In his latest “31 Thoughts” column, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman needed just one “thought” to drop several pieces of interesting information about the Calgary Flames. The insider begins with KHL defenseman Alexander Yelesin. Friedman follows up on his initial report about the Flames’ interest in the Russian rearguard by saying that the question is not “if” but “when” when it comes to a deal getting done. KHL free agency opened today, so it’s only a matter of time before a contract becomes official it seems. The 23-year-old is undersized and not overly productive, but that hasn’t stopped NHL teams from toying with the idea of signing him for several years due to his skating and dependable defensive play. Calgary will finally be the team to pull the trigger, despite their depth on the blue line. As of now, Yelesin would be behind Mark Giordano, Noah Hanifin, Travis Hamonic, and T.J. Brodie and competing for ice time with youngsters Rasmus Andersson, Juuso Valimaki, and Oliver Kylington. That’s a lot of capable defensemen in the mix and trade rumors will no doubt swirl this off-season about the Flames moving one of this group.
- Next, Friedman mentions that the Flames have not yet closed the door on a return for veteran goaltender Mike Smith. The 37-year-old UFA netminder split starts with David Rittich this season, who also needs a new contract as a restricted free agent. Friedman doubts that a new deal to keep Smith in Calgary would be longer than a year, but the team could opt to go with the tandem that led them to the best record in the West this season for one more go-round. Smith put up pedestrian numbers in the regular season – an .898 save percentage and 2.72 GAA – but was significantly better in 2017-18 and could have another strong campaign in him. The postseason showed that, as Smith was arguably the Flames’ best player in their unexpected first-round loss. There will be other options available to Calgary on the free agent market and via trade, but if they are unable to add any of their top options, don’t be surprised to see them go with the devil they know.
- Finally, Friedman writes that the problematic James Neal is not yet at the point that GM Brad Treliving would entertain attaching a high pick to make a move. After signing a five-year, $28.75MM contract with Calgary last summer, Neal responded with far-and-away the worst season of his career, recording just 19 points in 63 games (his previous low had been 37). It wasn’t just a case of poor PDO for the 31-year-old forward either; Neal often looked slow and lethargic in all three zones all season long and even more so in the playoffs. There’s no telling whether Neal can bounce back next year or whether this is only a sign of things to come, but the Flames will at least wait to find out if a fair trade doesn’t come around this summer. With just late first- and third-round picks in the first 100 selections of this year’s draft, it is no surprise that the team is unwilling to move a high pick this year or next year to rid themselves of Neal’s contract before giving the respected veteran scorer another chance to prove himself.
- In non-Friedman news out of Calgary, long-time Flames forward Matt Stajan has announced his retirement. Stajan wrapped up a 16-year NHL career split between Calgary and the Toronto Maple Leafs when he departed for Europe last season at age 35. Stajan was actually very productive this season for German club EHC Munchen, registering 33 points in 52 games en route to a finals appearance, but it wasn’t enough to keep him in the game. Munchen released a statement today that named Stajan as one of several players leaving the team by way of retirement. Also hanging them up is fellow long-time NHLer and leading scorer John Mitchell and captain Michael Wolf, as EHC has their work cut out for them this off-season. Stajan leaves the game with more than 1000 NHL appearances to his credit, along with over 400 points and his reputation as a reliable two-way winger. Don’t be surprised to see Stajan end up back in hockey in another capacity before too long, perhaps even with the Flames.