The trade deadline represents the final chance for the Stanley Cup contenders to stock up and add to their artillery before the post-season. And in the Western Conference, the frontrunners added some serious weaponry. The Vegas Golden Knights were the big winners, nabbing top talent Mark Stone. The San Jose Sharks, meanwhile, scooped up Gustav Nyquist. The Winnipeg Jets went out and acquired Kevin Hayes, while the Nashville Predators added Wayne Simmonds and Mikael Granlund in separate deals.
And while other organizations used the NHL’s annual arms race to load up with big guns, the Calgary Flames used it to add the equivalent of a slingshot.
One move is all Flames GM Brad Treliving made on deadline day, and it was by no means a blockbuster. Despite chatter Calgary had been in on Stone and reports that the Flames and Minnesota Wild were working on a Jason Zucker trade that fell through, when the trade freeze came into effect, Calgary’s only move was procuring depth defenseman Oscar Fantenberg, a third-pairing defenseman who has two goals and three points to his name this season, from the Los Angeles Kings for a conditional 2020 fourth-round draft choice. That was it, and that was all.
When measured against the movements of other top clubs, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that Calgary fell woefully short, that they didn’t keep pace with the true contenders in the Western Conference. On paper, there’s certainly some truth to that. The others made splashes. The Flames didn’t. But taking a wider view of the situations and circumstances surrounding the potential betting favorites to represent the conference in the Stanley Cup final, Calgary’s deadline performance hardly appears an altogether flop and rather the careful consideration of a group that’s comfortable with where it is and how it’s built.
As the Flames prepare for their first post-deadline contest, they do so sitting atop both the conference and Pacific Division, three points clear of the next-best team, the Sharks, with a game in hand. Additionally, Calgary enters the stretch with the NHL’s third-most productive offense, eighth-most stifling defense, second-best goal differential and ninth-ranked power play. The Flames have top-end forwards in the form of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk, each of whom has crossed the 20-goal and 50-point plateau this season. (Tkachuk is one point shy of each having hit 60 points, as well.) Then there’s a defense corps that includes Norris Trophy frontrunner Mark Giordano and standouts T.J. Brodie, Travis Hamonic and Noah Hanifin. And when you look at it that way, you start to wonder not why Treliving and Co. didn’t work harder at adding, but where exactly the top pieces would have fit had the Flames went out and landed them.
That’s not to say there’s nowhere the Flames could have added, particularly if they wanted nothing more than some additional peace of mind. Goaltending has been a bit of a sore spot for Calgary. Entering the final third of the campaign, the combined 5-on-5 save percentage of the Flames’ Mike Smith and David Rittich is .920, 14th-best in the NHL. At all strengths, the two have turned in a .902 SP. That ranks 16th in the NHL. Those are mediocre totals, and were it not for Mike Smith’s recent hot streak — the netminder hasn’t lost in regulation in his past five starts and boasts a .924 save percentage over that span — one wonders if the Flames wouldn’t have pushed harder for a veteran netminder who could solidify their crease.
However, there’s reason to believe even the goaltending in Calgary is enough to get the job done. Measured against other Stanley Cup winning clubs over the past decade at similar point in the campaign, the Flames’ goaltending hasn’t been all that much worse than some other championship teams. Last year’s Capitals’ goaltenders had combined for were similarly ranked at 5-on-5 and all strengths when measured against the rest of the league, and two teams — the 2009 Penguins and 2010 Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup-winning outfits — had far worse than league average goaltending ahead of their eventual post-season triumphs.
There’s more reason to be comfortable with Calgary’s deadline dealings, or lack thereof, than a rock-solid pre-deadline roster and serviceable netminding, though. Historically, there’s little that indicates making a big splash results in Stanley Cup success. One way to look at it is this: if you need to add the top prize to push yourself into contention, were you really that close to contention in the first place?
And taking a past-predicts-future approach, you get the idea that acquiring a perceived game-changing asset at the deadline does little for actual playoff success. As outlined last week when breaking down trades made by Stanley Cup winning teams in the post-lockout era, it’s rare that a team adds a major trade chip and winds up in the winner’s circle come season’s end. Furthermore, recent championship sides such as the 2017-18 Washington Capitals and 2016-17 and 2015-16 Pittsburgh Penguins have done little at the deadline. The combined additions of those winning teams amounts to depth defensemen for a few mid-range draft picks. The Flames added…a depth defenseman for a mid-range draft pick.
So, sure, Calgary could have gone out and spent big, possibly mortgaging a small piece of their future to land a Stone or Simmonds or Hayes. But was there really any need? The Flames have been one of the league’s best all season and enter the homestretch as the club closest to catching the also-inactive Tampa Bay Lightning, who didn’t make a single move at the deadline, atop the NHL standings. And while the lack of movement may give some reason to call Calgary deadline day losers, the Flames need only win when it counts — with a roster that has already done a whole lot of that — to prove that such a label means nothing.