5 Burning Questions: Our Flames beat reporters on the season so far, future direction, trade priorities and more

Danny Austin and Wes Gilbertson discuss the Flames’ season so far and debate what should come next

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The skating stars are, for the next week, out of office.

Calgary Flames alternate captain Rasmus Andersson, asked about the game plan for the annual all-star break/bye, put it this way: “You’re really going to try to just get away, enjoy a nice beer by the pool and try to get hockey away from your thoughts for a little bit.”

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Thing is, in a market like Calgary, folks are always thinking hockey.

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And with the Flames currently sitting on the wrong side of the playoff cutoff, with a hat-trick of key pieces on expiring contracts and with the trade deadline just over five weeks away, there is plenty to think about.

Postmedia’s beat reporters, Danny Austin and Wes Gilbertson, weigh in with their answers to a handful of burning questions about the current state of the Flames and what could come next …

The Flames hit the break with a 22-22-5 record. As they split for their vacations, they were sitting in 12th in the Western Conference standings. Pick one word to describe their season so far …

Danny AustinSteady? Yep. In my eyes, the Flames have never really wavered from being exactly what they are. They’re a .500 team and they’ve steadily proven that again and again. They’re definitely not a Stanley Cup contender, but they have a lot more good days than the NHL’s true bottom-feeders. It’s honestly almost alarming just how much of a .500 team they are. Their record in December? 5-6-2. January? 6-6-0. I’m not sure what other evidence anyone needs. The Flames are what they are, and that’s a team that loses as often as it wins. The higher-ups at the organization have to show us whether they think that’s good enough or not, because they’re in — at best — the mushy middle right now and there are no easy fixes to get out of it.

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Wes Gilbertson: Revealing. Remember, back in September, there were a lot of questions about what to expect from these Flames, about whether their face-plant last season was simply the result of significant change, subpar goaltending and a soured relationship with their old coach. Well, the past few months have revealed this current core isn’t built to contend. They’re on the fringes of the playoff race and certainly not on any list of Stanley Cup frontrunners. On a more positive note, it’s also been revealed that some of the kids are ready to contribute, and perhaps in more significant roles than previously projected. Connor Zary has been an offensive difference-maker. Martin Pospisil is looking like a longtime NHLer, as long as he can stay healthy while playing his pesky style. So both good and bad, ‘revealing’ is the word I’d choose.

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While there has been lots of talk from inside the locker room about shooting for a wildcard spot, the Flames stumbled into the break with a 2-4 record on a six-game homestand. Does that seal their playoff fate? Does it cement the direction that general manager Craig Conroy should take as the March 8 trade deadline nears?

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Danny Austin: They’re not going to be buyers, that’s for sure. I don’t want to come across as pessimistic, but this group has had 49 games to convince Conroy that they’re worth keeping together. After 49 games, you are what you are. And what are the Flames? They’re a .500 team. Is that all the Flames aspire to be as an organization? The only way to get out of the muddy middle is to make bold moves. That doesn’t necessarily mean a full rebuild, but Conroy can’t possibly be looking at this group and thinking he wants to run it back again and again.

Wes Gilbertson: The other wildcard hopefuls have their own flaws, but Conroy can’t — and won’t — get sidetracked by the chase for the eighth seed in the Western Conference. I don’t think that ugly homestand changed anything, simply because I believe that Conroy determined his direction weeks ago. Thing is, you don’t announce these decisions via press release — ‘The Calgary Flames would like to announce that Elias Lindholm, Chris Tanev and maybe Noah Hanifin will soon be traded.’ Fans will need to be patient for a few more weeks as Conroy looks to maximize their trade value. Maybe Hanifin ultimately re-ups, as has been rumoured, but I wonder why it’s not done yet.

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Craig Conroy
Calgary Flames general manager Craig Conroy speaks with media at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary on Monday, June 12, 2023. Gavin Young/Postmedia

If Conroy is listening to trade offers for pending free agents Elias Lindholm, Noah Hanifin and Chris Tanev, what sort of pieces should he be targeting in return?

