With our favourite postman Christian Tiberi out of commission with a cold [Editor’s Note: the term we like to use is “day to day with flu-like symptoms”], I’m taking over mailbag duties for this week. The off-season is a fairly uneventful time, but with arbitration hearings around the corner, things could get interesting pretty soon.

David Rittich will not get paid more than Jordan Binnington. Binnington may have only played 33 games last season, but he led the league in GAA, was fourth in SV% out of goalies with 30+ games, and, oh yeah, led his team to the Stanley Cup as a rookie. He finished second in Calder voting, fifth in Vezina voting, and 10th in Hart voting. He definitely has a more impressive resume than Rittich.

With his cap hit at a $4.4M and Cam Talbot’s at $2.75M, Rittich is sure to come in somewhere in between. He probably tends closer to Talbot’s number than Binnington’s though, somewhere around the $3M range. Both Ryan Pike and Pat Steinberg have talked about what players are the closest comparables for Rittich and how much his next contract should be, and I tend to agree with their assessment.

His camp will probably insist on getting a little bit more than Talbot did, especially with Brad Treliving going out of his way to say that Rittich will be the #1 next season. A good bet would be somewhere between $2.75M and $3.25M. Rittich did file for arbitration, and his hearing is on July 29th. Treliving rarely lets contract negotiations reach the arbitration stage, so expect Rittich to be signed within the next couple weeks.

Once Rittich signs, the Flames will have their NHL tandem locked up. Outside of the NHL though, the Flames have Jon Gillies, Artyom Zagidulin, Tyler Parsons, and Nick Schneider vying for time in the crease either for Stockton in the AHL or Kansas City in the ECHL. It sure looks like there’s one too many netminders on the list. Don’t confuse goalie depth with having a lot of goalies. Every single goalie in the Flames’ system is unproven and it’s hard to really predict how they’ll be at the NHL level. Still, there are a few promising names coming up.

Stockton’s crease will almost surely be tended by a tandem of Parsons and Zagidulin. Parsons has struggled with both mental and physical health since he was drafted by the Flames, and last season was no exception. At the start of Development Camp at the beginning of July, Parsons said he felt better than he has his whole life, and was looking to finally bring his A-game. He’s still a high ceiling prospect for Flames, and deserves to at least start the season in the AHL.

Probably playing next to him in Stockton is Zagidulin. The Flames probably didn’t want to bring over a goalie from Russia to have him playing third string duties in the ECHL. Zagidulin is also one of the more high-ceiling goalie prospects in the system; he posted a 1.96 GAA and .924 SV% in 25 games for Metallurg Magnitigorsk in the KHL last season. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Zagidulin has surpassed Parsons. Parsons is still the top goalie prospect in the organization, but Zagidulin could be a nice surprise.

Schneider was always going to start the season in the ECHL, and that’s fine. He’s a bit of an odd prospect in that his numbers in the AHL were much better than in the ECHL last season. It’s tough to tell just what Schneider is right now, and another year in the ECHL could do him well.

Gillies is clearly the odd man out here. He was supposed to be one of the organization’s best goalie prospects, but has really struggled in the AHL. At this point, there are three options for him. The first option is that he simply starts the year in the ECHL, hopefully dominates the league, and forces the Flames to bring him up to the AHL. It’s definitely a step back in his development, but it might be necessary at this point. The second option is he gets loaned to another AHL club and plays for them instead. The third option is a trade. Gillies might just have fallen far enough to prompt a trade to a new team that has more room for him. I don’t think the Flames necessarily want to give up on him yet, but I don’t think they’d hesitate to throw him into a trade if another team asked.

Gillies is in a bit of a tough spot, and the only way out is to play lights out next season. Hopefully he can return to form.

