Don’t expect the Calgary Flames to make a big splash when NHL free agency kicks off on Saturday morning.
It’s not going to happen.
There are a couple of reasons for that.
First of all, there’s the matter of money. Cap space, specifically. And the Flames just don’t have a lot of it. According to CapFriendly, the team will have a grand total of US$2.4 million in cap space when free agency opens this weekend.
That’s going to limit anything the Flames might like to do, as general manager Craig Conroy admitted when he spoke with reporters in Nashville after Thursday’s NHL Draft.
“Free agency coming, we don’t have a lot of money,” Conroy said plainly. “We’ll probably be making some depth moves, but that’s probably it for the next day or so.”
With a 2023 free-agent class that is short on big names, this isn’t necessarily a bad year to be sitting on the sidelines a little bit.
And the Flames’ current circumstances mean that it’s a little hard to know what holes in their roster they might be looking to fill, anyways.
The seven Flames who are set to become free agents in 2024 have been the talk of the town ever since Conroy was hired as the team’s new GM last month, and while they traded sharpshooting top-line winger Tyler Toffoli to the New Jersey Devils this week, the other six remain on the books in Calgary.
Hard to shop without a shopping list
What is a team like the Flames supposed to be shopping for in free agency when they don’t know whether they’ll have Elias Lindholm, Mikael Backlund, Noah Hanifin, Chris Tanev, Nikita Zadorov and Oliver Kylington with them when they take the ice this season?
Sorting through that list remains the priority for a lot of reasons. Trades could free up cap space. They could bring useful pieces in return. Ultimately, who Conroy trades and what he gets back will be significantly more meaningful to the construction of the 2023-24 roster than anything that happens on Saturday.
And that remains a work in progress.
“I don’t want to rush anything. I don’t want to just make a deal here just to do it, that doesn’t make any sense,” Conroy said. “With Lindy, we’re still talking. With Backs, we’re still talking. I don’t think I want to rush that at all, I want to see where they really are. I want them to know ‘I want to be part of the Flames, first and foremost’. “
While rumours flew about potential deals throughout the draft on Wednesday and Thursday, Conroy said the Flames didn’t receive “a lot of hard, concrete” offers for the six players primed to be UFAs next year.
And time is on his side. The looming start of free agency isn’t a deadline, real or artificial, for moving players or roster construction. If the Flames have to move on from guys like Lindholm and Hanifin, there is going to be interest throughout the summer and into next season.
“If I wanted to give players away, I could have done that already. It needs to make sense for the Calgary Flames,” Conroy told Sportsnet’s Eric Francis. “Everyone has a contract next year, so if we have to go into the season with them, that’s not ideal, but we have to do what’s best for us.”
It’s also worth noting that while their cap situation and uncertainty surrounding next year’s UFAs are affecting the Flames’ ability to sign players on Saturday, Conroy has also made it a priority to keep spots open on the roster for young players.
That’s not something that his predecessor, Brad Treliving, did as much in his final couple of years in charge. If you assume the Flames want at least two or three of their potentially NHL-ready prospects to be on the roster on opening day, the team doesn’t actually have a tonne of space for free agents.
It likely means that Milan Lucic and Trevor Lewis, both in their mid-30s and unrestricted free agents on Saturday, are unlikely to return. Whether there’s a future in Calgary for Nick Ritchie and defencemen Troy Stecher and Michael Stone is entirely unclear, too.
“You’re talking to everybody, but with trying to get the young guys in (the lineup), it’s going to be hard to add anybody,” Conroy said.
Matthew Phillips still up in the air
One player who a lot of people will be keeping an eye on this weekend is Calgary Wranglers star Matthew Phillips.
The 25-year-old led the AHL club with 36 goals and 40 assists this past season and set a league record with 15 game-winning goals but was never given an extended look by the Flames. Many assumed that was former head coach Darryl Sutter’s decision and with Sutter gone, there could be a better opportunity for the 5-foot-8 winger to break through in the NHL.
He’s a free agent, though, and he may very well be attracting interest from elsewhere.
“Matty’s put himself in a very good position, he had a great year,” Conroy said. “He’s earned the right to take his time and do what’s best for his career, but we’d love to have Matty back.”
The Flames sent qualifying offers to all three players who were restricted free agents on Friday afternoon.
In advance of Friday’s 3 p.m. deadline, the Flames extended qualifying offers to Ben Jones, Martin Pospisil and Emilio Pettersen, which grants the team the right to match any offer sheet another team provides them in free agency or receive draft compensation in return.
Jones, Pospisil and Pettersen all spent all of last season with the Calgary Wranglers, the Flames’ AHL affiliate.
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