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The Flames Head to Free Agency

As we march toward unrestricted free agency, I thought it would be fun to take a look at all five teams in the Northwest Division and see where they're going. What options do they have going forward, how can they best pursue the Stanley Cup, and what might that mean for unrestricted free agency? I'll start with a team in transition, the Calgary Flames. They were clearly the second best team in the Northwest division, and yet still managed to miss the playoffs.

What have they done so far?

Signed F Curtis Glencross to a four-year contract with a cap hit of $2,550,000 per year (with NMC) - At first blush, the contract looks large, but I think this is a great deal for the Flames. Glencross has been playing various roles in the Flames' top nine for three seasons now and he has performed admirably. The club can probably depend on him for about 35 points at evens, which is fantastic from a guy who doesn't usually cheat for offense. At 28, Glencross is in the heart of his career so there doesn't look to be much risk with the term either. It's not a huge bargain or anything, but this is a very solid contract for the Flames.

Traded D Tim Erixon and a 5th round pick to New York and received Roman Horak, and two 2nd round picks - Well, everyone can see that the Flames screwed this one up good by not getting Erixon's name on a contract much earlier. Horak and the two second rounders isn't close to fair value, but it's the best they could once the deadline for signing Erixon (their 2009 first rounder) was drawing near. That Erixon called his own shot on this trade has been criticized in some quarters, but I thought it was great. It's not too often that a player as young as Erixon gets some leverage in negotiations, but he had it here and used it to end up exactly where he wanted to. Smart guy.

Signed D Brett Carson to a two-year contract with a cap hit of $575,000 per year - Carson is a big twenty-five year-old defender who played most of last season in the AHL, so the one-way deal is a real coup for him. He played 54 of his 78 career NHL games with the Hurricanes in 2009-10, and actually spent some time as a top four defender there without getting killed. I don't know if he'll turn out to be much, but this seems like a decent low risk signing to me, so long as the Flames are projecting Carson as the seventh or eighth defender heading into camp.

Signed G Henrik Karlsson to a two-year contract with a cap hit of $862,500 per year - I was mildly surprised that they didn't see what was available in free agency and very surprised that the club gave Karlsson a two-year term. Karlsson was a good goalie in Sweden but never the best, and he was below average this year with the Flames. He still hasn't seen a lot of shots (317 at evens), but the .905 EV Sv% isn't promising. I think this is a pretty poor deal.

Traded D Robyn Regehr, F Ales Kotalik, and a 2nd round pick to Buffalo and received D Chris Butler and F Paul Byron - The salary cap has finally reached a point where the Calgary Flames are no longer a rich team. If the club was okay with burying Kotalik's salary in the AHL and spending to the cap at the same time, nothing is gained by moving Regehr who remains a very talented top four defender on a good contract. And even if they needed to move Kotalik, Regehr and a second rounder is awfully steep (and shows just how terrible the Kotalik acquisition really was). That said, Chris Butler is an NHL defenseman, so it's not like the club is getting nothing. He's got acceptable size, and has played capably in three seasons with Sabres. Last season, he was the only Sabres' defender to be on the ice for more DZ than OZ draws, and yet was one of just three regular defenders to post a positive Corsi ratio. He's young enough that he could still improve, but it would likely be best to have him penciled in on the third pairing to start the year. Paul Byron is a small center who scored 0.76 points per game in his second AHL season and had a cup of coffee in the NHL. He turned 22 in April, and looks like a tweener to me, but that means he should be of some help in Abbotsford.

Signed F Alex Tanguay to a five-year contract with a cap hit of $3,500,000 per year - I really liked the contract that Calgary gave Tanguay last year, and the man outpaced my expectations (about 50-55 points in 70-75 games) with a 69-point season. But that good season forced the Flames to ante up if they wanted to keep him. My expectations for 2011-12 are the same as 2010-11, but Tanguay turns 32 in November, so he's likely going to decline before this deal expires (he'll be 36). I like the number for this season, but those last two or three years add a lot of long-term risk. 

Looking ahead to 2011-12

Those who've read here before know that I like to use the chart below as a cap space guideline. Because it's based on percentages, we need to decide on a budget figure for each team, and for Calgary, I've decided to use the cap ceiling of $64.3M, which means the numbers listed below will be cap numbers instead of salaries. Here's the chart:

Top 3 Forwards - 27.5% or 17.68M
Middle 6 Forwards - 20.0% or 12.86M
Top 4 Defenders - 27.5% or 17.68M
Goaltending - 10.0% or 6.43M
Bottom 8 Players - 15.0% or 9.65M

And here it is again with the players that the Flames have signed:

Top 3 Forwards - Iginla, Langkow, Tanguay - 23.3% or 15.00M
Middle 6 Forwards - Stajan, Bourque, Hagman, Jokinen, Glencross, Moss - 25.9% or 16.68M
Top 4 Defenders - Bouwmeester, Giordano, Sarich, ??? - 22.2% or 14.30M
Goaltending - Kiprusoff, Karlsson - 10.4% or 6.70M
Bottom 8 Players - Backlund, Kostopoulos, Ivanans, Jackman, Carson, Dawes (BO), ???, ???, ??? - 6.3% or 4.05M

The Flames are in a tough spot right now. They were a bit worse in 2010-11 than they were in 2009-10, and they figure to be a bit worse than that this year. They were probably a bit unlucky to miss the playoffs in both of those years, but if they did, they would have been lucky to win a round. Several of the team's best (or at least highest-paid) players are quite old - Iginla, Langkow, Tanguay, Jokinen, Hagman, Sarich, and Kiprusoff are all over 30 - and the team doesn't have much in the way of good young players, with the recent departure of Tim Erixon doing them no favors. The team's defense has gone from a strength to a weakness, and yet the club's forwards haven't really improved. If the goal here is to win the Stanley Cup, the Flames are in one of the worst positions I can imagine.

The Regehr trade is a tell that the Flames can't afford to bury contracts in order to free up cash going forward, so that's pretty much out as a solution. So what should they do? Well, the main focus needs to be the long term. Even if Langkow is healthy and effective, and Kiprusoff gives them adequate goaltending, and they use the ~$7M that they have left under the cap on a couple of strong defensemen to short-term deals, the Flames would still struggle to be better than sixth in the Western Conference. They'll be competitive, but won't have a realistic shot at the ultimate goal. 

But in some ways, that provides an opportunity. So long as the Flames remain focused on long-term goals, they can use being competitive now to be patient in slowly tearing the team down and building it back up. There's no need to move Iginla now, but the team should explore the possibility and if an excellent offer comes in, move him (or any other established player) along for younger stars. In free agency, the team should explore some of the younger talent available - guys like Tyler Kennedy and Niclas Bergfors - and spend a little less on the defensemen that they need in the here and now. Draft picks also need to be off limits in order to maximize the team's chances at drafting some quality youth. In doing so, it might be possible to rebuild without completely falling down an elevator shaft. Of course, trading Regehr, Kotalik, and a 2nd for little return is the exact opposite of this approach - a strong asset out the door along with a pretty high pick in order to save a bit of money in the here and now without really improving the team. Elevator shaft, here we come... but it'll take a while.