The Brian Elliott acquisition hasn’t paid off for the Flames, and GM Brad Treliving would be wise to take another long look at acquiring Ben Bishop or Marc-Andre Fleury once the off-season rolls around.
The Flames’ goaltending issues were at their pinnacle in 2015-16 with the four-man rotation of Jonas Hiller, Karri Ramo, Joni Ortio and Niklas Backstrom leaving much to be desired, and that not one of the foursome has a job in the NHL this season is indicative of how poor they performed. It was a no-brainer for the Flames to chase a goaltender this past off-season.
The prevailing notion was Calgary would chase one of Ben Bishop, the 30-year-old Lightning starter who was nearing free agency, or Marc-Andre Fleury, the 32-year-old career Penguin who had lost his starting job to Matt Murray en route to the Stanley Cup. It was rumored the asking price was too high for the Flames’ liking. And as for Bishop, he was actually close to landing in Calgary. He told the Tampa Bay Times’ Joe Smith that he and the Flames were negotiating a new contract, but it was then that the Flames pivoted and decided Brian Elliott would be the answer to their goaltending woes.
The deal made sense for the Flames. Elliott, 31, was coming off of one of the best seasons of his career and at 5-on-5 there were few goaltenders as dominant as he was with the St. Louis Blues. He had posted a .930 save percentage at all strengths — the best mark in the league — and his 2.07 goals-against average was the best mark Elliott had produced in a 40-plus game season in his career.
It’s nearing on impossible to recall that was the case, however, with Elliott looking pedestrian in Calgary through 23 games this season. His .891 save percentage is a mark you’d expect from a backup, his goals-against average has ballooned to 2.92 and after earning a few votes for the Vezina Trophy in 2015-16, he has a better shot at competing for the Masterton Trophy in 2017-18 than he does landing any recognition for his play in goal this campaign.
Now Calgary is more than halfway through their season asking themselves the same questions they were last April. And were it not for Chad Johnson, 30, signed to backup Elliott, the Flames could be in a much worse position than boasting a one-point edge on the final wild-card spot. Even with Johnson’s play being somewhat of a season-saver, though, Flames GM Brad Treliving won’t have much of a choice but to go back and look at his options in goal this off-season.
Looking inside the organization, consideration has to be given to Jon Gillies. The 6-foot-6 netminder has had a tough go in AHL Stockton this season after injuries sidelined him for much of 2015-16, but he’s the de facto goaltender of the future and arguably the top prospect the Flames have whose not yet in the NHL. The 23-year-old was a stud in the NCAA, backstopping Providence to a title in 2014-15. Gillies has the size and talent to be a difference-maker down the line, but Treliving would be remiss to think Gillies can solve the Flames’ current problems in goal.
Really, the only way to really fix what’s broken in Calgary right now is for Treliving to focus on the two goaltenders he passed over for Elliott this past summer. And while it’s an issue that could use addressing now, it’s unlikely Treliving could swing a deal to land Bishop or Fleury before the trade deadline.
All three teams — the Flames, Lightning and Penguins — are right up against the cap, dipping into long-term injured reserve in order to have any breathing room at all. Almost any deal made would have to be dollar-in, dollar-out. That complicates matters, which is to say the Flames might only have a prayer of fixing the situation in goal by the time March rolls around.
Things will get interesting in the off-season, however. Come July 1, the Flames are going to have six restricted free agents in need of deals, but more than $22 million in cap space and close to $17 million coming off the books as veterans hit the open market. Among the expiring contracts are Dennis Wideman’s $5.25-million deal, Deryk Engelland’s $2.917-million contract and the $4.2 million the Flames have locked up in Elliott and Johnson.
The upcoming expansion draft for the Vegas Golden Knights doesn’t make it a lock that Bishop hits the open market, and it doesn’t ensure Fleury will be on the trade block as a Penguin come July 1. That said, there is a way for Treliving to use the expansion draft in his favor, using it to approach Lightning GM Steve Yzerman or Penguins GM Jim Rutherford with a deal.
The benefit for the Flames is clear. Trading for Bishop or Fleury lands Calgary another shot at a starting goaltender, this time with Stanley Cup final experience. But there’s a positive for Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh, too. Instead of losing a bonafide starting netminder for nothing, Calgary’s trade partner can recoup an asset. Even a draft pick for either Bishop or Fleury would be more than Yzerman or Rutherford could possibly hope for if Vegas plucks away either netminder.
