EDITOR’S NOTE :: Check out our North Division Update for the latest on the Flames.
Some teams will have so few quality players available that nobody will care who Seattle ends up choosing. Some teams will have so many quality players available that the selection will look like a buffet. And some teams will have players who are subjects of debate as to whether their performance will or won’t be enough to make a meaningful contribution to the Kraken.
Calgary, that’s another story. The Flames have more outstanding question marks concerning their protected list than most other teams in the league. Add to that a new coach with a very different coaching philosophy, and the picture coming out of Calgary is blurry and unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.
So today we will be exploring possibilities, potentialities, and likelihoods. There will be no firm answers for Calgary, and the situation will probably stay in that state of flux until the Flames drop out of the playoff picture.
What Is Certain
We’ll start by saying that Calgary has too many valuable forwards to adopt the 8-and-1 protection scheme, so they will be protecting 7 forwards, 3 defenseman, and one goalie. There are six players that, provided they are still on the Calgary roster at season’s end, are not subject to debate: they will all be protected. Forwards Sean Monahan, Matthew Tkachuk, and Johnny Gaudreau, and defensemen Noah Hanafin and Rasmus Andersson are the certainties surrounding the Flames protected list. Goaltender Jacob Markstrom has a full no-movement clause, so he will definitely be protected as well.
The remaining slots are mainly contingent upon decisions concerning two players: left wing Milan Lucic, and defenseman Mark Giordano. Lucic’s full no-movement clause is the question mark in his case; sacrificing the team’s captain in order to protect another talented (younger) defenseman is the question mark with Giordano. What the team decides to do in these cases will largely determine what Kraken GM Ron Francis has to choose from, and what he ultimately decides to do.
There is one other major question mark that can be addressed separately from this discussion; so let’s deal with that one now.
24-year-old center Sam Bennett was drafted #4 overall by the Flames in 2014 — ahead of a few players whose names you’ll recognize, like Pasternak, Nylander, Fabbri, and Schmaltz. Since then he has played five full seasons for Calgary: his offensive output has been middling at best, and on the decline; he has higher than average penalty minute numbers; and his defensive play is worrisome.
(We just had this exact same conversation concerning Michael Del Colle of the New York Islanders. What is the deal with the 2014 draft?)
It goes without saying that Bennett did not live up to his potential. Being a top-five pick and having to play in the shadow of more flashy and productive players like Tkachuk and Gaudreau has to hurt, but that’s the job — you do what’s asked of you, and give it your all every night. Plainly there was a difference of philosophy between Bennett and the four coaches he has played under. That rift manifested itself in the form of a trade request from Bennett’s agent to the Flames just last month.
There is the possibility that Calgary will grant Bennett’s request, and ship him off to another team sometime before the April 12th trade deadline. That would remedy the immediate problem, and render this discussion moot. But at the present time the fact remains: Sam Bennett is a former #4 overall pick who will definitely be exposed in the expansion draft. Should the Kraken select him?
Bennett is RFA at the close of this season, and his current deal pays him $2.55 million. He has to know his next deal is going to be half that amount or less, as his performance doesn’t warrant a cent more than that. So from a salary cap perspective, selecting Bennett wouldn’t be problematic.
The problem, in my opinion, is his attitude. Players trying to dictate which team they will play for, and what role they should play on a team, is a huge red flag. That kind of selfishness is a cancer in the locker room, and puts everyone involved in an awkward position.
As we were putting the finishing touches on this article, TSN published a piece specifically on Bennett, in which he says he’s looking forward to “starting fresh” with new coach Darryl Sutter. It’s possible that the two are of like mind with respect to what role Bennett could play with the team. And it’s possible that Sutter will give Bennett a chance to prove himself. If that happens, and Bennett delivers, then the expansion draft picture in Calgary could possibly shift in a meaningful way.
Could that happen? Yes. Do I think it will? Not a chance. I’ve watched dozens of disappointing, attitude-problem prospects and players get their “fresh start”, their “second chance”, or their “change of scenery”. I can’t recall a single instance where the net result was anything except more disappointment. I am of the firm belief that Bennett’s situation will end the exact same way. He’s had six years and four coaches — can anyone confidently tell me that this time will be different?
