No one is going to top the offseason drama in Toronto or Pittsburgh, but those soap operas will be ongoing for a little while yet. Kyle Dubas as general manager of the Penguins? Brad Treliving running the Maple Leafs? Delicious. Perfect. Make it happen. But until it does, let’s turn to the one team that actually got something done this week, in terms of setting its managerial direction going forward.
That’s Calgary, where the Flames hired a new general manager, Craig Conroy and added a former NHL general manager to the front office in Dave Nonis and gave new duties (and presumably more money) to assistant GMs Chris Snow and Brad Pascall) and – maybe most interesting of all — didn’t officially confirm that Jarome Iginla would someday down the road join the organization’s front office.
The lack of official Iginla news was the one bit of speculation about the Flames’ hires that didn’t materialize.
Just a little over a week ago, the youngest of Iginla’s three children, Joe, signed a Western Hockey League scholarship and development agreement with the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings, who selected him 12th in the WHL Prospects Draft. Born in 2008, Joe Iginla played for his dad, Jarome, for the U15 Prep Rink Hockey Academy in Kelowna this past season, where he finished sixth in league scoring, with 65 points in 27 games.
He’s currently listed as a 5-foot-10, 148-pound centerman, who will spend next year at the academy playing for his dad’s team before eventually graduating to the WHL, perhaps as early as the 2024-25 season.
At that point, all three of the Iginla’s children will be involved in hockey at a high level for their age group. Joe’s older sister, Jade, plays at Brown University and his older brother Tij is with the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds. Michael Chan, the Oil Kings’ director of scouting, described Joe Iginla as a player with a “dangerous offensive skill set that combines a unique blend of power and poise.
“Along with that, he brings a ‘whatever-it-takes’ attitude and is driven by winning. There is a sense of purpose and competitiveness that Joe brings to the rink.”
If that sounds like a short scouting report on Joe Iginla’s father, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2021, well, you wouldn’t be wrong. Once he stops coaching Joe, Jarome will be at a new crossroads in his life. The expectation is that he will eventually join Conroy in the Flames’ organization.
It’s something Conroy acknowledged himself at his introductory press conference Tuesday, when I asked him specifically where things stood with Iginla — and the idea that he would eventually add one of the most influential figures in the team’s history to his front office.
“I mean Jarome and I have always talked about it, to be totally honest,” answered Conroy. “We’ve always expressed an interest in working together. I know right now he’s coaching in RINK Kelowna, his son Joe.
“This is definitely something I want to explore moving forward, but I haven’t done it quite yet.”
Why does it matter?
Well, nowadays, there is usually a debate — and even a disconnect — about the merits of bringing a former star player into the organization in a senior management position. Lots have done it before – Steve Yzerman in Detroit, Joe Sakic in Colorado, Rob Blake in Los Angeles just to name three who ultimately became the team’s general manager.
The critics point to the fact that too many people on the same philosophical page can lead to groupthink, which can be dangerous, because at some point, you do need someone in the organization with a counterintuitive instinct to explore the other side of any idea put forward.
But the beauty of the relationship between Conroy and Iginla is that they didn’t always see eye-to-eye on everything, and they won’t be afraid to take opposite sides in a discussion.
In fact, that might have been the most important takeaway from Conroy’s first day on the job — that his vision, going forward, will be his own and it will differ from the way his predecessor, Treliving, conducted business on a couple of fronts.
For starters, there will be some roster holes to fill internally.
The idea of signing veteran players that fall through the cracks of free agency — the Trevor Lewises, the Kevin Rooneys, the Brett Ritchies or in past years, the Alan Quines and Derek Ryans — isn’t going to happen again.
They will create internal openings so that the players who were in the minors (Jakob Pelletier, Adam Ruzicka, or draft choices signed out of college such as Matthew Coronato) will see that there are openings on the NHL roster and can compete for those jobs once training camp for the 2023-24 season opens.
Not all the best prospects in the Flames’ organization will make the opening-night roster. But some will. And their mindset will be different this summer than in the past. Because let’s face facts, there’s nothing more disheartening for any organizational prospect to see that a team has, say, 13 forwards signed to one-way NHL contracts, knowing full well that they would have to underachieve very badly in order NOT to be on an NHL roster. They can all do the arithmetic — or if they can’t, their agents can.