Speaking of returning to form, let’s talk about James Neal. His 2018-19 season was a disaster. He was slow, barely scored, and looked like he didn’t care half the time. That’s not good, and the Flames probably had a long chat with him after the end of the season. He’s a prime candidate to be in the Best Shape of His Life (TM) to start next season, but he’ll need to do a whole lot more than just cardio to jump back into a top-six role. Being past the 30 year old mark, his best years are probably behind him, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a useful middle-six player for the Flames going forward.

It was tough to see Neal fail to answer the bell so many times last year, but it’s important to contextualize his struggles. Neal is a volume shooter who averages over three shots per game over his career, and converts on 11.6% of those shots. Last season, he averaged just 2.2 shots per game and converted on only 5%. Even considering natural aging curves, that’s a criminal drop off from his season averages. Even if Neal had a shooting percentage that was three-quarters of his career average, he would have scored 12 goals last season. The keys for Neal are to keep shooting the puck and keep being a pain to play against.

I really don’t want to say there’s nowhere to go but up because he could very well fall off another cliff next season, who really knows what will happen. I’m fairly confident Neal won’t be as bad though. The 20 goal mark is probably unrealistic for him, but I’d expect him to surpass 10.

The Flames are among many teams facing cap crunches this year, and while TJ Brodie and Michael Frolik’s names have come up in trade speculation for months now, they’re still with the Flames.

Whether that’s because the market has dried up is questionable, even with so many teams trying to free up cap space to sign their RFAs. Right now, 24 of the 31 teams can afford to take on the full amount of Brodie or Frolik’s contract, and only five of those teams have fewer than 20 players signed. Despite his flaws, Brodie is a useful top-four defender and would fit easily onto the roster of every team minus probably Nashville, and Frolik plays a rare 200-foot game that could help every team in the NHL. If Treliving was hell-bent on trading them, he could do it in a heartbeat, but he isn’t going to ship out useful players for pennies on the dollar. Brodie and Frolik could very well return to the Flames next season, and they would be great players for the team. It makes more sense to keep them than to let them go for nothing.

I think the biggest reason things have gone quiet on the trade front with these two players is simply timing. The Flames have four arbitration hearings coming up in the next four weeks, the first of which is Sam Bennett on July 27th. The Flames don’t have the luxury to wait until September to sign these guys; once the arbitration hearing is complete, a decision is made within 48 hours. It’s possible the Flames have shifted their focus to signing their arbitration eligible RFAs, and once that’s all taken care of they’ll shift back to clearing out cap space for Matthew Tkachuk.

If they reach a decision with Tkachuk before all the hearings are done though, they’ll probably be in a bit of a bind and will need to clear space right away. If that happens, we might see either Brodie or Frolik traded for at a lower than market rate. That’s the only scenario I could see that happening.

If Frolik stays with the team, it doesn’t leave many options for where a player like Dillon Dube would fit in. The departure of Garnet Hathaway does open up one spot on the roster which will probably go to either Austin Czarnik or Neal, depending on how Neal does. If we assume Neal starts on the third line with Bennett and Mark Jankowski, the Flames’ lines probably look something like this to start the season:

Gaudreau – Monahan – Lindholm
Tkachuk – Backlund – Frolik
Bennett – Jankowski – Neal
Mangiapane – Ryan – Czarnik

That leave Dube as the 13th forward, which might just be where he starts the season. It was clear last year that Bill Peters didn’t fully trust Czarnik and didn’t want to play Frolik in the top-six. This could open the door for Dube to play a rotating role with Czarnik and/or Frolik.

The biggest issue with Dube is that he isn’t a right winger. He did play some right wing in junior, but at the AHL level, he almost exclusively played left wing or center. The Flames don’t have room for him in the middle or on the left side so unless someone like Tkachuk or Bennett switches sides, or Jankowski moves to the wing, there isn’t a whole lot of room for Dube unless he plays his off wing.

Dube is too good for the AHL so he almost definitely will start the season with Calgary. My gut says that Frolik will be traded, Czarnik will move up to recreate the MMA line, and Dube will play with Mangiapane and Ryan on the fourth line.


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