Should a wild card spot change how the Flames handle UFAs?

Nov 18, 2023; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Calgary Flames center Elias Lindholm (28) against New York Islanders during the second period at Scotiabank Saddledome. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 18, 2023; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Calgary Flames center Elias Lindholm (28) against New York Islanders during the second period at Scotiabank Saddledome. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports /

I’ve covered this topic ad nauseam so far this season and that’s due to the fact that what general manager Craig Conroy and the Calgary Flames elect to do with their batch of pending unrestricted free agents is the biggest story facing the team – and it will remain that way until decisions have been made on each and every one of them.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the Flames’ UFA situation, here’s a quick summary of what the team’s brass is going to have to deal with:

  • Four big-time Flames are currently on contracts that are set to expire following the 2023-24 season: Elias Lindholm, Noah Hanifin, Chris Tanev, and Nikita Zadorov. These players are where the biggest question marks exist.
  • Two other current roster players are set to become UFAs, as well: A.J. Greer and Dennis Gilbert.
  • Two current LTIR players are also signed to expiring deals: Oliver Kylington and Kevin Rooney.

For the sake of this article, I’m going to focus on the first four names. Greer and Gilbert could either be extended, walked to free agency, or traded without the same type of implications as Lindholm, Hanifin, Tanev, and Zadorov. As for Kylington and Rooney, we’ll simply remove them from the conversation for now.

The reasons that the looming decisions on Lindholm, Hanifin, Tanev, and Zadorov are so crucial for the franchise are because they will all – save maybe Tanev – become more expensive on their next contracts, they are all current impact players on the Calgary Flames roster, they could all demand significant assets in trade returns, and this is the first huge test for how Conroy and his management staff handle valuable assets.

If the Flames were way out of a playoff picture at this point in the season, the route would be explicitly clear: trade them all for draft picks and/or prospects in order to get younger and rebuild/retool for the future.

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If the Flames were clearly a top team in the Pacific Division with genuinely justifiable Stanley Cup Championship potential, the route might also be clearer: lock them up in order to go on a run now with this roster.

However, the team finds itself in familiar territory: the mushy, mediocre middle. With a 9-10-3 record, the Flames sit under .500 right on the edge of the playoff picture.

If you’ve read some of my previous pieces, you’d know I’m an advocate for making the difficult decisions in order to get younger, more exciting, and ideally more competitive, so that when the new arena opens, the Flames can give Calgary hockey fans what they deserve: meaningful hockey and Stanley Cup aspirations.

So, here’s where I stand on each of the big four UFAs at the current juncture…

Nikita Zadorov

Zadorov, despite being voted the fan base’s favourite Calgary Flame earlier in the season, should be traded prior to the trade deadline. This one might be the easiest verdict to come to – he’s asked for a trade and if he doesn’t want to be in Calgary, it makes sense to ship him out. The Flames should be focused on character people who want to play for the city and wear the Flaming C. I think I speak for most fans in the C of Red when I say we’re sick of having players who don’t want to win here.

Nikita Zadorov
Nov 22, 2023; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Calgary Flames defenseman Nikita Zadorov (16) skates against the Nashville Predators] during the first period at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports /

Zadorov verdict: Trade

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Chris Tanev

Chris Tanev is a soldier who makes his D partners better and blocks shots with his face. He’s a glue guy, a leader, and I love having 8 as a Calgary Flame.

But, Tanev is the type of player who could bring in a decent haul at the trade deadline. If the market is hungry for a trustworthy defensive defenseman and playoff contenders are looking to add at the deadline, the Flames should pull the trigger on a Chris Tanev deal.

Tanev verdict: Trade

Noah Hanfiin

Hanifin is an experienced NHL defender who’s played quite well as of late. He’s a great skater and despite skating in over 600 NHL contests is still only 26 years old. If there was an opportunity to lock him in at a reasonable AAV, he might be a UFA to consider extending.

Calgary Flames Noah Hanifin
Nov 4, 2023; Seattle, Washington, USA; Calgary Flames defenseman Noah Hanifin (55) celebrates after scoring a goal against the Seattle Kraken during the second period at Climate Pledge Arena. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports /

However, I don’t think a reasonable AAV is on the table or else a Hanifin extension probably would have happened by now. The Flames need to allocate the millions of dollars Hanifin is looking for towards multiple players with potential to be long-time difference-making Calgary Flames.

At only 26, Hanifin could be a sign-and-trade candidate. The Flames could pull in multiple draft picks and/or prospects for Hanifin, hurting the team immediately, but substantially bolstering the depth chart for years to come.

Hanifin verdict: Trade

Elias Lindholm

Among the UFAs, Elias Lindholm is the most valuable and therefore, will certainly be the most expensive. The Flames’ first line centre was rumoured to be seeking $9 million or more to extend with the Flames.

As much as I like Lindholm as a two-way hockey player, the Flames aren’t in a position – with Jonathan Huberdeau earning $10.5 for the next seven years after this one and Nazem Kadri taking up $7 million of the team’s cap for the next six – to extend another forward well into their 30s.

Calgary Flames Elias Lindholm
Nov 18, 2023; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Calgary Flames center Elias Lindholm (28) against New York Islanders during the second period at Scotiabank Saddledome. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports /

It’s also time to say good-bye to Lindholm. In my opinion, Conroy should be stealthily shopping Lindholm to GMs around the league. He doesn’t need to tell anyone he’s 100% set on trading Lindholm, but he should be building the market around his top asset in order to pull the trigger on a monumental franchise-altering trade (or sign-and-trade) this season.

Lindholm verdict: Trade

Why trade all of the big four UFAs if the Flames could make the playoffs?

If the goal is always just to sneak into the playoffs, this proves my point that something is wrong with the Calgary Flames organizational culture.

Conroy’s goal needs to be winning at least one Stanley Cup and the questions about how to get there – diligently and articulately over time – need to be asked and answered.

If the Flames trade Zadorov, Tanev, Hanifin, and Lindholm, they might have a hard time holding a playoff spot down the stretch, but it could still be possible this season and the team would be in a far better position beginning as early as June, 2024, when the Flames announce multiple picks in the first couple rounds of the NHL Draft in Vegas.

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