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The Flames In Free Agency

Well, it's been a couple of weeks since free agency opened, so it seems to me that it would be good to take a look at what each team in the Northwest division has done. I'll begin today with the Calgary Flames who have been very quiet so far. They were supposedly in on the Brad Richards Sweepstakes, but didn't get him. Which is probably to their long-term benefit since this team, even with Richards, isn't good enough to compete with the top teams in the Conference, and that move could easily have handicapped them well into the future. And so with that failing, they've done almost nothing... at the NHL level. These last two weeks, it seems, have really been about Abbotsford, and the Abbotsford Heat have gotten a whole lot better.

What have they done since we last checked in?

Signed D Chris Butler to a two-year contract with a cap hit of $1,250,000 per year - Chris Butler is a competent NHL defenseman who should start the year on the third pairing. He's not huge, but he's got decent size, and he's a veteran of three NHL seasons, all with Buffalo. 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 with a positive Corsi ratio. He got third pairing ice time at evens during the regular season, but was relied on to play top four minutes in the playoffs. He got bombed in that role, but the Flyers were a very good team (past tense intentional), and he's young enough that he could improve. The contract is very reasonable for a starting the year as the fifth defenseman, and the contract structure ($1.3M in the first year and $1.2M in the second year) will make him slightly easier to qualify in two years. The trade that brought him to Calgary probably wasn't wise, but this is a good deal.

Signed F Carter Bancks to a two-year two-way entry-level contract with an NHL cap hit of $560,000 per year - Bancks spent last year in Abbotsford after joining the Flames' organization as an undrafted free agent. The 5'11'' forward never reached a point per game in four seasons with Lethbridge of the WHL, but played well as a rookie in Abbotsford before getting injured. 19 points in 29 games isn't spectacular by any means, but the Heat weren't a great team, and the Flames don't have a lot of great prospects, so giving this player a contract seems reasonable to me, even if his upside is probably as a fourth-line plugger should he make it to the NHL.

Signed D Joe Piskula to a two-year two-way contract with an NHL cap hit of $525,000 per year - Piskula is a veteran defender with 270 games of professional experience, which leaves him in the in-between zone as far as the AHL veteran rule is concerned (teams can have five players with more than 320 pro games and one more with 260 to 320). At 27, he's now in the prime of his career, and was one of two regular Abbotsford defenders to end the hear with a plus rating (he was +1), which gives him four consecutive seasons on the right side of the ledger, and four consecutive seasons where he's been third or better among regular defenders. He doesn't have much in the way of offense, but he seems to be a very good AHL defenseman, and should be able to provide some shelter for the younger defenders in Calgary's system.

Signed F Ben Walter to a two-year two-way contract with an NHL cap hit of $537,500 per year - Abbotsford didn't spend much money last season, but are forking out $275,000 per year for Walter. The 27 year-old forward has led his team in scoring in each of the last two years, and showed enough potential to get a cup of coffee in the NHL each season from 2005-06 to 2009-10. This year, he'll probably spend the whole year in Abbotsford to help make that team more competent offensively. (It's amazing that the team was able to win 38 games even though their leading scorer had just 35 points!)

Signed D Clay Wilson to a two-year contract (first year two-way, second year one-way) with an NHL cap hit of $525,000 per year - The willingness to spend money on the farm team continues. Wilson's AHL salary is $300,000 in 2011-12, and as was mentioned, $525,000 if he plays there in 2012-13. That's what happened to Wilson in 2010-11 with the Panthers. Despite a one-way deal, Wilson got sent down at the start of camp, but he was called up later in the year and played 15 games with the Panthers. It was his fifth consecutive season with some time in the NHL, so he would seem to be a classic bubble player. Over the last two years, he's scored 108 points in 141 AHL games, including 57 points on the power play. Like Walter, he should provide a big lift for Abbotsford's offense.

Signed D Anton Babchuk to a two-year contract with a cap hit of $2,500,000 per year (with NTC) - The Flames are paying Babchuk like a top four defender and that's probably the role he'll play with the team. He's never averaged more than 18:05 per game in any one season, so this would have to be considered asking a player do more than his established level of ability, which generally isn't wise to start the year. If things don't work out, the no-trade clause makes Babchuk difficult to move along. On the other hand, Babchuk has done very well from the bottom pairing, particularly as a scorer. Last season, Babchuk scored 1.07 points per sixty minutes, which was tops on the team, and among the top thirty defenders in the league. In 2008-09 (I didn't include 2009-10 because Babchuk was playing in the KHL), he scored 1.09 points per sixty minutes, which was again among the top thirty defenders in the league. His Corsi and +/- rates were also good in both seasons, so asking him to step up isn't totally unreasonable. I think that this contract is a risk, but it's a short-term risk that has a pretty good chance of working out.

