Gilbertson: Flames GM Conroy traded one of his faves. What does that tell us?

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Two years ago, after Elias Lindholm finished as the runner-up in Selke Trophy balloting, Calgary Flames executive Craig Conroy was (politely) chastising this particular reporter because he believed the writers had voted for the wrong guy.

With all due respect to Patrice Bergeron, he insisted Lindholm was the NHL’s best defensive forward that season. He hasn’t changed that stance.

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The point being that Conroy, a trusted two-way centre during his own playing career and now the general manager at the Saddledome, is one of Lindholm’s biggest fans. That didn’t stop him Wednesday from trading him away.

If you’re looking for proof that Conroy is serious about retooling the Flames’ roster, look no further than this latest transaction. Lindholm, who was supposed to represent the Calgary-based crew this week at the 2024 NHL All-Star Game, was swapped to the rival Vancouver Canucks in exchange for a substantial haul — winger Andrei Kuzmenko, defence prospects Hunter Brzustewicz and Joni Jurmo and a pair of draft choices, including a first-round pick this summer.

Lindholm is set to be an unrestricted free agent in July. Extension talks with the Flames fizzled out early in the season, which is why the 29-year-old pivot was being billed as the biggest fish available prior to the March 8 trade deadline.

That distinction may now be shared by defence partners Noah Hanifin and Chris Tanev, who could be next to receive a ‘Good luck in _______’ call from Conroy. The Flames’ general manager will prioritize future assets in those talks, too.

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“There were numerous teams involved and a couple days ago, Vancouver called and really turned it up and wanted to get something done,” Conroy told Postmedia after completing Wednesday’s trade with the Canucks, in which he also fetched a conditional fourth-round pick in the 2024 NHL Draft. “I reached back out to all the other teams and weighed all my options, and we came to a point where we said, ‘OK, this is the best deal for the Calgary Flames.’

“If we didn’t think it was the right deal, we would have waited. But we feel this was a fair deal, a good deal for both teams.”

Make no mistake, the best player in this deal is the guy headed to the West Coast.

Lindholm, though, was going to be a goner. He is reportedly seeking roughly $9 million per year on his next contract, a huge hit for a guy who is having an underwhelming offensive campaign.

Andrei Kuzmenko, Matt Dumba
Then-Vancouver Canucks forward Andrei Kuzmenko and Arizona Coyotes defenceman Matt Dumba vie for the puck at Rogers Arena in Vancouver on Jan. 18, 2024. Photo by ETHAN CAIRNS /THE CANADIAN PRESS

Kuzmenko is currently on a cold streak of his own but is an intriguing add, a guy who sniped 39 last season before taking up residence in Rick Tocchet’s doghouse. Of late, he wasn’t even a lineup lock for the Canucks, healthy-scratched on several occasions.

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Brzustewicz, a 19-year-old righty, has been piling up points on behalf of the Kitchener Rangers, leading the Ontario Hockey League with 61 assists in 47 outings so far. (“I don’t want to put pressure on him, but we’re excited with where his game is going,” Conroy gushed.)

For Jurmo, still skating back home in Finland, the most fascinating stat is his size. The 21-year-old is listed at 6-foot-4 and 210 lb.

“There’s no denying I love the way Lindy plays,” Conroy said. “He’s everything I want in a centre. He does all the little stuff that some people don’t notice, and that is what makes him special. I still think he should have won the Selke that year. I was not happy with you.

“And I like the person. I can’t thank Lindy enough for everything he has done for the organization and what he has meant. I look at him and think he’s a lot better version of myself, and that’s why I’ve always appreciated how he plays and maybe I never felt like he got enough credit. But with as much interest as there was for Lindy, I think it shows that the rest of the league knows the kind of value he has and brings to a team.”

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On Wednesday, Conroy showed that he’s ready to make major moves. With his team sitting 12th in the Western Conference at 22-22-5, he proved he won’t be sidetracked by the chase for an unlikely playoff berth.

There were even some rumblings that Tanev could be included in this second swap of the season between the Flames and Canucks. Don’t rule out a third. (Nikita Zadorov, to refresh your memory, was first to go.)

Kuzmenko, who is signed through the end of the 2024-25 campaign at an average annual value of US$5.5 million, had to waive his limited no-trade clause to approve the trade to Calgary.

He gave the thumbs-up after a chat with Conroy and Flames coach Ryan Huska.

“The one thing with Andrei, I think he wants to feel wanted,” Conroy said of Kuzmenko, who arrives with only eight tallies on his season stat-sheet. “He’s an offensive guy. He wants to be put in offensive situations here. He loves the power-play and it sounds like he loves to scores goals.

“If we can get him on the power-play and get him feeling good … It might be a little bit of an adjustment, but he has a skill-set that we just didn’t have.”

What they don’t have now is a No. 1 centre.

Lindholm, no doubt, leaves a gaping hole. It must have crushed Conroy to ship him out.

It does, however, tell you a lot about his commitment to reshaping this Flames’ roster.

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