The Kraken organ-eye-zation is currently a blank slate. There is no team culture, there is no locker room “feel”, there is only potential. Ron Francis’ job will be to bring in players, coaches, and supporting staff who then build a culture from scratch, establish a “feel,” and unite in pursuit of a single purpose: to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup. Having one little shit in the corner sucking his thumb and believing he deserves better than the lot he’s been given is a sure-fire way to derail that process, and muck up the works for the entire team.
You’ve heard the expression, “One bad apple spoils the whole bunch” — why take a chance on somebody you know up front is that bad apple? Selecting Sam Bennett from the Flames presents too big a risk, and for that reason the Kraken should put the idea out of their heads right now.
Question Number 1
As we mentioned, the entire landscape in terms of the players available from the Flames in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft is contingent on the decisions made by and about two players: Milan Lucic and Mark Giordano. If one or both of those two are protected, then some valuable resources will be exposed. If not, the choices are far less enticing.
Lucic is the one holding the cards in his circumstance. He has a full no-movement clause on his contract, so the choice about whether to waive (and be left exposed) or not is entirely up to him. Calgary, of course, will want to leave him exposed, and they will try to convince him that it is in his best interest to do so. “Hey Milan,” the argument goes, “Seattle won’t select a $6 million third-line winger with the worst plus-minus numbers on the team. So waive your NMC, allow us to protect another good player, and help us build a better team around you for the last two years of your contract.”
(In reality they will be deciding whether it makes sense to buy him out, but that’s a separate discussion.)
If Lucic refuses to waive, which I think is more likely than not given his situation, then Calgary is in the position where they need to decide which player will have to be left exposed. We’re going to assume that top-line center Elias Lindholm has one of the protected slots locked up, since he’s leading the team in both points and plus-minus. But that leaves three possible options.
C Mikael Backlund, $5.35 million, signed through 2024. Backlund is a 6′, 200 lb. European-style defensive forward, and has stats that you would expect from a player so described. He’s good for roughly 20 goals and 45 points in a given year, and with the notable aberration in 2017-18, he can be counted on to land in the plus column at season’s end. The hurdle here is age and price, because $5.35 million for a 31-year-old middle-six center is well above market value, and that cap hit lasts another 3 years. It’s for this reason that Backlund is the leading candidate to be odd-man out if Lucic refuses to waive.
LW Andrew Mangiapane, $2.425 million, signed through 2022. Now we’re talking: younger, cheaper, and a shorter contract. Mangiapane is also logging 3rd-line minutes for Calgary alongside Backlund, and while he is only in his third season with the big club, his numbers in Juniors and with the Flames’ AHL affiliate Stockton Heat show he has terrific upside.
C/RW Dillon Dube, $778,000, RFA. It’s doubtful Calgary will give any consideration to parting with this playmaking forward, but stranger things have happened. Good wheels, soft hands, and a quick shot, Dube is currently slotted in on the right side of Elias Lindholm on the top line. Clearly that’s paying dividends; he has already matched his season-best goals total and we’re not even at the halfway point. There’s a little work to do on his defensive game, but at 22 years old he has plenty of time to become a more well-rounded player.
Now: what if Lucic does waive? Then the three players we’ve just looked at will all have protected slots. Who can the Kraken choose then? I’ll let you check out Josh Leivo, Byron Froese, and Dominik Simon and form your own opinion; but from where I’m sitting the cream of the remaining crop is winger Justin Kirkland, who is a pending RFA. He has performed well offensively in Juniors and the AHL, but his defensive play is suspect. And ultimately, if Kirkland is the best option available in the forward ranks, it’s time to look at defensemen.
Question Number 2
The question of whether or not the Flames protect Mark Giordano is a complicated one. When you see that Giordano has played his entire career with Calgary, your initial thought is, “Oh, what year did they draft him?” But Giordano was never drafted. He got passed over twice in the NHL Entry Draft, aged out of Juniors, then enrolled in business school at York University in Toronto. I expect he probably thought he would show up for tryouts with the York varsity team.