Signed F Guillaume Desbiens to a one-year two-way contract with an NHL cap hit of $525,000 - Yet another player who's destined for Abbotsford who would have been the team's highest-paid player last season. Desbiens will make $135,000 with the Heat in 2011-12 after spending the last three seasons with the Manitoba Moose. At 6'2'' and over 210 lbs., Desbiens is a big man who can score a bit and is very willing to drop the mitts. In each of the last three AHL regular seasons, Desbiens has scored at least 0.5 points per game and has had at least 100 penalty minutes each time. In those same three seasons, he's received a total of 32 fighting majors. At least at the AHL level, the Flames seem to have found a ruffian who can actually play, a player type that has tremendous value. At 26, he's not really a prospect, but he is exactly the kind of player who can step onto an NHL fourth line in case of injuries.

Signed F Sven Baertschi to a three-year entry-level contract with an NHL cap hit of $1,456,250 - Given what happened with Tim Erixon, I'm not at all surprised that the Flames were one of the first teams to sign their top pick from the 2011 draft. The young Swiss was a dominant with the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL, and may challenge for a roster spot if the Flames don't add any more bodies. It's much more likely that he ends up going back to the WHL, which will help to lower his cap hit, and give him time to mature physically so that he's more ready for the rigors of the NHL, but Baertschi is no doubt Calgary's best prospect.

Signed G Leland Irving to a one-year two-way contract with an NHL cap hit of $600,000 - On the one hand, I'm very surprised to see Irving get $150,000 at the AHL level, a huge raise on the $62,500 he made one year ago. On the other hand, that big AHL salary is the trade-off for a significantly lower NHL salary (his qualifying offer would have paid him $62,500 in the AHL and $803,250 at the NHL level). That says to mean that the Flames believe Irving will spend at some point in the next couple of years, and given his status as the organization's third goaltender, that's a reasonable bet. In three NHL seasons, he's outperformed his main crease partner just once (2008-09), and has never had a better save percentage than .913 (2010-11), so I wouldn't bet on him ever seeing more than limited action in the NHL, but with goalies, you really never know for sure.

Traded D Keith Seabrook to the Florida Panthers and received D Jordan Henry; signed D Jordan Henry to a one-year two-way contract with an NHL cap hit of $600,000 - Henry spent last year in the KHL, so I'm sure that the Panthers were thrilled to get anything for him. Seabrook wasn't working out in the Flames organization (they loaned him to Manitoba at the end of the year), so they were probably happy to get something too. Neither player has showed much promise at the NHL level, but Henry did have a great AHL season in 2009-10 with 31 points in 76 games, a team-leading +22, and over 100 penalty minutes, and with just 230 games of pro experience, he still doesn't qualify as an official AHL veteran. This is a good signing for Abbotsford, but likely nothing more than that.

Traded a fifth-round pick in 2012 to the New Jersey Devils and received F Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond - The man with the long name is an enforcer on a one-way deal, so you already know what I think of this deal. Last season was his best in the AHL (13 points and 334 penalty minutes in 64 games) and it's pretty much a guarantee that he contributed more to losing games than to winning them. That the Flames have this player on their roster is a minus for them. That they gave up a draft pick to acquire him is crazy. Terrible deal.

Signed D Derek Smith to a one-year two-way contract with an NHL cap hit of $700,000 - Smith has played with the Binghamton Senators for the last four seasons, and in the last two years has emerged as an offensive threat from the back-end. In 2009-10, Smith scored 51 points in 74 games, but was a ghastly (and team-worst) -25. In 2010-11, he scored 54 points in 71 games, and improved his +/- to a very solid +7. He also made it into nine games with the Senators. He's the fourth experienced defender the Flames have brought in for Abbotsford, which should give the Flames a solid back-end and provide tremendous support for prospects T.J. Brodie, John Negrin, and Jonathan Breen.


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'll be staying with 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, Babchuk - 26.1% or 16.80M
Goaltending - Kiprusoff, Karlsson - 10.4% or 6.70M
Bottom 8 Players - Backlund, Kostopoulos, Ivanans, Letourneau-Leblond, Jackman, Butler, Carson, Dawes (BO), ???, - 9.1% or 5.83M

The Flames aren't much better now than they were when free agency started. Babchuk and Butler fill the holes on defense, and they'll probably be fine, but they aren't likely to provide much in the way of surplus value, and the Flames defense still looks worse now than it did at the start of 2009-10. In my last post on the Flames, I talked about the team being at a crossroads, not good enough to win now, not enough good young talent to have much hope that the team is getting better, not much in the way of prospects, and not bad enough to tear the thing down focus on the future. Jay Feaster's recent comments to TSN really embody the problem:

What we've really talked about and we focused on here this week as we've had the staff together is the whole idea that we want to actually have some spots open for some of our young prospects when we go into training camp... We'll make the playoffs this year.

Now, this team is good enough to be considered a bubble team, so they may well make the playoffs, but if your goal is to make the playoffs, you probably shouldn't be intentionally leaving some spots open on the big-league roster for unproven talent. It's just not very smart. This off-season has done nothing to change my overall impression of this club: they're on the slow boat to the elevator shaft.