FLAMES MAILBAG: Building like the Stars, drafting Tij Iginla and summer plans

Son of the Flames legend could be a great addition in the draft

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The NHL playoffs have advanced to the conference finals.

While those fanbases enjoy the competition and pageantry of the conference finals, the rest of us are left waiting for the draft and free agency.

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Craig Conroy’s first off-season as the Calgary Flames GM mostly was spent in a holding pattern as the organization picked through the wreckage of Brad Treliving’s failed aspirations. The club had a bunch of pending free agents and very little cap space, both of which boxed the reshman GM into an uncomfortable corner.

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Calgary’s 2023-24 season, which featured a tumble down the standings and the departure of key veterans, should bring more clarity and direction for Conroy in his second off-season. What’s left is for us to see how it plays out before the players hit the ice again.

In this mailbag, we talk about draft targets, trade targets, and whether the Flames should retool or rebuild moving forward.

Q: What did you make of that recent Herald piece where Conroy talked about rebuilding the way the Stars have done? ie/ keep some vets around, avoid bottoming out, and find star players with non-premium draft capital. Does that seem overly aspirational to you?

A: There’s been a lot of talk about the Dallas model since the Stars ascended back to contender status. Despite building around stars Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, Dallas fell down the well in 2017, finishing with just 79 points. The club won the lottery that season and moved up from seventh to third overall to select Miro Heiskanen.

That alone isn’t what helped slingshot them back up the standings, however. That same draft year, Dallas also picked Jake Oettinger 26th overall and Jason Robertson 39th overall. Essentially adding three core players in one fell swoop, an exceptionally rare feat.

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The Stars have continued to draft exceptionally well in the interim as well. Since 2018 they have also added Ty Dellandrea, Thomas Hartley, Wyatt Johnson, Logan Stankoven and Mavrik Bourque. It also helps that mid-rounder Roope Hintz from 2015 has developed into one of the best two-way forwards in the league.

As a result, Benn and Seguin have settled into more complementary roles over time. Dallas will certainly have to do something about their dual $9.5-million cap hits once their coterie of young stars need raises.

This is a roundabout way of saying this is less a “model” of how to operate than an ideal version of what every NHL team would like to do — pick a bunch of kids who rapidly develop into high-end players. It’s an example of what is possible, but not what is probable. In other words, this is something the Calgary franchise can hope and pray for, but shouldn’t expect.

Q: Will Tij Iginla be there at #9?

A: If you asked this mid-way through the season, the answer would have been “of course.” However, Tij Iginla is one of the fastest risers in the draft this year owing to his 47-goal season in the WHL and his array of skills. It doesn’t hurt that he’s one of the youngest skaters in the draft and the son of a Hall-of-Famer.

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Iginla profiles like Matthew Tkachuk — a scoring winger with high IQ and high compete, as well as a great pedigree. There are rumours that more than a few teams in the top-10 are seriously considering Iginla as their first choice this June.

One reason Iginla might be around when the Flames pick is the amount of high-end centers and defenders that are available inside the top 10 this year. Both positions tend to be more highly coveted than wing. If that tips the scales away from Iginla for everyone between picks one and eight, Calgary might get a chance to call his name that the podium.

Q: Cole Eiserman may not be a bad conciliation prize, can Conroy get Berkly Catton as well?

A: Eiserman might be the best pure scorer in the draft, operating a better than goal-per-game pace in US National Team program and USHL. He also scored nine goals (and one assist) in seven games at the WJC U18 tournament.

Eiserman also is a winger, which drops his stock down a tad, but he’s also known to be far more one-dimensional than Iginla (and many of the top players in the draft this year). He’s the type of kid who could go fifth overall or 20th overall, depending on how heavily clubs value scoring over other factors. Certainly not a bad target for the Flames given how valuable goal-scoring is.

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As for Berkly Catton, it’s improbable the Flames could get both of these players this year, absent a trade to move up in the draft. Catton was the highest-scoring draft-eligible forward in the WHL, managing 54 goals and 116 points in just 68 games. A highly skilled centre who led his team in scoring, most mock draft lists have Catton going somewhere in the top 10.

Q: At 9, assuming Parekh is gone, would you rather the Flames pick Catton or Iginla?

A: This could well be the kind of conundrum the Flames face. Perhaps not this specific trade-off, but the density of high-quality prospects between picks one and ten this year means Craig Conroy and the scouting staff might be faced with an extremely difficult decision once the clock starts on their first selection.

Catton outscored Iginla by 32 points and is a centre rather than a winger. He’s also much older (born in January vs. August), which can be a slight negative when evaluating prospects. Both players are highly skilled, but Catton would be more comparable to, say, a Gaudreau, whereas Iginla’s closer to Tkachuk.

I might lean towards Iginla given his age and pedigree, but I have not spent a lot of time scouting these players so … pinch of salt.

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Q: Would you try to sign a legitimate top-4 D option to assist in goalie Dustin Wolf’s development, or use the 2024-25 season to give chances to the many options the Flames have on defence to see might have value going forward? (I would lean toward the latter)

A: Unless Chris Tanev decides to come back to Calgary for some reason, it’s unlikely the team will be able to sign a legitimate top-4 defender this summer. Calgary’s not going to be a destination team for any in-demand UFA’s given the transitional phase they are entering.

Nor will a single defender (absent a superstar) figure to make much difference in terms of sheltering a young goaltender. Even the best defenders only play about 25 minutes of the 60 minutes in a typical game.

Q: Will they trade (Rasmus) Andersson? To me he’s an indicator of going in a deeper path toward contention. I think it’s a good idea, but is Conroy allowed to do it?

A: Practically every veteran player on this roster should be available for the right price moving forward. Andersson has just two seasons left on his contract at $4.55-million per year, making him a potentially attractive addition for any team looking to add a right-handed defender to their rotation. He’s also a bad bet to re-sign in Calgary, so will likely be gone one way or the other over the long run.

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Of course, with two years remaining on his deal, the Flames don’t have to rush the player to the trade market either. The only reason to move him sooner rather than later is a trade partner steps up with an exceptional offer.

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Q: Is it possible for the Flames to contend for a Cup with their current plan of retooling because I don’t think there is any chance.

A: Usually a retool involves re-jigging a roster around a handful of core players because an initial build path fell short. The Flames engaged in a handful of retools during the Johnny Gaudreau era, with the last (big) one occurring with the acquisition of Jonathan Huberdeau and signing of Nazem Kadri.

Calgary’s current roster doesn’t really position them to engage in a fruitful “retool,” because they aren’t simply a single star or handful of competent supporting players away from contention. Over the next three seasons, guys like Mikael Backlund, Jacob Markstrom, Blake Coleman, Andrew Mangiapane and the aforementioned Andersson will either age out or leave for free agency.

The club’s prospect pipeline is nowhere near strong enough currently to replace, let alone improve on, all of the players the team has lost (or will lose) at the top of the rotation.

The big issue, of course, is the lack of a marquee, era-defining talent. The Flames need to find their next Iginla or Gaudreau and they need to surround him with a handful of young, talented skaters as well if they are to climb back up the Western Conference standings.

Contenders aren’t just built around a single superstar anymore.

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