The off-season is finally in full swing with the UFA period officially open. The secondary July 1 holiday, it’s a time for teams to make their bold statements about what they’ll be three months before they can prove it. What could the Flames do today and in the following days?

Or maybe we don’t want them to do anything. Really depends on who you ask.

Valeri Nichushkin, formerly of the Dallas Stars, could be an option. He’s a big (6’4″), 24-year-old right winger who put up decent possession numbers in a defensive role (+1.22 CFrel%, 46.58 OZS%). Dallas seemingly forgot how to use him, as his best years with the club came in an offensive role. I think the buyout is mostly to free him up so he can go back to Russia, but if he’s looking for an NHL opportunity, the Flames could give him a kick at the can at an extremely low price to see if he’s still got something left in him.

Andrej Sekera could also be an option for a bounce-back campaign as a depth option, as he posted decent numbers in a rump season with the Oilers, but it’s all contingent on his health and age. Honestly, I would want Sekera mostly because it would be very funny. He’s excessive considering who the Flames have on defence.

Corey Perry is a popular name, but I would forget him. He can certainly rile up the opposition and fills a truculence need, but his play post-injury is discouraging at best. He’s more likely a liability that has lost the scoring edge that makes him worth it. Let someone else make that mistake.

If the Flames sign Cam Talbot (which they probably have by the time this is published), I think the split will be 70-30 in favour of Rittich. I can’t foresee Talbot taking the starter’s net from Rittich provided the two remain healthy, as the Flames are probably going to hand Rittich the lion’s share of starts.

The Flames need to figure out if Rittich is the number one long term starter or not. He’s looked promising, but he only has 66 games under his belt over the past two seasons. The only way to figure that out is to play him more and see if he can definitively make that position his. For Talbot, we know what he is: a goalie who may or may not be able to handle a heavy starter’s workload, but could at least be a decent enough backup.

I really can’t put a number on this because of the volatile nature of goalies, but my general guess is that it’ll be Rittich taking more starts than Talbot. At worst, I can imagine a 1A/1B scenario, but Rittich still taking the majority.

It’s hard with little cap room, but I think Ryan Hartman is probably the cheapest add the Flames could make that would provide some quality. Evolving Wild’s contract projector had him at $2.5M as an RFA, but being traded and then unqualified probably does some damage to his value. If the Flames can add him for less than $2M (ideally, for even less), it’s a gamble worth taking. The rumour mills suggest that some teams are in hot pursuit, so he may already be priced out.

I’ve pined for Joonas Donskoi in previous editions of the mailbag, but the ~$3M cap hit he will command probably prices the Flames out for the time being.

Internal development is the most likely route. Full seasons of Dillon Dube and Andrew Mangiapane could provide equal value at half the price of many UFAs on the markets. Rasmus Andersson has already arrived, and is waiting for Juuso Valimaki and Oliver Kylington to take the next steps. The team is also going to hope for players like Matthew Phillips, Glenn Gawdin, and Rinat Valiev to take minor steps next year. Nothing world breaking, but just enough to provide cover should someone go down.

The other route I expect them to take is to look for tweener players on cheap contracts and hope that one or two of them can play NHL hockey when needed. They’ve already re-signed Alan Quine, who proved that he could be alright for a handful of games, and are probably looking for similar players to fill out the farm roster and also push for spots for camp. Barring anything crazy, that’s probably the type of signings the Flames will make today.

I’d say 5%, to put a number to it. The Flames can afford to be patient with Jakob Pelletier, and with his options either being QMJHL or NHL, they’ll probably chose major-junior as they did with Valimaki two seasons ago. He’s put up a pretty dominant QMJHL season already, but probably needs a little refinement before making it big. There’s no need to throw him into the fire this early.

But the Flames also have the flexibility to play him, so why not? The team is good enough that his presence isn’t going to impact the roster in a positive or negative way. I think he does get his nine game cup of coffee before being sent down, contingent on him having a great training camp. I’m not sure that counts as “making” the team, per se, but it’s more than nothing.

If it’s at any point in the season, I have to give it to Matthew Phillips. I detailed it earlier this week, but he had a great season for the Stockton Heat despite being overshadowed by some older players. If he has a great summer and an impressive training camp, I don’t think it’ll be too long for him.

If you want a darker horse, let’s say Eetu Tuulola. The kid is already a dynamite goalscorer in one top tier men’s league, and if he can adapt to North American ice quickly, he’s bound to get a shot at some point. [Editor’s Note: All things are possible in this life.]

Dube has proven that he’s too good to not be in the NHL. His AHL work, even for just a half season, was top notch work. He only has one place to go.

Deployment is the other question. Despite what he’s listed as, he hasn’t played centre regularly since junior hockey. Dube has regularly played the wing, mostly left in Calgary, but sometimes right in Stockton. I think if the team is going to move on from Garnet Hathaway, that right spot is open for the taking. A line of Mangiapane-Derek Ryan-Dube could do some damage. In the case Sam Bennett is on his way out too, that opens up another spot for Dube.

I honestly don’t know! If the Flames are indeed moving out Brodie and putting Andersson on the top pairing, that frees up one RHD spot. The only current Flames players who could fill that spot are Valimaki or Kylington, neither of whom are right handed. That still gives them a leg up on Alexander Yelesin, who, while being right handed and a KHL all-star, still has yet to play a game in North America. It is a bit of a mess, but it’s the third pairing RHD so it’s not the biggest concern.

The likeliest answer is a stopgap. Maybe they bring back Oscar Fantenberg for very cheap to hold down the fort, but he doesn’t really solve the RHD issue. Perhaps they pluck one from someone’s AHL system a la Austin Czarnik, perhaps they ship off a late round pick to pick up someone else’s third pairing defenceman.  If you want a wild answer, Chris Wideman seems like a decent enough option to bring in. He has been a very quiet yet fine defender throughout his career and should be dirt cheap just in case they want to bury him later in the season.

There is still Michael Stone, who was a depth defenceman, but has barely played in the last year. He could also function as that stopgap with one year left on his deal, but he’s a major question mark. Aside from the blood clots which took away all but 14 games of his season, is he still good enough to be a regular defender, even one that can be sheltered with 12-15 minutes per game?

The Flames’ cap management over the next few months will be key to dealing with Stone. If they can’t free up enough money to extend Matthew Tkachuk, they have to pray for an arbitration buyout window to open (Rittich and Bennett have arb rights, but who knows if it even gets there) so they can dump him that way. If things do go as planned, they probably might just bite the bullet and stick with him for the next season. If he remains healthy enough to play, he probably rotates in and out of the bottom pairing with Kylington.


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