Conroy’s promise to leave those roster spots open should create an extra incentive for those players who’ve been waiting for their turn. They’ll understand their turn is coming now — and they need to be ready to take advantage.
Not only do young players getting their first taste of NHL life add energy, speed and skill to the mix, the fact that they are cost-controlled will make it easier to make the rest of the salary-cap equation work.
Because that’s the other challenge Conroy will inherit. Our friends over at CapFriendly have updated their salary-cap projections for the 2023-24 season and the Flames have jumped to No. 3 on their offseason list, behind only the Vancouver Canucks and the Tampa Bay Lightning. They don’t need to be cap compliant until opening night in October, but the fact that there’s only $1.25 million in cap space now, for 18 out of a possible 23 roster places to fill, is proof there’s work to be done.
And by the way, that’s with Lewis’, Nick Ritchie’s and Milan Lucic’s contracts all off the books and includes Ruzicka’s and Coronato’s entry-level deals.
Conroy was also adamant about another philosophical principle, that after losing Johnny Gaudreau to the Columbus Blue Jackets as an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2022, that’s not something the organization can allow to happen again. Accordingly, his priority is reaching out to the seven individuals who are eligible to be unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2024 (Elias Lindholm, Mikael Backlund and Tyler Toffoli up front and Noah Hanifin, Chris Tanev, Nikita Zadorov and Oliver Kylington on defense) to see what interest they might have in signing extensions.
And if they aren’t interested in staying on, then it’ll be time to explore the trade market. Making a trade as a first-time GM is always tricky. Conroy knows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of bad news, but this will be the first time that he’s the one that must pull the trigger and make the phone call to tell someone he’s moving on.
It’s also why hiring a coach is a priority.
No player in his right mind is going to agree to an extension without knowing exactly who is directing traffic behind the bench. The Flames have three worthy internal candidates — assistant coaches Ryan Huska and Kirk Muller, and in the minors the two-time AHL coach of the year in Mitch Love.
If they extend the search beyond their own organization, you’d think Alex Tanguay, currently an assistant in Detroit, would be at or near the top of the list. Tanguay and Iginla had a long successful playing partnership in Calgary.
Prior to that, Tanguay was a young, gifted scorer on the 2001 Colorado Avalanche’s Stanley Cup championship team.
Conroy suggested that his preferred style of play would be a team that has great structure from the red line back, but that could improvise better offensively from the blue line in once they gained puck possession.
That would mean a team approaches the game with a little bit more of an offensive flair than what it did under the previous coach, Darryl Sutter.
In theory, it should also help someone like Jonathan Huberdeau find his offensive footing in his second season in Calgary, where he slumped to 55 points from 115 the year before in Florida. Huberdeau’s contract extension starts now — it’s $10.5 million for the next eight years, which will eat big time into next year’s cap.
He needs to be better and he needs to be playing in a system that plays to his strengths.
If I were handicapping the coaching race, I would put Huska at the top of the list. He was a finalist for the Detroit job that went to Derek Lalonde last summer. He has four years of AHL head coaching experience and five years as an NHL assistant. He’s a former third-round draft choice of the Chicago Blackhawks (1993) and as a player won three Memorial Cups in a four-year span with the Kamloops Blazers. For two of those seasons, Iginla was a teammate of Huska’s in Kamloops. He is the coaching equivalent of Conroy, someone who has touched every rung of the ladder on his way up. It’s time to give him an NHL opportunity.
Love’s resume is impressive but I would like to see him work on an NHL staff before taking the next step.
Tanguay is the wild card as someone that would fit in nicely with a front office that includes Conroy and maybe eventually Iginla.
And of course, as friends, there is nothing to prevent Conroy and Iginla from informally sharing ideas, even if the latter isn’t part of the organization … yet.
So it’s a new beginning in Calgary, that had a real Ted Lasso vibe, accentuating the positives.
To quote the great Brian Wilson, whatever happens next in Toronto and Pittsburgh, you hope they’re picking up the same Good Vibrations that were echoing around Calgary this past week.
A Flames Elias Lindholm trade that may make sense
This week, my colleagues Julian McKenzie, in Calgary, and Aaron Portzline, in Columbus, debated an interesting hypothetical. If Lindholm wasn’t interested in signing a contract extension with Calgary, but was willing to do so if the Flames would then flip him to Columbus where he could be reunited with Gaudreau, would the Blue Jackets then consider parting with the No. 3 pick in the 2022 Draft?
