As the Calgary Flames attempt to stave off playoff elimination during an underachieving season, general manager Brad Treliving marks his seven-year anniversary at the helm of the team.
The Flames were coming off a fifth straight non-playoff season when he was hired, finishing second last in the Western Conference. Jiri Hudler led the team in scoring, Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie patrolled the blueline, and a quartet of goalies fought for the starting job following Miikka Kiprusoff’s retirement.
Perhaps that otherwise-futile 2013-14 season’s most important moment was its final game, when a rookie named Johnny Gaudreau scored his first NHL goal in his debut.
A year later, in the spring of 2015, led by Gaudreau and a young core brimming with seemingly limitless potential in Sam Bennett, Mikael Backlund, Sean Monahan and Giordano, the Flames shocked the Vancouver Canucks and won their first playoff series since their run to the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals.
As Treliving begins his eighth calendar year leading the franchise, that playoff victory against the Canucks remains the peak of his tenure. Since then, the Flames have been in that class of teams that are good enough to make the playoffs, but unable to make an impact once they get there.
The Flames have made the playoffs in four of six seasons under Treliving (not counting this year), winning 11 total games (22nd in the league in that span) and that one series in his first season.
Treliving has developed a reputation during his tenure as one of the most active NHL general managers when it comes to inquiring about the availability of players and making transactions. His approach has been rooted in the belief that the core was a handful of moves away from becoming a legitimate Cup contender.
It’s why he swung for the fences in dealing for defencemen Dougie Hamilton and Travis Hamonic, and signed goalie Jacob Markstrom and blueliner Chris Tanev last off-season.
Some transactions have paid dividends. In previous years he’s gotten top-60 picks for the likes of Hudler, Kris Russell, and Sven Baertschi. Among the players selected with those picks: blueliner Rasmus Andersson and winger Dillon Dubé. Under Treliving, the Flames have found forward Andrew Mangiapane and highly touted goalie Dustin Wolf in the sixth and seventh rounds, respectively. This season, Tanev has been one of the team’s best defenders.
At this year’s trade deadline he was able to turn Sam Bennett into a second-round pick and prospect Emil Heineman, who has drawn comparisons to versatile Maple Leafs winger Zach Hyman.
Arguably his best trade was acquiring defenceman Noah Hanifin and centre Elias Lindholm from Carolina in exchange for Hamilton, Micheal Ferland and unsigned prospect Adam Fox (who now leads NHL blueliners in scoring with the New York Rangers after refusing to sign with Calgary), and then inking the pair to team-friendly contracts.
Trading draft picks for Hamilton and Hamonic propelled the team to regular season success, including their second-best point total in franchise history, but nothing of consequence in the postseason.
The additions of Tanev and Markstrom have resulted in a team with a 3.8 per cent chance of making the playoffs, according to hockeyreference.com. Treliving’s signing of James Neal to a five-year, $28.75 million contract turned out to be a mistake, with the winger fitting in neither on the ice nor off it, and the team was forced to absorb Milan Lucic’s deal to move on from him. (To Treliving’s credit, Lucic has since turned into a serviceable player for the Flames).
Led by Treliving, the Flames have had fewer draft picks (50) than all but five teams since 2014.
In that same time span, Calgary has also had fewer first-round picks than every team except Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, and Washington. The major difference, of course, is that those teams have leveraged that draft capital into sustained playoff success and Stanley Cups.
Treliving has – so far – been unable to find the right coach for this core of Flames players. Darryl Sutter is the fifth bench boss for the team under Treliving since he was hired in 2014. Only three NHL teams have had more head coaches in that span. One of Treliving’s hires was Bill Peters, who resigned after instances of abuse and racism predating his arrival in Calgary were revealed by former NHLers Michal Jordan and Akim Aliu, respectively.
As the disappointment in Calgary has continued, the perceptions about a flawed team culture have only grown. For all the ugly truths this failed season has revealed for the Flames, one stands out: turning the Flames into perennial Stanley Cup contenders may require more than a handful of transactions.
Major decisions lay ahead for Treliving, who is under contract through the 2022-23 season, and the organization.
Gaudreau’s no-trade clause kicks in this off-season, and every passing day brings him closer to unrestricted free agency at the end of next season. Giordano, the team captain, could be exposed in the expansion draft. A year from now, the Flames face another franchise-altering decision with the under-performing Matthew Tkachuk, who is a restricted free agent next summer with arbitration rights and a $9-million qualifying offer in a flat cap world.
First, however, the Flames will conclude a season that began with playoff expectations and appears destined to end prematurely.
“It’s on all of us,” Treliving, addressing this year’s disappointment, said in an interview on April 7 with TSN ahead of the trade deadline.
“It starts with myself. I’m in charge of the hockey department so it starts with the manager and we all take our piece of it. When you are in the position that we’re in at this time of the year, we all have to own it and so it starts with myself, the players, everybody involved in the hockey department. You own what your record is and so like I said, I accept responsibility as well as everybody else within the hockey department.”