned the stopper had a knee injury since tweaking it on New Year’s Eve), and not by numbers alone. At April 7th I would have had the chances of Mike Smith coming back to Calgary at about 15%, maybe not even that high. The home crowd had given up on him, and even if he was the equivalent to other options on the NHL landscape the PR angle of it would suggest good bye.

Lense 2: Nine days later and Mike Smith was the best player on the team in a hugely disappointing playoff series. Chants of “Smitty, Smitty, Smitty” echoed through the Saddledome for game one (shut out win), game two (huge effort to get his team to overtime), and even in game three which featured a 5-1 loss. His improved play and sudden reemergence within the collective heart of Calgary has removed a few of the roadblocks for his return to Calgary. The team needs a backup that they can trust, and Mike Smith just might be just as good as, or better than the alternatives depending on his willingness to take less money and a reduced role.

The Answer: I think Treliving needs to be calculating on this one. Smith has restored some faith and could be brought back but only if he’s good with a reduced roll, next to no term, and a substantially reduced salary. The other issue is the dressing room. Saying the right things is great, but does he mean it? If he sulks all year it’s a bad move. That aside he’s likely about as good as you’re going to find on a short term deal for backup money (or starter 1B money).

Moving Defensive Depth

Lense 1: The Flames have had an embarrassment of riches on the blueline for a few seasons. Said riches haven’t always played out on the ice but in terms of roster construction the team appeared to be doing quite well in the now, and in the future. With the way the season played out; three young defenseman looking very much ready, and another young defenseman already a grizzled vet, it has long seemed likely that Treliving would start to make room for said youth to have a full time role. Cap management, roster balance and an impending expansion draft suggest the timing is right. The most likely targets would be one of TJ Brodie or Travis Hamonic, as both players have expiring contracts in a calendar year, and should return some decent value.

Lense 2: With the light of the playoffs, and some rough playoff outings to both Brodie and Hamonic it will be interesting to see if Treliving cuts a little deeper. Mark Giordano isn’t going anywhere despite his age and now favourable contract, but could say TJ Brodie and Noah Hanifin be on the move, as both players would fetch a pretty good return? Juuso Valimaki’s brief appearance in the playoffs, albeit sheltered, suggest he has the poise, size and speed to be a top four defenseman as early as next season. Given Rasmus Andersson’s move up the charts and ability to play with Giordano, the team could rebuild their top four, move pieces with value, and promote from within with Oliver Kylington and Michael Stone rounding out a bottom pairing; that is if Treliving can’t find a home for Stone’s contract.

The Answer: Hamonic is too important to the room, so TJ Brodie is the obvious one to go. I’d at least look at the market for Noah Hanifin as well if the braintrust feel Juuso Valimaki is ready for top four duty. I think he might be, giving the team lots of options. The last thing they want is Hanifin passed by Valimaki and seeing third pair duty, as that would hurt his trade value.

Upgrading Forwards 6-7

Lense 1: Heading into the playoffs Treliving was watching on as the team continued to have five clear cut top six forwards, and then a hope that one of Michael Frolik, Sam Bennett or James Neal would claim that other spot. Down the stretch Frolik grabbed the job, but his offensive skill was eroding, and he likely wasn’t a long term answer. Getting another top six forward would be paramount in the off season something that we saw as the Flames and Wild almost completed a deal at the deadline for Jason Zucker.

Lense 2: The playoffs added a new wrinkle in that Sam Bennett stepped forward and was likely the team’s best forward in the brief five game series. Does that make Bennett part of the mix for a top six next year, or is he key along with a “fingers crossed” rejuvenated James Neal for a third line that can help and support the upper half of the roster? The team was out predicting “playoff” Bennett leading up to the series, so you’d have to assume they see a Zucker-like addition as still mandatory. Have to wonder if Mark Jankowski has worn out his welcome in Calgary after a meek first round series that saw him last place on the team with an expected goals for split of just 21%. I think we can count on some change to the team’s second and third line makeup.

The Answer: If TJ Brodie can’t get you a top six forward I’m pretty sure Hanifin can, altering the team’s look and leaving Bennett and Neal to be the center pieces of the third line. Is that ideal? No but a Derek Ryan promotion may be all that’s needed on unit three if they can find that top six forward to upgrade the second line.

Altering Chemistry / Core

Lense 1: Wasn’t on the radar at all heading into the postseason. The Flames may have hit a rut down the stretch, but the team was heading into the playoffs with five key players, six if you include Mikael Backlund and depth to back them up. The core was fine, the depth above average and really goaltending was the big question mark.

Lense 2: Now he has to at least ponder if the core as it stands has the fortitude to get things done in the big season. Sean Monahan had a miserable series, not in an out right sense necessarily, but certainly in a relative sense to his impact and role in the regular season. If the Flames want to move the player I honestly can’t see them getting a better option for a number one center back in return. Is it really worth diminishing the skill level of the team in order to alter the room, or change the look of the group? As I said with the Oiler example above, this can be investigated, but it certainly shouldn’t be a committed decision without knowing what the return looks like.

The Answer: Patience. It’s one thing to be screaming mad at core players coming up short in a playoff series, but quite another to enter the summer looking to move a player at any cost. Sean Monahan was terrible, so hopefully an off season of training and not recuperating can help him; but either way dealing a Monahan means you get less back, not more.

Getting Bigger / Harder to Play Against

Lense 1: After mopping up the West early the belief in Calgary was that speed and depth would rule the day, and that big and tough and pissy were forgone era hockey players not needed on modern rosters. OK, maybe that’s a stretch. Maybe there was some concern when it came to gumption, but certainly not to the extent where Treliving stepped out to rectify it at the deadline. Zucker mentioned above a s top six cure, would also have been a prickly player to play against in a playoff series.

Lense 2: Like the question on core above, Treliving has to decide how much of the failing of the Colorado series has to do with a group learning to cope with heightened expectations and a lack of experience and how much it falls to gaping holes in the roster for certain types of players playing specific roles. I’m not one to assume players don’t care or they are afraid, and I do think players can get battle hardened and avoid the repeat of the face plant we witnessed this year. But that’s not all of them, and that’s not every time … so expect Treliving to add some hostility to the lineup.

The Answer: If the team makes some moves on the blueline with one of Brodie and/or Hanifin exiting it’s a good opportunity to go find a cheaper option for the third pairing that has a little bristle to their game. It can’t be a tweener like Dalton Prout, but a true 5/6 guy that can play with one of Kylington or Fantenberg and give the team 12-13 minutes a night.

There Will Be Change

Every team sees change every off season. The salary cap era has seen to that.

What Brad Treliving does this summer though, will be fascinating, and we’ve never seen his work from the perspective of contending team dealing with disappointment. He’s always active in the summer but this summer he doesn’t have mountains to move to rework his group into something that Bill Peters can work with.

Count on some trimming (Frolik, Jankowski), count on some roster rebalancing (at least one veteran defenseman out for a forward or futures), and I’d also assume some snarl (veteran pissy player brought in).

Don’t however, count on a change to the team’s top five or six players.



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