- The Flames announced that they have recalled winger Morgan Klimchuk from AHL Stockton. The 2013 first-round pick has not yet seen any NHL action in his career (the only first-rounder from that draft in that situation) but sits tied for second on the Heat in goals this season with 13 in 44 games. To make room for Klimchuk on the roster, Calgary has transferred winger Marek Hrivik to injured reserve.
One of the biggest names expected to be on the 2018 free agent market has instead decided to stay put. The Calgary Flames announced this evening that they have re-signed center Mikael Backlund to a six-year, $32.1MM extension. The deal carries a $5.35MM cap hit, while TSN’s Darren Dreger adds that the first two years of the extension carry a $2MM signing bonus, while the final four are purely salary and the deal contains a No-Movement Clause in the first three years and a Modified No-Trade Clause for the last three years.
This appears to be a very favorable deal for the Flames. Backlund, 28, has spent his entire career in Calgary after being drafted out of Sweden in the first round of the 2007 NHL Draft. Backlund has since flown under the radar, quietly becoming one of the top two-way forwards in the NHL through his 519 games for the Flames. He is also capable on offense, with 104 goals and 158 assists for 262 career points thus far, including a career-high 53 last season. He has kept up his high-level play at both ends of the ice in 2017-18, on pace for 48 points and considered a candidate for the Selke Trophy with some truly impressive possession metrics.
Backlund has proven himself to be a perfect fit as a middle-six center for the Flames and will now hold down that role into the foreseeable future. While Brian Burke, Brad Treliving, and company are surely excited about the extension, the news will leave many other teams discouraged. Backlund was ranked seventh in PHR’s Midseason Free Agent Power Rankings – and had the potential to move up – while ranking second behind only John Tavares among centers. With Tavares also expected more likely to resign than go elsewhere, teams with needs down the middle could soon see their top two targets off the board. Backlund was also set to cash in on his prime position in free agency this summer, so his reasonable extension is even further proof that he was happy to stay in Calgary long-term.
The Pittsburgh Penguins and Calgary Flames have completed a minor league trade, with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton forward Colin Smith heading to Stockton in exchange for Joseph Cramarossa. Both players are on AHL contracts this season, though do come with some NHL experience.
Smith, 24, was selected in the seventh round by the Colorado Avalanche, and despite some huge totals in junior hockey has had trouble progressing through the minor league ranks. Though at times he’s shown an offensive capability in the AHL, he was given just a single NHL game in Colorado before bouncing around the last few seasons. The undersized forward has 18 points in 35 games for WBS this year.
Cramarossa, 25, comes with quite a bit more NHL experience. He suited up for 49 games with the Anaheim Ducks last season, before being claimed off waivers by the Canucks and getting into another 10 games. A third-round pick in 2011, he’s known for his high-energy game and ability to engage physically.
Not so long ago it was reported that Josh Leivo had requested a trade away from the Toronto Maple Leafs. The 24-year old forward has barely played over the last few seasons, spending more time in the press box than the bench. It was natural for him to want a fresh start somewhere, and a chance to prove he is a full-time NHL player.
This morning, speaking with reporters including Jonas Siegal of The Athletic, Maple Leafs’ GM Lou Lamoriello expressed that he never did receive a trade request from Leivo despite the widespread reports. When asked about the trade request earlier this month, Leivo’s agent wouldn’t confirm it but did say that the forward “simply needs to play regularly.”
- Phillip Danault is back travelling with the Montreal Canadiens, and says the only symptom he suffered after taking a Zdeno Chara shot to the head was vertigo. Danault hasn’t played in nearly a month, but was actually having a nice season for the Canadiens with 23 points in 43 games. He could rejoin the lineup on Wednesday evening.
- Eric Francis of Sportsnet reports that Calgary Flames goaltender Mike Smith’s injury may not be as bad as it looked, though no clarification past that is given. Smith had to be helped off the ice by the training staff and two teammates, just at the end of their game against the New York Islanders. Smith has been a huge part of the Flames season so far, and a long-term injury could be devastating to their playoff hopes.