The time is right for Treliving to do what he struggled to pull off last off-season, and that’s bring either Bishop or Fleury to Calgary. Goaltending has been an issue for two seasons straight, but both the money and assets will be there for the Flames to fix it this off-season.
2016 second-round pick Rasmus Asplund is getting valuable experience with Farjestad back home in Sweden, but he's looking forward to teaming up with Alex Nylander in Buffalo.
The best thing about the prospect world? There are very few “dog days.” The world juniors is in our rearview mirror, but here comes the CHL Top Prospects Game! I’ll be in Quebec City for the festivities on Monday, so stay tuned for coverage next week. As for bad news, while Hamilton, Oshawa and Regina make their bids for the 2018 Memorial Cup, the 2017 hosts from Windsor just found out key defenseman Logan Stanley (WPG) will be out long-term due to knee surgery, putting his participation in jeopardy. In the meantime, let’s take a look at some of the players with brighter storylines right now.
Rasmus Asplund, C (Buffalo): Though his world juniors ended with another disappointing fourth-place finish, overall it’s been a pretty good year for Asplund. Not only is he one of the top junior-aged scorers in the SHL, but the world juniors gave him another chance to hang out with Alex Nylander, his fellow Buffalo draft pick.
“It’s always fun to be on the same team as Alex,” Asplund said. “He’s an outstanding player and a good guy in the room, too. And now we’re both Sabres.”
Asplund was taken 33rd overall by Buffalo this summer and while it’s always fun to be drafted by the team hosting the event, the talented two-way center was getting approached for autographs the day before he was picked, giving him a preview of how knowledgeable the locals are.
“I was there for two months this summer and it’s an amazing hockey town,” he said. “Everyone is crazy about hockey so it’s going to be exciting to get there soon.”
Asplund is currently playing for Farjestad back home in Sweden. The squad is mid-table in the SHL, but for a young player with NHL dreams, Asplund is getting a golden opportunity to grow his game right now.
“It’s been a really good year for me,” he said. “I’m playing almost 19 minutes every game and in all situations, so the development has been outstanding. I’m taking steps every day.”
While Asplund and Nylander played on separate lines at the world juniors this year, they had chemistry at the tourney in 2016. And with the Sabres rebuilding and both players looking promising for the future, the two Swedish nationals could be starring in different shades of blue and gold very soon.
Mathieu Joseph, RW (Tampa Bay): It’s been a huge year for Joseph, who took silver at the world juniors with Canada. But the talented and energetic winger’s most lasting legacy may be his new franchise record point streak. Joseph has now gone 23 games without missing the score sheet, breaking QMJHL Saint John’s franchise record, which had belonged to Zach Phillips.
Mitch Vande Sompel, D (NY Islanders): I get the feeling Vande Sompel is in his element with the OHL’s London Knights. The offensive defenseman was acquired at the trade deadline from Oshawa and he already has seven points in six games for his new squad.
Daniel Sprong, RW (Pittsburgh): Injuries have devastated Sprong’s young career, so it’s good to see the kid back with Charlottetown and doing what he does best: putting up offense. Sprong has nine points in eight QMJHL games for the Islanders since returning from shoulder surgery.
Dakota Joshua, C (Toronto): It didn’t take long for Penn State to get knocked down a peg. Joshua and his Ohio State mates did the damage with two wins on the weekend and the hardworking center had four points in that span for the Buckeyes, who are climbing in the Big Ten.
2017 Draft Stars
Ian Scott, G – Prince Albert Raiders (WHL): It’s not often you hear a goaltender lauded for his leadership qualities, but that’s what some scouts see in Scott, whose big frame has won the Raiders games they shouldn’t have. Scott will get a chance to show off his stuff at the Top Prospects Game.
Dylan Samberg, D – Hermantown Hawks (Minn. HS): Scouts are having a lot of fun watching Samberg, a big, mean D-man in the Minnesota high school ranks. Along with his physicality, the University of Minnesota-Duluth commit is also a great skater – further boosting his stock.
Artyom Minulin, D – Swift Current Broncos (WHL): Along with forward Aleksi Heponiemi, Minulin is providing the Broncos with great value from their imports. A smart, two-way defenseman, Minulin leads the Swift Current blueline in points with 34 through 48 games.