But before the school year got underway, Calgary offered Giordano a non-roster invitation to training camp, during which then-GM (and in the last week, returning coach) Darryl Sutter signed him to a 3-year deal with the farm team. The rest, as they say, is history, and Giordano has played every one of his 919 NHL games (and counting) in a Flames uniform.
15 seasons and the ‘C’ on his chest earns a guy a certain amount of consideration from the team when it comes to protecting him in the expansion draft. Furthermore I expect that situation has taken on a whole new dynamic, with Giordano now reunited with the guy who literally rescued his career from the scrap heap. At the very least, I am guessing he would be afforded the privilege of a discussion surrounding the team’s options.
The nice thing to do would be if the team and the player agreed that they would leave Giordano exposed, but with the understanding that Calgary would cut a deal with Seattle to guarantee that Giordano would not be selected. That would allow Calgary to retain both of their top two defensive pairings, while slipping the Kraken a little something for the kindness. It would make everybody happy, and that very well may be what transpires.
And, let’s face it: the Kraken doesn’t want Giordano under those circumstances. Forget that he’s 37 years old. Forget that he costs $6.75 million dollars. Giordano is a Flame, he’ll always be a Flame, and he’ll have his number lifted to the rafters in Calgary. Yanking him over to Seattle only to have him phone in the remaining year on his deal, that’s not good for anybody.
We don’t want Seattle to be for Mark Giordano what Vancouver was for Mats Sundin, or what Detroit was for Mark Modano. Ideally the Kraken’s opening night roster will be composed exclusively of guys who want to be here, who want their team to win, who want to be a part of something — not guys who are gazing longingly out the window and counting the days until they can bolt. So whether or not he’s left unprotected, let’s close the book on Mark Giordano coming over to the Kraken. It wouldn’t be good for him, and it wouldn’t be good for us.
But: covering our bases, there are then two possible selections from the defensive corps — one if Giordano is protected, and one if he is not.
RD Chris Tanev, $4.5 million, signed through 2024. If Calgary protects Giordano, Tanev becomes the odd-man out, and that’s great news for Seattle. The 6’2″, 197 lb. stay-at-home defenseman spent 10 years with Vancouver before jumping to the Flames this off-season. The unheralded stat for this guy is his shot blocking, where he consistently ranks near the top of the league. He blocked 54 shots last year — oh, wait, I’m wrong, that was just in the playoffs. And reports are that he’s the father figure in the locker room for the younger guys, shepherding them through their first years as professionals and helping them reach their potential. You can’t put a price on those kinds of players.
LD Oliver Kylington, $787,500, RFA. If the Flames are able to protect Tanev, the alternative is a step down, but he’s better than any of the dregs left over in the forward ranks if Lucic waives his NMC. Kylington is a two-way defenseman with the need for more seasoning, but at just 23 years of age there is plenty of time for him to develop. He was born in Sweden and played his youth hockey there, so to some degree he is cut from the stereotypical “Swedish defenseman” cloth. But his instincts are offensive, and he possesses a good point shot and the ability to work the power play, while still maintaining respectable plus-minus numbers.
Not Many Answers
We’ve explored a lot of questions today, and we fully admit that there are not many answers forthcoming. At least not yet. We haven’t even dealt with the fact that newly-re-hired coach Darryl Sutter has a more meat-and-potatoes coaching style than his predecessor, and that may result in some players falling out of favor in the coming months. That could, possibly, affect the final list of protected players, especially if Calgary goes all-in and adds talent at the trade deadline.
We’ll further complicate matters by saying that in the days after the Stanley Cup Playoffs end and before the expansion draft begins, there will be a short buyout window when the Flames might just decide to end the Milan Lucic experiment once and for all. The financial savings wouldn’t be substantial, but it would answer the question that currently exists concerning which forwards to include on their protection list.
The rest of the questions will remain open until the draft gets underway, I’m afraid. In the mean time, you can check out the Flames taking on Edmonton when the “Battle of Alberta” is re-engaged this coming Wednesday, March 17th. Game time is 4:00pm Pacific on NBCSN.