Danny Austin: I think it’s different for each guy. I’m still not convinced that they’ll move on from Hanifin, who just turned 27. He’s the youngest of that trio. For the others? I really liked what Conroy did in his first deal as general manager when he sent Tyler Toffoli to the New Jersey Devils for Yegor Sharangovich and a draft pick. Toffoli had to be moved, and the Flames acquired a guy in his 20s who has thrived with more ice time and a different situation. Unless you’re going full, full, full rebuild and trying to trade all your other veterans, too, looking for that sort of quote-unquote distressed asset seems like the right move.

Wes Gilbertson: This isn’t going to be a total teardown, not with a bunch of 30-somethings — Jonathan Huberdeau, Nazem Kadri and MacKenzie Weegar — signed to long-term deals. So while Conroy, who has long been involved in scouting some of the Flames’ top targets for the draft, will be looking to add to his stash of picks, I think the priority is to find some NHL-ready contributors. That could mean young players cast in depth roles elsewhere, or prospects who are ready for primetime. If you’re trading both Hanifin and Tanev, for example, you need to find a potential top-four replacement on your blue-line. And that dude can’t be 32 years old. With three coveted trade-chips and an ability/willingness to retain salary, Conroy has an opportunity to really kick-start this re-tool.

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Chris Tanev and Noah Hanifin
Seattle Kraken right wing Jordan Eberle (7) looks to shoot as Calgary Flames defencemen Chris Tanev (8) and Noah Hanifin (55) gather in front of the goal during the second period of an NHL game on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023, in Seattle. Lindsey Wasson/AP Photo

Beyond the potential roster moves, what’s one storyline that you’ll be tracking after the Flames are back in action?

Danny Austin: I’m really looking forward to seeing how Oliver Kylington fits back into an everyday role on the blue-line. After missing 20 months while he attended to his mental health, it was an amazing story when the 26-year-old defenceman returned to action this past week. Flames fans rightfully made him feel right at home at the Saddledome and he’ll be given time to ramp up his game. If he can get anywhere near to being the player he was in 2021-22, that makes the Flames a better team.

Wes Gilbertson: Kylington’s return is, indeed, the best story of the season around the Saddledome, and it’s not going to be beat. I get goosebumps just thinking about the way the C of Red will react to his first snipe on home ice. Speaking of goals, this will be a fun quest to cover … With a dozen lamp-lightings this season, MacKenzie Weegar is currently tied for second among NHL defencemen. He’s just one back of Quinn Hughes and has the same number of notches as Cale Makar. Can Weegar hang around with that elite company? Can he become just the third Flames rearguard in the 2000s to pot 20?

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MacKenzie Weegar, Oliver Kylington, and Jacob Markstrom
Calgary Flames defenceman Oliver Kylington (58) guards Jacob Markstrom’s (25) crease with MacKenzie Weegar (52) against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the third period at the Saddledome on Thursday, January 25, 2024. Brent Calver/Postmedia

Connor Zary and Martin Pospisil have made big impacts since being called up from the AHL’s Wranglers in the fall. Is there another young player you are looking forward to seeing more of down the stretch?

Danny Austin: The easy answer here is Jakob Pelletier. Flames head coach Ryan Huska raved about his performances in training camp and he was definitely going to be on the opening-night roster before a shoulder injury that required surgery. We’re probably not expecting Pelletier, who returned to action with the Wranglers this past weekend, to put up Zary-like numbers when he rejoins the Flames, but he proved he can be an impactful energy guy in the back half of last season.

Wes Gilbertson: For me, the easy answer is Dustin Wolf. Yeah, that guy — the AHL’s two-time goalie-of-the-year and still the most fascinating prospect in the pipeline. Wolf has made four starts for the Flames so far this season and while his stat line might not show it, the 22-year-old has looked to me like a guy who belongs in the NHL. How much longer can you ask him to bide his time in the minors? The Flames have 33 regular-season games remaining and, especially if they slip out of the wildcard race, I think Wolf should be tapped to start at least 10 of those. Not just because it will be valuable experience, but because he’s earned the opportunity.

Calgary Flames vs. New Jersey Devils
Calgary Flames goaltender Dustin Wolf stops this scoring chance by New Jersey Devils forward Nico Hischier during NHL action in Calgary on Saturday, December 9, 2023. Gavin Young/Postmedia

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