Isaac Ratcliffe, LW – Guelph Storm (OHL): Ratcliffe showed deft hands in tight on a game-winner against Windsor on the weekend and at 6-foot-6, his mitts are impressive. The big left winger has seven points in his past eight games and leads the Storm in scoring.
Cameron Crotty, D – Brockville Braves (CCHL): A shoulder injury kept him out of the spotlight for a while, but Crotty is back and has three points in his past three games. The Boston U. commit is a puckmoving defenseman with good size and great skating ability.
2018 Draft Star
Bode Wilde, D – U.S. NTDP (USHL): There was a lot of hype around Wilde, who was seen as a potential No. 1 pick for the OHL before he committed to the NTDP. But the big defenseman has lived up to expectations, using his bomb shot and elite skating to get results. Wilde is committed to Harvard and Saginaw owns his OHL rights.
Sam Gagner struggled in consecutive years heading into 2016-17, but the adversity helped him get tougher and his belief he could still contribute has led to a bounce back season in Columbus.
There was a point during the 2015-16 season where it looked like Sam Gagner’s time in the NHL could be over. On a middling Philadelphia Flyers squad, Gagner was mired in the bottom-six, demoted to the AHL for a stint and finished the campaign having been in and out of the lineup while producing the worst point total of his big league career.
Worst of all, Gagner, 26, was supposed to be in his prime. The sixth-overall pick in the 2007 draft, Gagner had consistently been a 40-plus point player and everything looked as though it was coming together in the lockout-shortened year when he scored 14 goals and 38 points in 48 games for the Oilers. But having followed that up with a 37-point campaign in 2013-14, Gagner found himself out of Edmonton, the only NHL city he had known, and on his way to Arizona come 2014-15.
Gagner’s points per game dropped for the second-straight season during his year with the Coyotes, and when he was shipped to Philadelphia ahead of the 2015-16 season, it was seen as another chance at a fresh start. Instead, it was one of the most difficult seasons of his career.
“It’s always hard to go through those struggles,” Gagner said of the consecutive down years in Arizona and Philadelphia. “But I truly believe that if you handle them the right way, the adversity can help shape you and help make you stronger. I feel like coming into this year I’m a lot stronger mentally than I maybe have been in the past.”
And if mental strength has been the biggest change in Gagner’s game, the 27-year-old might want to think about entering his brain into a strongman competition because the changes in Gagner’s play — and, most notably, his production — have been remarkable.
Entering the off-season as an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career, he landed a one-year, show-me deal with the Blue Jackets. It pays $650,000, which is more than $4 million less than Gagner had earned during the 2015-16 campaign. Gagner couldn’t care less about that, though, because he only wanted the shot at showing his game hadn’t gone anywhere.
“I still felt like I had a lot to give as a player and if I was able to get some opportunity, that I could help a team be successful,” Gagner said. “I think coming into Columbus, I got the chance to do that, I’m playing some really important power play minutes and in a lot of different situations. It’s definitely helped me add another level to my game, and it’s been a good fit.”
Good fit? There’s an understatement. The Blue Jackets, looking for someone to produce in the bottom-six and possibly push some of the youngsters to earn their place in the top-six, called on Gagner and he’s been dynamite. Through 45 games, his 14 goals and 33 points have him on pace for the best offensive season of his career. It’s been eye-opening for those thinking Gagner’s time as a productive player int he NHL was over. Least surprised of anyone, though, is Gagner, who said he expected this of himself and knew he put the work in to make it a reality.
“I feel confident in my game,” Gagner continued. “Obviously there are ebbs and flows during a season in terms of offense and whether the puck goes in the net or not, but it’s just a matter of staying consistent with it and having a proper mindset. A lot of the struggles in the past help you with that mindset.”
Gagner’s focus is shifting as the season progresses, however. While maintaining consistency in his game, he wants to help the Blue Jackets take the next step forward. For the organization, that's going to mean not just a playoff appearance, but actually winning a round. And a Blue Jackets team that went on an unthinkable 16-game win streak has designs on a deep run.
Going on a month-long winning streak has no bearing on playoff success, to be sure, and there has been bumps in the road since Columbus’ win streak ended. Though if there’s anyone familiar with turning a tough time into a period of success, it’s Gagner.
“You learn a lot about your team in a streak like that, and I think all that pressure that comes on you when you start to build up those wins, that only helps you come playoff time,” Gagner said. “I think it was a good thing for us, and now you go through a little adversity and fight your way through it. It’s all part of an 82-game schedule, and you learn from everything.”
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