The New York Rangers will be without their backup goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, who sprained his MCL and will be out for two to three weeks, according to Justin Tasch of the Daily News. The injury happened during Friday’s game against the Calgary Flames when the 30-year-old goaltender was forced to leave during the first period of the game.
The injury is just another one of many for the Rangers, who have been decimated by them. The team already is without winger Chris Kreider (rib resection), defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk (meniscus surgery), Pavel Buchnevich (concussion), Marc Staal (cervical strain). Defenseman Ryan McDonagh is also out with an upper-body injury. Winger Jimmy Vesey has also missed some time, but is expected to play today.
Pavelec has struggled at times with the Rangers as he has a 3.01 GAA in 16 appearances and a .910 save percentage. He did, however, have a dominant streak between Oct. 26 and Jan. 7 in which he had a 2.27 GAA and a .937 save percentage. The recalled Alexander Georgiev from the Hartford Wolf Pack of the AHL Saturday. The 22-year-old has been hot recently there with an 8-0-1 record and a 1.76 GAA in his last nine starts.
Mark Scheifele will return to the Winnipeg Jets lineup tonight for the first time in 2018, more than six weeks since his last NHL game. During that time, the Jets have continued to win and find themselves tied with the Nashville Predators for first place in the Central Division with 73 points.
Scheifele’s return will once again make the Jets forward group one of the most fearsome in the league, now armed with the added knowledge that Blake Wheeler can handle center responsibilities and still perform at an elite level. Winnipeg will take on St. Louis in a key divisional matchup that could bring the two teams within two points of each other once again.
- Troy Brouwer is week-to-week in Calgary after suffering a facial fracture last night, but isn’t expected to be out long-term. Brouwer actually returned to the game but will have to take a seat for at least a little while, opening another opportunity for some of the young Flames forwards. Brouwer was playing better of late, but still has just 15 points on the season in the second year of his $18MM contract.
- The New York Islanders are starved for defensive help, and they’ll get some tonight as the team activated Johnny Boychuk off injured reserve. Boychuk hasn’t played since December 27th, but is expected to be back in the lineup against the Detroit Red Wings. If the Islanders think they can truly reach and then compete in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, they’ll need to greatly improve their defensive play—Boychuk is a good first step.
With the trade deadline approaching, we will be profiling several players in the weeks ahead that have a good chance to be dealt by February 26th.
The last time that the Florida Panthers went out and added a veteran Czech forward, it worked out perfectly. Jaromir Jagr was an All-Star and the Panthers were Atlantic Division champions. GM Dale Tallon may have been hoping that lightning would strike twice when he added Jagr’s countryman, Radim Vrbata, this off-season. It didn’t. In fact, Vrabta’s tenure in Florida has been an unmitigated disaster, as the 36-year-old is on pace to have the worst offensive season of his long, successful NHL career.
Nevertheless, Vrbata has shown time and time again to be a lethal weapon when he finds the right line chemistry and, despite what they say, even on teams other than the Coyotes. Vrbata’s decline in production could be a sign of his age, but some teams may gamble on it instead being a product of his surroundings and will look to acquire the experienced scorer at a bargain price. The Panthers are not as far out of a the playoff picture as some might think – six points back with two games in hand as of this writing – but that won’t stop them from entertaining offers on several players, especially Vrbata. The veteran forward hasn’t worked out in Florida and wouldn’t be much of a loss for the Cats, so a trade could wind up as a win-win for both sides.
Vrbata signed a one-year deal with Florida this summer that carries a $2.5MM base salary, his cap hit for the year. Vrbata can earn an additional $1.25MM in performance bonuses and, interestingly enough, a trade to a contender could trigger one of them; Vrbata earns $250K if his team makes the playoffs this season. He also earns $250K each for 10 goals, 15 goals, 20 goals, and 45 points. With just 5 goals and 13 points thus far, he realistically has a shot at only $500K in bonuses for 10 goals and a playoff berth. This overage would count against next season’s cap.