Some thought that getting Lindholm, in his prime, a player that helped Gaudreau achieve a career-best 115-point season in 2022, into Columbus would be worth the price, for a Blue Jackets’ team trying to leap back into playoff contention as soon as humanly possible.
For Calgary it would represent a step backward, though with Backlund and Nazem Kadri still in the fold they’d be OK at center in the moment. And if they take center Leo Carlsson at No. 3, Carlsson could eventually evolve into a Lindholm-caliber player.
That’ll be one of the great push-pull debates for a handful of teams this offseason: How much of today are you willing to sacrifice to ensure a better tomorrow?
One factor for Calgary is they are still years away from getting a new building constructed to replace the aging Saddledome. If you could draft a seminal piece of the next-generation Flames, it’s something that they’d have to consider. It’d be a bold first step for Conroy, but also a way of notifying everybody that he’s prepared to swing for the fences should the opportunity present itself.
It took until the third round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, but the thing that everyone predicted could happen to the Carolina Hurricanes finally did. They couldn’t score goals — or not enough goals anyway, not to win a series, not even to win a game.
If there’s a sense of déjà vu in Raleigh, it’s because a similar series of events also happened to the Hurricanes in 2019 — or the last time they advanced to the Eastern Conference final. That year, they were emerging from a dark era in franchise history — a period between 2006-07 to 2017-18 in which they missed the playoffs in 11 out of 12 seasons — but were swept by the Boston Bruins after winning two playoff rounds.
In 2019, the Hurricanes’ blueprint was the same as it was in 2023. It featured a strict adherence to Rod Brind’Amour’s structured defensive system and it also featured the same essential roster construction. It’s a balanced four-line approach that included one premium offensive player (Sebastian Aho) plus a lot of worker bees who made life hard on opposing teams, with the relentless, persistent forechecking.
The only flaw in the approach is, what happens when the opposing team gets lights-out goaltending? Then what?
Do you have enough raw offensive ability to conjure something out of nothing? To get a game-breaking play when you need it the most?
Both times, for Carolina, the answer was no.
In 2019, it was the Bruins’ Tuukka Rask that outplayed the Hurricanes’ duo of Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney. In 2023, it was the Sergei Bobrovsky show.
A quick tip of the cap to the man nicknamed “Bob” who began the playoffs on the Florida bench, only to come on in relief of Alex Lyon and put on a goaltending run for the ages. What Bobrovsky is doing today is reminiscent of something we’ve seen before in the NHL playoffs — where a goaltender catches fire at just the right time, and suddenly, fills the opposition with doubt that they’ll ever score.
It happened with Anaheim in 2003 during the J.S. Giguere run and you might even make a case for Patrick Roy in 1986 as a Montreal Canadiens rookie, or Ken Dryden in 1971 with the Habs. It’s happened before. It’s happening again.
So the Panthers are off to the Stanley Cup Final — and awaiting a result between Vegas and Dallas — while the Hurricanes are going back to the drawing board to figure out what happens next. Some of that is going to be influenced by the NHL salary cap, which the Hurricanes tend to navigate as well as anyone.
So, for example, in goal, both Frederik Andersen (the No. 1) and Antti Raanta (the No. 2) are unrestricted free agents. One of the two roster spots will go to Pyotr Kochetkov, the 23-year-old who played 24 games for the Hurricanes this past season as an injury call-up from the Chicago Wolves and produced solid NHL numbers (2.44 goals-against average, .909 save percentage).
Kochetkov signed a four-year contract extension with the Hurricanes midseason at $2 million. He will likely share the duties with one of Andersen or Raanta, though the Hurricanes could conceivably let both leave as unrestricted free agents and pursue a second goalie option elsewhere.
That’s one thing about the Carolina operating philosophy. They are not afraid to walk away from a player that either prices themselves out of the market (Dougie Hamilton, Tony DeAngelo) or who can be replaced internally for a lower cost.
A critical missing piece in these playoffs was Andrei Svechnikov, who had season-ending knee surgery back in March (just after the trade deadline) and thus was absent for both the final month of the regular season, plus all the playoffs.
