The Calgary Flames don’t want to rebuild, but the players may give them no choice.
The franchise is at a crossroads it hasn’t experienced in the salary cap era.
Ownership prefers the re-tool — a tinkering of sorts that sees player movement dependent on contract status but no major blows to the core if they can be avoid. That was on full display with the Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk drama last season, and the efforts by former GM Brad Treliving to bring in proven players like Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar instead of more young prospects and draft picks in the trade package.
With so many critical players on deals that expire next summer, and a strong belief at the core of Calgary Flames leadership that this team can win with the pieces already in place, the franchise made moves this offseason with those players in mind.
They lined the front office with optimism and energy with new GM Craig Conroy, his kinder and gentler head coach Ryan Huska, and the return of hockey hall of famer Jarome Iginla.
Ultimately, though, it’s those players who will determine whether the Flames can just re-tool, or if they’re forced into more of a rebuild. And with reports surfacing that there’s an expectation at least three key players are more interested in exploring their options in unrestricted free agency next summer than signing extensions with the Calgary Flames, it’s not looking great for Conroy — who could be extremely active on the trade front at the upcoming NHL draft.
Based on reports from guys like Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman and others considered among the most tapped into the NHL whispers, the trio of Noah Hanifin, Elias Lindholm and Michael Backlund are all leaning toward the potential for greener pastures after this season.
It’s believed Lindholm is sitting on a big offer, with no timeline to accept.
Both Backlund and Lindholm were brutally honest about their uncertainty at the end of the season, and Hanifin seems to be in the same boat.
No word on how Chris Tanev, Nikita Zadorov, Oliver Kylington and Tyler Toffoli feel about extending — but perhaps the Flames’ position on some of them will change based on what happens with the other three in the coming days and weeks.
If there is a silver lining to be found, it’s that Conroy has promised not to let these assets go for nothing. And both Lindholm and Hanifin — still just 26 years old and a year removed from a 48-point season — would fetch a nice return of picks, players and/or prospects on the NHL trade market.
Backlund also has value as a stellar two-way centre coming off a career year.
If they’re forced to deal two or more of these top players, which would decimate their depth down the middle, there’s no point in stopping there.
Toffoli’s value will never be higher.
Tanev is a great mentor but may also want to move on if the Flames are forced to close their Stanley Cup window.
A rebuild may not be desirable, but it also may no longer be avoidable.