The myth surrounding Vrbata has always been that he doesn’t perform outside of Arizona. While past campaigns in Colorado, Chicago, and Vancouver have indicated otherwise, this season in Florida has only added fuel to that fire. Vrbata has skated in 35 games for the Panthers this season, missing five games due to injury, five to illness, and another six (and counting) as a healthy scratch. Even when he’s been on the ice, Vrbata has been invisible. He’s outside the top ten in goals, assists, and points among Panthers and his impressive power play production has dried up, reduced to just four points on the year. On top of that, Vrbata has the third-worst plus/minus on the team and, as he has his whole career, plays with little physical or defensive ability. As a result of his poor play, the 16-year NHL veteran is seeing the least ice time of his career. The Vrbata experiment in Sunrise did not work out and will soon be over, either via trade or the end of the season.
35 GP: 5 goals, 8 assists, 13 points, -8 rating, 14 PIM, 78 shots, 13:05 ATOI, 44.3 CF%
So who would want to trade for such an uninspiring asset? Unfortunately for Vrbata, the Coyotes aren’t an option as they are as far from a deadline seller as any team could be. However, Vrbata has found success elsewhere before in his career and he can do so again. Especially at this point in his career, Vrbata is the perfect deadline depth acquisition: a hired gun who doesn’t need to be relied upon to be a team’s best player. With the right fit, Vrbata can score in bunches down the stretch and in the postseason. Several playoff-bound teams are known to be looking for a scoring winger, including the Washington Capitals, St. Louis Blues, and San Jose Sharks. All three teams have the infrastructure where Vrbata could settle in to a middle-six role depending on which personnel he fits best with. Top contenders like the Nashville Predators and Tampa Bay Lightning – if the Bolts are willing to bring Vrbata back for a second go-round after his disappointing prior stint – could also use the luxury of bringing in a veteran winger, but could also survive if he doesn’t work out and ends up a frequent scratch.
However, where Vrbata is likely the best fit is not with a bona fide playoff team, but instead a fringe team looking to make a minor addition in hopes of increasing their odds of seeing the postseason. The Calgary Flames, who won’t trade away any high draft picks, might be happy to take a look at Vrbata if the price is a late pick or low-end prospect. The Colorado Avalanche, the team that drafted Vrbata, and New Jersey Devils have both stated that they won’t derail their long-term plans by chasing expensive rentals, but could pursue the affordable Vrbata, while the Anaheim Ducks and Carolina Hurricanes could also be options if they are closer to a playoff berth come deadline day.
Likelihood of a Trade
Predicting whether Vrbata’s 2017-18 performance will outweigh his career production in the eyes of this year’s buyers is impossible. There is a clear need for a veteran winger with a scoring touch on many teams, including some not even mentioned, but whether they target Vrbata over any number of other options (even including Panthers teammate Colton Sceviour) remains to be seen. If anyone does come calling though, it would be a surprise to see Florida turn down the best offer. The Panthers will continue to push for a playoff spot of their own, but Vrbata won’t play a real part in that plan whether he is traded or not. The signing was a failure, but Florida can still turn it into a positive if they are able to get something back in return for trading Vrbata.
Calgary Flames president Brian Burke isn’t one to mince words. So, when Burke told Sportsnet 590 host Bob McCown that the Flames won’t be using picks as trade bait at the NHL Trade Deadline, it’s legitimate:
“We don’t have a lot of picks — we’re not picking until [the third round of the 2018 draft], so we can’t use the deadline to pick up a rental player with a relatively high pick… We’re not going into  picks … unless it’s an extraordinary circumstance.”
Burke’s comments seem to line up with recent reports about Calgary’s current condition. Last week, we took a look at exactly what Burke was referring to – the team’s lack of draft picks. The Flames could potentially have to wait until the fourth round to make their first pick this June and, one way or another, have already surrendered their 2019 second-rounder. Burke is not exaggerating when he says that the team can’t afford to give up any more high picks for rentals this deadline. The team’s unwillingness to move picks also adds some credence to the report that young goaltenders Jon Gillies and David Rittich are on the market. If Calgary wants to make a move, they’ll have to dive into their prospect depth to avoid surrendering further draft picks. In addition to their young goalies, slowly-developing 2013 first-rounders Emile Poirier and Hunter Shinkaruk and young defensemen Oliver Kylington, Rasmus Andersson, and even Brett Kulak could be on the move. One player who won’t be leaving: 2017 first-round pick Juuso Valimaki, who Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman says is highly sought-after, but untouchable (Thought 6).