The Hurricanes placed a big bet on Svechnikov in August of 2021, signing him to an eight-year contract extension worth $62 million, which costs them $7.75 million annually against the salary cap. The contract has six years remaining.
Even more so than Aho, Svechnikov has the purest offensive ability of any player in the Hurricanes’ organization, so his loss cannot be understated. He, more than anyone else, might have been a difference-maker when they needed that. The Hurricanes were obviously aware that scoring was an area they needed to upgrade and it’s why they took on Max Pacioretty from Vegas last year, in what was essentially a salary dump for the Golden Knights.
They got unlucky there too.
Pacioretty was injured in training and when he came back in January he got into only five games and then was hurt again, the same torn Achilles tendon issue that could be career-threatening. Without those two, and with Teuvo Teravainen (broken hand) missing most of the second round, they were forced to muddle along with scoring by committee. It worked for a while – Jordan Martinook was the unlikely scoring hero of Round 2 – but it wasn’t a permanent recipe for success.
And one of the players that did break out in this past regular season, Martin Necas, had a negligible scoring impact in the playoffs — just seven points in 14 playoff games, after a career-high 71-point regular season.
One of the offseason bets that did pay off for the Hurricanes was adding Brent Burns from the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks retained 34 percent of Burns’ contract when they traded him to Carolina last July, and so, for the $5.28 million he counted against the salary cap, Burns produced 61 regular-season points, third-most on the team.
At the age of 38, he also averaged 23:13 in average time on ice in the regular season and an astonishing 26:04 in the playoffs (helped along, of course, by overtime duty). Can Burns duplicate those numbers again next season?
Maybe. After Patrice Bergeron and maybe Joe Pavelski, he does seem like the most productive player remaining from the NHL’s remarkable 2003 draft class.
The Hurricanes were likely expecting to see more internal growth from Seth Jarvis this year and he became more of a factor as the playoffs moved along. More internal growth needs to come from both Jarvis and Jesperi Kotkaniemi. There’ll also be the question of what to do with Jesse Puljujarvi, who went to Carolina from Edmonton at the trade deadline but wasn’t trusted to play more than a team-low 11:22 average ice time in his seven postseason appearances where he produced a single assist.
This was supposed to be Puljujarvi’s best chance of forging an NHL career — playing on a team with so many of his Finnish countrymen. Puljujarvi is a restricted free agent with arbitration rights. Based on his performance, he doesn’t have much of a negotiating leg to stand on. So that’ll be an internal decision on a player that could be easy to walk away from. Or if he wants to stay, he’ll likely have to do it on a small prove-it contract.
If the Hurricanes follow the same script as last summer, they’ll poke around to see what the summer of 2023 equivalent to Pacioretty is. There’ll always be some teams in a cap world wanting to unload pricey talent — and sometimes might even be prepared to take some money back the way San Jose did in the Burns trade. The Hurricanes made an offer to the Sharks for Timo Meier and were outbid by the Devils. Depending on how the Devils handle the Meier qualifying offer ($10 million), he could come free as early as this summer.
The Hurricanes also made an inquiry on Lindholm, who they originally traded away to Calgary in the Hamilton deal.
Calgary wasn’t prepared to trade him in March, but as noted above, they may be readier this summer, depending upon what Lindholm wants to do next. You’d have to think he’d be looking at the same money Bo Horvat signed for with the Islanders (eight-year, $8.5 million per year). They are roughly comparable — both 28 and in Lindholm’s case, coming off a contract that averaged only $4.85 million, which he decidedly outplayed. Then there’s always Arizona and the underrated Nick Schmaltz, who has a reasonable cap hit ($5.85 million) on a backloaded contract that could end up being too pricey for the Coyotes. Or maybe even Clayton Keller who, despite his size, had a career season.
So there is a lot of possible offseason intrigue in Carolina, one of the better-constructed teams in the NHL. If you’re in the predictions game, it’s reasonable to think there’ll be an important tweak or two, but no wholesale changes, nothing earth-shattering, nothing to suggest that when the Hurricanes return to play in October of 2023, they won’t come back with the same essential group that got them to within a series win of the Stanley Cup Final. Can they take that one elusive final step forward 12 months from now? We’ll see.
(Photo of Elias Lindholm: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)