What exactly do the Flames need at the deadline? Burke says a scoring winger and the team’s 20th-ranked offense and 23rd-ranked power play would seem to back that up. Burke seems to think that a return to health for Kris Versteeg could be the solution, but the veteran forward alone is not enough to cure an ineffective bottom-six. Calgary currently sits in the third and final Pacific playoff spot, tied with the Anaheim Ducks and one point ahead of the Los Angeles Kings, but in fact sit behind L.A. in terms of points percentage. With it looking increasingly likely that the Central Division will claim both Western wild card spots, the Flames can’t help but seek an edge over the Ducks and Kings if they want to make the playoffs. Despite Burke’s hopes of an internal turnaround and the team’s difficult draft pick situation, sitting pat at the deadline will likely spell doom for the Flames’ 2017-18 campaign.
As we discussed recently, the Calgary Flames are in for a long wait at the NHL Entry Draft in June. The team already dealt away their first and second-round picks, and could find themselves without a third-round selection depending on their playoff push. Because of that lack of draft capital, Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic (subscription required) reports that they would be willing to listen on trade proposals including goaltending prospects Jon Gillies and David Rittich. Though they’re not shopping either netminder, they aren’t hanging up the phone either if the trade is for a scoring winger.
Gillies and Rittich are both set to become restricted free agents this summer, and are just two names in a long goaltending pipeline that also includes top prospect Tyler Parsons and project Mason McDonald, both second-round picks that still have huge potential in goal. Though current NHL starter Mike Smith may not have much longer at the Vezina-caliber he’s shown this season, the Flames have an impressive depth chart and could afford to lose a single name.
Gillies, 24, only has two NHL games under his belt so far but has performed admirably in the AHL since leaving Providence College. With a .915 save percentage this season for the Stockton Heat and a massive 6’6″ frame he could be very intriguing to teams looking for a future in goal.
Rittich, 25, is a very different story after signing out of the Czech Republic in 2016. The 6’3″ goaltender has immediately taken to North American hockey, posting impressive numbers in the minor leagues and in a short tenure as Flames’ backup this season.
If Calgary is to wave one of their young goaltenders in trade talks, it would be interesting to see if they added a veteran option somewhere else in case Smith was to suffer an injury. Otherwise they’d be relying on a fairly inexperienced goaltender in a season that isn’t lost just yet. Calgary sits just barely out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference, and still has plans to contend for the Stanley Cup this season.
The New York Rangers today confirmed that forward Jimmy Vesey is dealing with a concussion, and isn’t practicing with the team. The team was also without Marc Staal at practice with a cervical strain, while Pavel Buchnevich deals with a concussion of his own.
If there was any doubt that the Rangers would be sellers at the deadline, the piling injuries may just erase it. The team is back in action against the Dallas Stars tonight, but will have to decide how long to wait before selling off assets like Rick Nash and Michael Grabner. It could be a very different looking Rangers team in the next few weeks.
- Though Phil Kessel missed practice with an illness, the news isn’t as good on Patric Hornqvist. The Pittsburgh Penguins announced that the high-energy forward will be out on a week-to-week basis with a lower-body injury, removing him from the lineup for the time being. Hornqvist will become an unrestricted free agent this summer, and may be on his last chance to suit up with the Penguins. After three straight 20-goal seasons, Hornqvist sits at 16 this year and will head into the summer with plenty of interest in his services.
- Kris Versteeg was on the ice today for the Calgary Flames for the first time since hip surgery in December. Versteeg still isn’t expected to be ready for game action for a few weeks, but getting him on the ice is a good first step. The 31-year old had just eight points in 22 games when he elected surgery, but could be an important piece down the stretch for the Flames.